Category Archives: Thinking tools

Opportunities for collaboration: building storyworlds


Wine & Cheese by Jordan Johnson. Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.0

So, I’m not in Iceland as I’d planned to be. A cracked cockpit windshield, several hours of waiting, and a determinedly cheerful, “Flight cancelled! Come back tomorrow, and we’ll have it fixed!” were one way to spend a Wednesday night. Finishing up this post seemed like another way to make lemonade out of a real lemon of a night. So, let’s wind this series up with a look at a few of the ways that heritage and gaming complement each other, like a nice pairing of wine and cheese, two great tastes that taste great together!

UPDATE: So, after spending several posts problematizing and defining and reframing the question of how cultural heritage professionals and game designers could work together, I’m finally to the good part; exploring avenues for collaboration. This was going to be one elegant wrap up and call to action, but I’m tired, and there’s too much out there to squeeze into one post. So stay tuned as I look at storyworlds, community building, transgression and gardening! First up, storyworlds!

Creating storyworlds

One kind of game that has become very popular in the past few years has been games that feature large, persistent worlds that are inhabited by thousands or millions of players. These games have large overarching narratives that propel the action, and serve as the background for individual players to have their own stories play out.

Chris Crawford’s definition of a game as “a world in which a story occurs and that players are free to move through this bounded space and time and encounter pieces of a story, or follow a story arc”, has clear parallels to what museums do, and could do better. A good storyworld is by nature immersive. It is also decidedly non-linear, which museum exhibitions have to be. It is narrative, without being proscriptive. There is a premise, and (at least) one plot unfolds over the course of the narrative. They may intertwine, double back, and perform other gymnastics, but they are there continuously throughout the experience.

Exploring a storyworld is also a deeply constructivist endeavor. You put together elements as you navigate the storyspace, and your edifice of knowledge will look different than anyone else’s. This was at least half the fun of Myst. I’d decide that everything we’d learned meant one thing, and my wife would often have constructed a completely different narrative. A big part of the fun of our playing the game was the dialogic interaction we’d have about what was going on while we were playing.

Most of all, the new kinds of game storyworlds allow visitors to have both a social experience, and a personal experience, without the technological backflips we try to do to encourage them to “personalize” experiences. Sleep No More is a great theatre example. The audience decides where they want to go, and can follow the action, follow a particular character, or just wander randomly through the story.

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New games have moved straight into history as their storyworlds. Kingdom Come: Deliverance seems to squarely be aiming at the question “What must it have been like to be alive at a particular point in history?”  that motivates so much of the interpretation that cultural heritage sites try to provide.

Assassin’s Creed: Origins

Assassin’s Creed: Origins uses Ptolemaic Egypt as more of a backdrop for the fantasy of the game narrative, but what a backdrop! And in an interesting development, after building all these detailed set pieces, requiring the hiring of actual historians to advise Ubisoft, they decided the some players might just want to explore the world, without the fighting and undead mayhem of the main game, so they built 75 (!) tours of different parts of ancient Egypt.


Assassin’s Creed: Origin Discovery Tours

But, wait! There’s more! Daniel Pett (formerly of the British Museum) raised an interesting point on Twitter. What might Ubisoft have been able to make if they had access to the assets of museums that hold Egyptian collections, like the kinds of 3D models Pett had been creating at the BM.

It’s only a matter of time, because Assassin’s Creed: Origins already includes museum assets, thanks to the Met’s Open Access policy.

When I get back from Iceland, we’ll look at community building. Unless the plane still isn’t fixed…


Playing with the Past, Part Three: The Challenges of Working Across Industries


Oil and Water Do Not Mix by Flickr user kris krüg. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

When we started this series of posts, the goal seemed clear; talk about how gamification and cultural heritage can work together. I had to complicate that by explaining why I thought focusing on gamification missed the important point that the game mechanics were not the part of games that made them worthy of emulating. I wandered from there into talking about games, play, fun, learning, and then how these might relate to cultural heritage, and two particular concepts that I find to be valuable tools; the magic circle and the interaction alibi.

As a writer, I am prone to “bury my lede” as they say I the newspaper business. I thought now would be a good time to make an unambiguous statement about game designers and cultural heritage professionals working together. Though I am not a fan of the idea of gamification, that does not mean I think game design has nothing to teach those of us working in the cultural heritage sector. In fact, like Ms Bennet, “My feelings are quite the opposite.”

Collaborations between gaming and cultural heritage professionals have tremendous potential to generate new and valuable kinds of experiences.

The exciting thing I see in gatherings like the CINE seminar in Reykjavik is their potential to create a community of interest around the topic of games and heritage. The domain expertise of the people in the room is so varied that it provides a great example of what the cognitive scientist Gerhard Fischer calls “symmetry of ignorance”. Unlike communities of practice, where all the stakeholders come from roughly the same field, communities of interest bring together stakeholders with different practices. The act of creating a shared understanding of a complex problem–like creating engaging heritage experiences–among all stakeholders can lead to  new insights and the kinds of experiences that would be hard to envision in a community of practice.

So, before we talk about how we might work together, let’s look at some of the challenges I’ve encountered in the past.

The Challenges of Working Across Industries

Differing perceptions of time

Cultural heritage professionals tend to have a very long view of things. It comes with the territory when you deal with the past, and preservation stretching out into the foreseeable future. Projects germinate for a long time, take a long time to fundraise for, and sometimes years to realize. This can lead to feeling a bit like one of Tolkien’s Ents when dealing with people who make software for a living, like computer game designers. The software industry moves at a pace that is completely alien to most of my colleagues’ experience. Instead of years, software people are focusing on design sprints, where two weeks out is a normal horizon. Products are conceived, built, tested, launched, and revised in a matter of months, or the amount of time it might take to make one major decision on a large exhibition project. And this anti-pattern is a tough one to overcome.  Everything about modern software development in the Agile/Lean era is organized around privileging the production of code, making product, and fixing it after if needed. Though agile methodologies are starting to creep into museums, the norm is still a much more risk-averse, serial production methodology that emphasizes quality, “getting it right”, over all else.  Minimum Viable Products can be a hard sell. Don’t underestimate the culture shock collaboration will create for both partners.

One tactic I have used successfully in the past with potential suitors has been to sit them down privately early on and lay out how the different perceptions of time are a real issue, like this:

“The museum I work at dates its founding to 1799. Your company is how old?”

[Insert number less than ten.]

“Right. And do you think your company will still be around in three years? How about five years? How about twenty years? Because we’ll still be here.”

[Uncomfortable silence]

I’ve had versions of that conversation multiple times, and nobody has ever given a definite answer for the twenty year horizon. The best I’ve heard was someone who confident his company would be bought by Google or Apple within the next five years.

Transmediality of the cultural heritage experiences

Dan Spock, now at the Levine Museum of the New South, has aptly noted that “the museum exhibition is “the medium of media”—it utilizes the written word, sound, image, moving image, performance, installation, and most recently digital electronics.” It is a deeply transmedial experience, and cultural heritage professionals by and large work pretty effortlessly in and among those media. “This works for a label, that should be tactile, this other thing is best delivered via audio.”  Most game designers tend to specialize in a particular medium. Board game designers make board games, computer game designers work in computer code. The difficultly of matching up broad but shallow expertise and narrow but deep expertise can be significant. To the specialists, the transmedialists can look like well-meaning dilettantes, and to the transmedialists, the specialists look like embodiments of Maslow’s Hammer, for whom “if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” Just because you’re a great AR firm, it doesn’t mean that AR is the answer to any problem a museum or heritage site might have.

Weakness of objective

One of the things that makes games so appealing to cultural heritage types that of all the types of play we looked at, games provide the kind of clear objectives and understanding of what it means to meet those objectives that cultural visits rarely provide. You know when you’ve captured the king in chess that you’ve won, or that whoever first gets the predetermined amount of points in Settlers of Catan wins. The objective of a visit to a heritage site isn’t so tightly focused.  It’s the paradox of free-choice learning environments. To be all things (or many things) to a diverse audience, we all-too-often wind up being not too much of anything. That weakness of objective means that there’s no way to plan the arc of your visit, or know what progress you’ve made toward a completion goal. Visitors go until they feel tired, and then they leave.

Note that none of these challenges are insurmountable, they’re just challenges. They can be mitigated, and even overcome. Next, onto the good stuff, opportunities!

Playing With the Past, Part Two: Magic Circles and Interaction Alibis

The previous post tried to posit a set of characteristics of good cultural experiences. It’s a personal, idiosyncratic, and obviously incomplete list, but I meant it to serve as the beginning of the answer to the question of what gaming can teach us about making better cultural heritage experiences. Given what we know about play, games, and learning, what can we pull out of the mass of research? For me, the two biggest tools I’ve come across are the concepts of the magic circle and the interaction alibi. These (and so much more) were introduced to me at the Alibis for Interaction masterclass and subsequent conversations with Johanna Koljonen. I wrote about this previously, and still consider it the best one day professional development event I’ve been to in years. It’s mind-expanding and genre-crossing in so many good ways. For me, it connected ideas that I’d associated only with game design to a larger realm of practice. These ideas have caused me to reframe a lot of what I thought I knew about museum experience design, and their potential in the heritage sector is vast, and as yet largely untapped methinks. So, what are they and who uses them well?

Magic Circles

I’ve referred to the magic circle a few times, but I’ve held off defining it until now.  The term goes back to Huizinga’s book Homo Ludens where he uses the words “magic circle” in a list of special places where play occurs.

“All play moves and has its being within a play-ground marked off beforehand either materially or ideally, deliberately or as a matter of course. Just as there is no formal difference between play and ritual, so the “consecrated spot” cannot be formally distinguished from the play-ground. The arena, the card-table, the magic circle, the temple, the stage, the screen, the tennis court, the court of justice, etc., are all in form and function play-grounds, i.e. Forbidden spots, isolated, hedged round, hallowed, within which special rules obtain. All are temporary worlds within ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart.”

– Huizinga 1938

It owes its current vogue though to Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, who wrote “To play a game means entering into a magic circle, or perhaps creating one as a game begins.” In their 2003 book, Rules of Play: Fundamentals of Game Design. Since then, it’s become a foundational concept of game design, and has its own sub-literature devoted to critiquing or defending the idea. What Salen and Zimmerman meant by “magic circle” was the idea that it is a boundary. On the outside is the world, and on the inside is the game. And when players cross that threshold, the rules change, norms change, and people’s roles and behaviors change. What is verboten or discouraged in the world can become acceptable inside the magic circle. The stereotypical quiet, meek person who turns into a cutthroat poker player is just one example of how play redefines the rules, or at least establishes a different set while the play is occurring.

What Koljonen and others showed me at Alibis was that the Magic Circle could be useful to heritage professionals as a way to see the visitor experience holistically. In the diagram below, even though the magic circle is in the center, the visitor’s journey starts long before they get to the magic circle of the thing you’re designing for them. Their journey is rooted in the larger cultural context of wherever they are and their particular personal experience. Along the way, they’ve picked up expectations about what is going to happen when they enter that magic circle. It is very easy to spend all of one’s time deciding what to do with visitors when they arrive at the entrance to your thing, but by then, they are already a long way into their journey, and you’ve lost opportunities to influence them.

Breaking Out-final

Johanna Koljonen’s diagram of the user experience of the magic circle.

When a person enters the magic circle, they change, and become “a player”. This role play involves explicit and implicit acceptance of new norms, rules, and relationships. The participants have agency that allows the experience to transform them. There are social affordances designed into the experience through rules, suggestions, and the physical environment. And most importantly, the thing that happens inside the magic circle is well defined. Have you ever accidentally played a game? Me neither. Have you ever wandered from one part of a museum to another and realized belatedly that you’ve entered another exhibition? Me too.

After they leave the circle, the person begins to reflect on it, and build their story about what happened, and turning it into a memory of the event. While I’ve been part of my share of projects that attempted to expand or deepen visitors pre- and post-visit engagement, the magic circle makes the whole journey seem more amenable to design than I ever thought it was. And it’s as applicable to the security line at the airport as it is to a game, or a cultural heritage site.

What might this look like at a museum? I am reminded of a conversation I had with Ben Gammon back when dinosaurs ruled the Earth (or maybe it was the mid ’90s). Anyway, the Science Museum, London’s leadership commissioned a study to explore how visitors navigated to get from one gallery to another. Their interest was in the galleries, but what they found was that of the two hours the average visitor spent “in the museum”, 60% of that time was spent just getting around, getting lost, going to eat or pee, visiting the shop. And the part the staff had focused tremendous effort into creating was the remaining 40%. They realized that they needed to expand the scope of what the visitor experience was and devote the same kind of effort to the 60% that had been going into the 40%.

Interaction Alibis


The classic example of an interaction alibi: Twister. By Flickr user oks20i CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Interaction Alibi: A rule, object, or change of state that allows a human to interact. This idea is central to designing for participation.  An alibi might be a role, a rule, a narrative, a game, a mask, an instruction, an introduction. An interaction alibi helps you understand what you’re expected to do, feel safe trying something new, and trust that the outcome will be worth your time.

An alibi is an excuse to perform an act and an action of some kind without fear of the consequences without fear of social punishment. If you as a experience designer want somebody to try something new, or do something scary like interacting with people don’t know, giving them an alibi is an explicit way of giving them permission to be someone else. Getting tangled up in knots with other people is usually frowned on, but if you’re playing Twister, then it’s expected and the transgression of invading someone else’s personal space is forgiven because it’s part of the game. Interaction alibis are a way of overcoming the embarrassment that keeps adult humans from acting in ways that might draw unwanted attention to them. Screaming is generally frowned upon public behavior, but if you’re at a music festival or sporting event, it’s understood to be OK and you can scream til you’re hoarse. Demonstrating how bad a singer you are? Not OK, unless you’re at a karaoke bar where everybody is doing it. Thank goodness…


Greg and me, leaving it all on the floor at karaoke. CC BY 4.0

So alibis are an important tool to provoke playfulness – especially among adults who have been socialized out of playing. Sebastian Deterding explains in “Alibis for Adult Play,” “…the most obvious motivation for play—autotelic enjoyment— also sits in most direct tension with adult identity. To account for their play, adults therefore regularly resort to alibis, motivational accounts that deflect negative inference from their play behavior to their character. Adults account for play as serving their adult responsibilities”. I’ve seen this countless times, particularly at science centers, where adults will excuse their playing with the exhibits as something they did to help the children they were with. Or at Sleep No More, where the masks they give guests anonymize them and make the audience seem (and feel) like ghosts. With all the freedom that entails, for good or ill.


Souvenirs of Sleep No More. CC-BY 4.0

And to bring this back to playing, the interaction alibi can be playing. By adopting a playful or gameful mindset and experience design approach, we can create that alibi that gives people permission to do something they mightn’t do otherwise. And it’s I think an important distinction here that you enable people to do something theywant. This is not about manipulating people to do something they don’t want. There’s enough of that in the world, thank you very much, and we don’t need to play along (pun intended).

To sum up, play helps perceive things from alternative angles and in different light. It helps us engage with our surroundings in a new way as we perceive and break norms and routines. In a playful state of mind, we can not only see the adventures that surround us, but we feel safe, possibly even too safe, to take that plunge. Play and games serve as an alibi: as they are perceived as being somehow less, we can get away with more. And finally, playing together we can create new and surprising social worlds that, as long as we all keep playing along, are as real as any other world.

– Stenros 2015

So in the context of an art museum, let’s say, what kind of alibis could you make to help create the kind of space where people feel that their presence is welcomed and they feel confident that if they look at something they don’t understand, they can approach it with curiosity and openness, instead of “the art museum pose”. The best example I know of is still the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Hobart, Tasmania. I visited MONA several years ago when it first opened, but I’ve yet to see it’s equal since. The alibi that the museum’s creator provides is a complete lack of wall text, and a mobile content delivery device to every visitor that asks you whether you love, hate, or feel nothing about any object you inquire about.

Magic circles and alibis in practice – immersive theatre and Nordic larp

The final posts in this series will look at challenges and opportunities around cultural heritage organizations working with game designers. First, though, I want to expand the idea of “game designer” to include add two very different new kinds of “play” that really excel at creating magic circles and providing clear alibis for interaction: immersive theatre and the Nordic variety of live action role play, or larp.

Immersive Theatre

As opposed to traditional theatre, with players on stage and an audience in their seats, immersive theater is a performance form that emphasizes the importance of a specific designed space that both the cast and audience inhabit. Stephen Eckert’s piece in Contemporary Performanceis a great starting place to learn more about it. Immersive theatre creates lush, tactile sensual environments that become both the setting for group experience and diverse individual audience experiences. No longer confined to seat, the audience is free to explore the space of the performance, players and audience mingling and often interacting. Immersive theatre creates a story world where the performance of the actors, though central, is not the only means of conveying the narrative. Sets contain hints and clues, bits of backstory, and additional information that can profoundly influence a given audience member’s understanding of the performance. It is both social and deeply intimate. Punchdrunk UK’s Sleep No More is the poster child for the form, but is only one example of a growing trend. In a world where so much of what we do is mediated through flat pieces of clear glass, immersive theatre offers an opportunity for audiences to exist in their bodies in actual locations and encounter expansive, multi sensory, and visceral stimuli.

Nordic Larp

Live action role playing, or larping, like so much else that use the words “role playing”, traces its origins back to creation of the Dungeons and Dragons role playing game in 1974 and its successors like Vampire: The Masquerade. In the Nordic regions, with their long tradition of community-supported self-programming youth groups, a new kind of role play grew and expanded, taking the idea of players taking on roles and collaboratively creating a fiction together, and fusing it with the social, community-based experience of summer camp. In Nordic larp there is no audience, only players. As Stenros and Montola explain, “Larps are created for a first person audience, for players relating to the fictional world from the first person perspective of a fictional character. As such, they are almost impossible to truly comprehend from the outside, looking in.” Their massive 2010 book Nordic Larp presents highlights from the first fifteen years of Nordic Larp, and tries to impose some kind of order on what is at best a loose coalition of mostly like-minded communities of players.

One of the many features of Nordic that interest me is the way the form has developed to tackle incredibly diverse and delicate subjects, which Stenros and Montola directly attribute to the power of the alibi, “the playful nature of humour, theatre and games lends a social alibi for pushing the boundaries of what is tolerated.” Recreate a Norwegian fishing village in 1942 to play out life under the German occupation? Sure. Use a decommissioned submarine as the setting for a Battlestar Galactica-esque science fiction larp? Already done.  Larp designers have explored what it would be like live through the events in Hamlet, the aftermath of a nuclear attack in a shelter, the early days of the AIDS crisis, and the plight of refugees. There is a fearlessness to Nordic larp that I find appealing. It’s lack of commercial viability is an asset, as Stenros and Montola point out, “this commitment to expert amateurism allows authors to realize their visions without compromises, freely tackling mature themes and adult content… without concerns of offending the mainstream, and themes such as political apathy, heteronormativity and immigration policy can be addressed without watering them down.”

Immersive theatre and larp both ask a lot more of participants than the traditional heritage tour, and may seem like media that have little to offer cultural heritage, but I think they both offer unusual ways to bring together interested people to interact with a narrative in powerful ways. And added to the rich stew of thinking, design, and products coming out of the gaming industry, there’s a lot to look at with a critical but hopeful eye.

To wrap up, we’ll look at some of the challenges and opportunities of collaboration between cultural heritage and gaming.

12 March 2018 UPDATE: Mea culpa time. I neglected to properly credit Johanna Koljonen for her crucial work on magic circles and interaction alibis. I’ve gone back and pointed out that debt. I’ll also take this opportunity to formally thank Lizzie Stark for recommending the Alibis event in the first place. So much reading and learning has happened as a result of one pretty casual conversation. 

Playing with the Past, Part One: How Play Relates to Cultural Heritage

So, in trying to peel the onion of gamification, I’ve rattled on at great length about research on gamesgamification, games, play, and fun. But how is this applicable to the work of cultural heritage interpretation?  Firstly, I’d say that, if nothing else, laying to rest the idea that gamification is, in and of itself, worthwhile strategy is doing us all a favor. Gameful design, game theory, and game development processes? All worthwhile to explore and learn from. And, I think, an as-yet-untapped avenue for really fruitful collaboration. But in order to be fruitful, it has to start for an acknowledgement and honoring of the intrinsic motivation that visitors and players share. As Edward Deci wrote in “Why We Do What We Do”, “Self-motivation, rather than external motivation, is at the heart of creativity, responsibility, healthy behavior, and lasting change.” Intrinsic motivation drives the vast majority of our visitors, not external rewards. There’s a reason it’s called “free choice” learning. This point is lost on many in the field who seem determined to turn a visit into a competition, a frequent flyer program, or FarmVille.

Before we go further into what those avenues of collaboration might look like, I want to spend a little time looking at some of the qualities of heritage experiences that I have experienced to be particularly germane to this discussion.

A good cultural heritage experience is rooted in its physicality


The Roman fort at Vindolanda by Flickr user Edmund Gall. CC BY-SA 2.0

I’m going to go out on a limb and state that the vast majority of cultural heritage sites are physical spaces in a built environment. Everything we do, even digital projects around heritage, are rooted in that physicality, whether we acknowledge it or not.  As I’ve said before, our physical spaces themselves are powerful affective tools.  Just the fact that there is a huge building dedicated to (art, history, science and technology, etc…) makes a powerful statement. And for heritage sites, that specific connection between past and present; “Something happened HERE” is paramount. Even the absence of something is a presence in heritage sites “Once, this empty field was a Roman fortress!”

A good cultural heritage experience is rooted in its physicality (but not entirely contained within it)

Often, this physicality can be overplayed to the point that the objects become the focus, and not how they can be tools for people to better themselves.

Let’s play another game.


Priceless historic artifact! by Flickr user Vincenzo De Geronimo CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Let’s pretend this unmarked, Viking sword is the prize object of an Icelandic museum because it is the sword that Erik the Red used to kill Thorgest’s sons, setting into motion the train of events that led to his banishment from Iceland and the discovery of Greenland. Having been passed down through generations and centuries, it is a concrete link to the sagas, to the story of both Iceland and Greenland and so much more. What kind of experiences could you design to “bring the object to life”?


Just another object. by Flickr user Vincenzo De Geronimo. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Now let’s imagine I’m a comic book super villain (Mwahahaha!) of the Lex Luthor type, prone to incredibly devious and over-the-top plots. I take it into my head to rob this object of it’s value for reasons known only to me. In great secrecy, I destroy every record of this sword and its story. I kill every person who knew the story of the sword until it is completely robbed of it’s metadata/provenance/whatever-you-want-to-call-it. It is still the exact same sword. Without ever touching it, or even seeing it, I can transform it from a powerful, meaning-laden object, to a thing. Granted, it is a thing that would be amenable to physical study. It could be dated both stylistically and absolutely, it’s composition could provide hints as to where it was forged. The fact that it is in Iceland could also hint at its history. But it’s power to be a focus for storytelling and emotion would largely be gone. Because the narrative and all the facts and associations around the object, do not in fact have any physical connection to the object. They exist in another dimension, and focusing too much on the object can make it hard to see them.

A good cultural heritage experience is visitor-focused

Hopefully this isn’t news to anybody. The museum field certainly still has a long way to go to live up to this statement, but I think we at least all give the idea name service at the very least. My all time favorite story of the power of this involved a trip long ago to Plimoth Plantation with a group of Soviet rocket scientists. Trying to explain the whole concept of first person historical interpretation was an uphill battle, but we gamely trudged around the village, talking to the English settlers through their interpreter. The whole idea that the interpreters were living in 1627 and wouldn’t break character was completely foreign to our guests, and the field trip was starting to feel like a forced march, until we ran into one of the more educated colonists. When he asked where the Soviets came from (after failing to comprehend what they meant when they said they were from the Soviet Union) someone said they were from Moscow. “Ah, Muscovy! You are far from home!” he exclaimed, and then proceeded to grill them on the political situation in early-seventeenth century Russia, whether the False Demetrius was still tsar (he wasn’t), and how the war against the Poles was going. Watching a bunch of college-educated Soviet scientists and engineers trying to dredge up their Russian history from grade school was a sight. But once they connected the dots and jointly remembered who False Dmitry was, their interest level went way up. This interpreter had managed to engage the seemingly unengagable and transformed their visit into something they could relate to. It’s what cultural heritage professionals do all the time.

More recently, the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia has ditched their audioguides in favor of highly-trained human facilitators armed with iPads. Their Art Team aims to deepen visitors’ interaction with the art. Human guides, who can read body language and tone, atre much better at tailoring their interpretation to their audience than any device. Says, Shelley Bernstein, the Barnes’ CXO,

“You begin with the most meaningful thing first,” Bernstein said, alluding to engagement efforts. “So this is what we call the human-interaction layer. It’s not about technology. It’s not about providing people with a thing or device. It’s thinking about what human interaction should be in the galleries and what we want that to be and trying to get that right before layering in other things.”

A good cultural heritage experience is emotional

I am a great fan of the word “visitor”, because it acknowledges that people who come to heritage sites are on a journey and they will enter our sphere of influence and leave it again. Since beginning this exploration of games and play and heritage, I’ve come to recognize how analogous the heritage visit is the idea of entering the magic circle of a game. People come, and they take on a new role; they become “visitors” (or whatever you call them) while they are there, and they leave, hopefully changed by the experience. My experience is that the role of “visitor” often entails an increased openness to emotion. Visitors might not know what they’re going to feel during their visit, but the hope that they’ll feel something is there in the background. Awe, wonder, delight, surprise, sorrow, pride are potential outcomes of a successful heritage that are no less valuable than increased knowledge.

When I think back on museum experiences that have really stayed with me, their common thread was emotion; they made me feel something I didn’t feel when I entered. Informal education is a great forum for affective learning; formal education can do a much better job at cognitive learning. If you want “just the facts”, then go to Wikipedia, or a textbook. Nobody ever got a degree from going to a museum or cultural heritage site, nor should they.  A visit to a heritage site will never cover as much history as even an intro history textbook, but that book will never provide a visceral, affective experience with the past to a broad audience.

A good cultural heritage experience is scaffolded

I’ve previously mentioned the Tenement Museum’s “How to visit the Museum” guide. The fact that they are only open for tours, and not the kind of drop visiting that the name “museum” implies, makes them a good example of how to address head on a common headache for visitors; namely how to make use of the site in an appropriate manner, and know they’re doing it. For most museums and sites, this begins and ends with a map that will describe spaces in some level of detail. The good people at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. Have been wrestling with orientation and accessibility issues and blogging about their investigations in a particularly fearless way that I hope others will adopt. I would also add the Cooper Hewitt’s primer on how to parse a tombstone label.

Since coming to work in an art museum, I have been struck with how passionate people can be about how to do it “correctly.” I’ve written about my own evolution as a viewer of art objects, and it’s been transformative to learn that “visiting” is a skill that can be exercised and improved. Providing that same kind of scaffold for visitors who haven’t had twenty-plus years of museum work to help them is something I long to explore more. I have dreamed of making an orientation space that would explicitly instruct visitors how to approach works of art, what is encouraged and what isn’t, and what the staff do when they interact with the stuff they steward.

A good cultural heritage experience is playful

The other answer to the question I posed at the beginning of this post “How is this applicable to the work of cultural heritage interpretation?” is that I believe our efforts are best focused on be better better at letting visitors play with our creations. Games get a lot of attention in the media, and have become a gigantic industry, but the part of “game playing” that is most relevant to us is the “playing” not the “game”. Play is an important entry point for folks of all ages into any subject matter. It is a crucial element to engage the interest of the non-specialist public in heritage (and most other subjects).  While we may know this intellectually, it’s still hard to get past the received understanding that play is non-productive and unserious. But we are getting there, and pursuing that further will be really interesting work!

Peeling the Onion, Part Three: Play


LEGO Minecraft by Flickr user Lego Photo mureut. CC BY-ND 2.0

“Play” is a very big idea.

Game playing is a very engaging activity, one that evokes a level of commitment and concentration in players that is not seen in most visitors to museums. So a lot of attention has been given to looking at ways to make heritage experiences more gemlike or gamified. I’ve already talked about gamification and the characteristics of games, [link] and now want to get underneath the surface of both to talk about what people do in games; namely they play. There is an important distinction between playing and gaming as activities and then toys and games as objects that support these activities.

So what is play? Coincidentally, it’s question we’ve been asking at PEM for the past couple of years, as we’ve developed the PlayTime exhibition.

Playing is an activity and a mindset that for it’s own reasons experiments with recombinations of actions, meanings, and objects in ways that the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls autotelic. Autotelic people are intrinsically motivated, and exhibit a sense of purpose and curiosity. Autotelic is the opposite of being extrinsically motivated, by things like money, power, fame, etc… When we try out new combinations of thoughts or words, or new combinations of Lego bricks, we are playing. Done properly, play can be a powerful affective teacher, and an integral part of that are what Csikszentmihályi calls “flow experiences”; a feeling of complete absorption in the task at hand, when one loses all sense of time and place, and feels that their ability and the challenge in front of them are well-matched. Flow can be a result of play or gameplay, though Csikszentmihalyi later warns that “Playfulness, or flow, is not limited by the form of the activity, although it is affected by it.“

Playing does not require games


“Playing” by Flickr user mejuan. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

For game designers like Eric Zimmerman, games are a more formalized subset of play. If two people are throwing a ball back and forth to each other, they’re playing with it; interacting with each other, and with the ball, and with their bodies, and gravity, hand-eye coordination. But, if one of them says, let’s make this a contest – who can throw the ball farther, or how many times can we throw it back and forth before we drop it?” they have formalized that play activity into a game.  Salen and Zimmerman write about this disconnect between games and play in their seminal book “The Rules of Play” “The goal of successful game design is meaningful play, but play is something that emerges from the functioning of the rules. As a game designer, you can never directly design play. You can only design the rules that give rise to it. Game designers create experience, but only indirectly.” To me, this sounds very much like constructivist experience design. You can make the place and the space in which visitors can experience culture, but always at a distance, because the learning and appreciation and interaction happens only when people are there.

Games can involve play


Playing a game of bowling by Flickr user Oscar D Salazar V. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

But games ≠ play


Not playing. Developers at work testing Team Fortress 2 Goldrush by Flickr user Tim Dorr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Play has larger meanings, too. There’s the idea of playing a musical instrument. You can play a part or a role.  There’s the play of a set of gears, or the play in a steering wheel. All these have in common the feature that within a system there’s some give, some sloppiness that doesn’t break the system. These interstitial moments of freedom within the system when you’re not doing what the system is meant to do in a utilitarian sense, is the essence of play. It’s not productive, it’s completely autotelic to wiggle the steering wheel for the heck of it and enjoy it.  This is the kind of play that opens up new spaces for creativity and innovation. This play can describe everything from stylistic innovation to political protest. As Trevor Smith, the curator of the PlayTime exhibition writes in his manifesto for the project:

PLAY spurs productivity.
PLAY is a catalyst for creativity.
PLAY is an escape from conformity.
PLAY reinvents the rules.
PLAY empowers the players.
PLAY stimulates innovation.
PLAY enables exploration.
PLAY is a response to uncertainty.
PLAY rewards misbehavior.
PLAY negotiates conflict.
PLAY resists productivity.

Perhaps the best exploration of play, playfulness, games and gamification I’ve come across is Jaakko Stenros’ 2015 PhD dissertation “Playfulness, Play, and Games: A Constructionist Ludology Approach”.  If you’ve any interest in any of these subjects, I recommend this work wholeheartedly. It’s masterful and complete. In his chapter on Play, he concludes that,

“The core of play, the part that most conceptualisations agree upon, can be called playful play. It is voluntary and positive for all participants, and there is a relative uniform understanding amongst participants as to what they are doing together. It does not overly challenge contextual social or cultural norms, at least not in a way that makes anyone uncomfortable. Such play is engaged in by children and particularly playful adults (like artists).”

– Stenros 2015

What we know about play, fun, and learning

So the voluntary and positive experience of play is what underlies the commitment and passion we see players brings to games, and those elements of game mechanics that might foster that experience are what get offered up as gamification. The activity people in engage in; play, is enjoyable, positive, fulfilling. But “fun” in cultural heritage is the great unspoken term, not unlike the way Karl Marx’s work was foundational to so much of 20th century Western social science, yet rarely cited during any research published during the Cold War.

Behind all the talk of engagement, positive experience, enjoyment, and a host of other serious sounding terms is the idea of fun. And that’s really what we’re after, isn’t it? We want to create experiences that people will enjoy, that will grab their attention and hold it, while challenging them sufficiently to allow them to feel a sense of accomplishment when they’re done, and to have exercised and improved an ability of theirs. The essence of informal learning for me is this intersection between play, fun, and learning. It draws on all the things we’ve looked at in gaming and gamification. It requires the attention of the persons involved in a way that can promote flow, though Csikszentmihalyi distinguishes between flow and playfulness.

“Flow describes a process of involvement in a given reality, while playfulness refers to one’s attitude towards the reality in which one is involved. One can experience flow in a routine activity whose goals and rules are consistent with the paramount reality; in such a case there would be flow without playfulness. Or one could shift one’s perspective on what goals and rules applied in a situation, without experiencing the intense involvement that characterizes flow.”

It is not too easy. Mitch Resnick from MIT further stresses the requirement that fun needs to be challenging in his essay “Computer as Paintbrush: Technology, play, and the creative society.

“…Too often, designers and educators try to make things “easy” for learners, thinking that people are attracted to things that are easy to do. But that is not the case. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihályi has found that people become most deeply engaged in activities that are challenging, but not overwhelming.  Similarly, Seymour Papert has found that learners become deeply engaged by “hard fun”—in other words, learners don’t mind activities that are hard as long as the activities connect deeply with their interests and passions.”

This is most fully developed in Papert’s notion of “hard fun”. Seymour Papert is one of those polymaths who make me feel like the human race might actually evolve into something better. After two PhDs in Mathematics, studying education under Piaget, and directing the study of artificial intelligence at MIT with Marvin Minsky, he became one of the great scholars of education. The way his interests combined and recombined over and over throughout his life is supremely inspirational. The impact Papert and his students like Resnick have had on education is hard to overstate. As Papert wrote in a newspaper article called “Hard Fun”,

“…everyone likes hard challenging things to do. But they have to be the right things matched to the individual and to the culture of the times. These rapidly changing times challenge educators to find areas of work that are hard in the right way: they must connect with the kids and also with the areas of knowledge, skills and (don’t let us forget) ethic adults will need for the future world.”

And just because I can’t help it, I’ll point out that all ideas relate very closely to Nietzsche’s definition of happiness as, “The feeling that power is growing, that resistance is overcome.” This idea of hard fun is well understood by the game industry, and one of the keys behind all great games is hard fun, or what Nicole Lazarro defines with the Italian word “Fiero”, the feeling of personal triumph over adversity.  Her “4 Keys 2 Fun diagram shows how deeply one can try to disambiguate the elements of fun.


Lazzaro’s “4Keys2Fun” from XEODesign, Inc.

Next, we’ll look at what, if anything, this can mean for designers of cultural heritage experiences.

Peeling the Onion, Part Two: Games

What is a game?

A theme of this current research has been the continuing revelation that things I thought were simple, like “game” and “play” are really not. So, if gamification is not the way to successfully engage audiences, then what is it about games that makes us interested in them? I would argue that the appeal for the cultural heritage sector is the way that games capture the attention of their players; the effort that game players invest in playing.


Players concentrating by Flickr user sharyn morrow. CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Latin word for game is ludus, which means two things, as readers of Ready Player One will have already discovered. It can mean “game” and it can also mean “school.” So this notion of playing games and learning being somehow connected is an old one.

Looking at the definitions scholars have tried to wrap around games is instructive. Here are four of my favorites;

“… a free activity standing quite consciously outside ”ordinary” life as being ”not serious”, but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly. It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it. It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner. It promotes the formation of social groupings which tend to surround themselves with secrecy and to stress their difference from the common world by disguise or other means.”

– Johan Huizinga 1950

“… an activity which is essentially: Free (voluntary), separate [in time and space], uncertain, unproductive, governed by rules, make-believe.”

– Roger Caillois 1961

“A game is a rule-based formal system with a variable and quantifiable outcome, where different outcomes are assigned different values, the player exerts effort in order to influence the outcome, the player feels attached to the outcome, and the consequences of the activity are optional and negotiable.”

– Jesper Juul 2003

“A game is a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome.”

– Katie Salen & Eric Zimmerman 2004

Juul’s six characteristics of games

Jesper Juul is one of the most influential game theorists active today. His latest work, The Art of Failure: An Essay on the Pain of Playing Video Games is pretty wild stuff. In his 2003 essay, The Game, The Player, The World, he took all the definitions of games out there and tried to distill their common elements. What he came up was the following six characteristics of games.


Rulebooks by Flickr user Ben Ward CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

  1. Rules: Games are rule-based.
    There is a set of guidelines that tell you when you’re doing it right, and there’s an external way of adjudicating disputes.
  2. There are variable, quantifiable outcomes:
    It’s not a sure thing and there is not only one way to play.
  3. There are values assigned to possible outcomes:
    You can win, lose, or come somewhere in the middle, and it’s clear which one you’re striving to achieve.
  4. Player effort is required:
    Games that aren’t challenging, aren’t fun. Try Progress Wars or Universal Paperclip for examples. Games that are challenging can be very powerful. Iyadurai et al’s 2017 study of emergency room patients who’d recently suffered trauma found that playing Tetris in the emergency room significantly reduced the occurrence of disturbing flashbacks of their recent trauma, because of the demands the game placed on the player.
  5. Player is attached to the outcome:
    It’s no fun to play a game with someone who doesn’t care whether they win or lose. We decide as players to value some outcomes over others.
  6. There are negotiable consequences:
    After the game is over, the players go back to their previous states without any repercussions for their performance during the game.

To this list, I’d add a seventh:

7. There are positive and/or negative feedback systems built into the rules

One big difference between American style board games like Monopoly, and the newer German style games like Settlers of Catan, is their feedback systems. Monopoly has a very positive feedback system; make money, and it gets easier to make even more money. In Settlers, features like the robber serve to inhibit the power of the leading player and level the playing field. Positive feedback systems increase instability, where negative feedback systems increase stability.

Do the rules apply to heritage?

So let’s play a game. If we change the word “player” to visitor and “game to “heritage experience”, what do we get?

1) Rules: Games Heritage experiences are rule-based.

There is a set of guidelines that tell you when you’re doing it right, and there’s an external way of adjudicating disputes.

Aside from telling you what not to do, certainly most museum experiences give you very little guidance about whether you’re doing it right. Maybe there’s a map with names of spaces on it. Maybe there’s a tour you can follow. But by and large there’s nothing to tell you how to “do” it right. The Tenement Museum is a noteworthy exception. For museums that display contemporary art, this is a perennial concern, where there is abundant research to show that visitors feel ill-equipped to experience the art, and are certain “they’re doing it wrong.” When you’re having trouble in a game, you can look at the rules. What can you do if you feel lost in the middle of a visit?

What would the “rules” for your museum or heritage site look like?

2) There are variable, quantifiable outcomes:

It’s not a sure thing and there is not only one way to play.

One of the hardest things to get across to non-museum creatives is how different the expectations aer for a “successful” visit, than for other kinds of experiences. If you opened a book in the middle, read a few pages, flipped around to look at all the pictures, read the title, and then the final paragraph, that probably wouldn’t count as having “read the book” for most people. But two people can enter a museum exhibition, follow completely non-intersecting paths, look at different objects, and still come out the back end feeling like they “saw the show”.

3) There are values assigned to possible outcomes:

You can win, lose, or come somewhere in the middle, and it’s clear which one you’re striving to achieve.

Frank Oppenheimer’s quote that “Nobody ever flunked a science museum.” is relevant here. If nobody ever flunks, though, does that mean nobody ever gets an “A” at museum?

Are there multiple ways to visit your site? If so, is one better than the others?

4) Player Visitor effort is required:

Games Experiences that aren’t challenging, aren’t fun.

Papert’s idea of “hard fun”, which corresponds neatly to Lazarro’s definition of “fiero” in game theory, is a linchpin of informal education. Making experiences challenging enough without being too hard is the holy grail of exhibition development.

5) Player Visitor is attached to the outcome:

It’s no fun to play a game heritage experience with someone who doesn’t care whether they win or lose. We decide as players visitors to value some outcomes over others.

Now there’s an interesting one. Do you attach value to a particular outcome, or go hoping to experience something meaningful?

6) There are negotiable consequences:

After the game heritage experience is over, the players go back to their previous states without any repercussions for their performance during the game.

In my experience in museums, “transformation” was the desired outcome, that visitors leave change by the experience.

7) There are positive and/or negative feedback systems built into the rules

Positive feedback systems increase instability, where negative feedback systems increase stability.

Are there feedback systems that attempt to regulate the heritage experience? I’ve certainly encountered exhibitions and websites that attempt to provide positive feedback systems like “You’re interested in _______? Here are more examples of ________!”

What does this mean for heritage professionals?

A lot of these characteristics can be applied to cultural heritage experiences. For most cultural heritage professionals who look at games and gamification for help, I think the thing they covet most are Rules 4 and 5; Players who want to play and win, and who will devote remarkable amounts of time, energy, and effort to the game.

As an example, here are the stats on the costliest war in computer game history. The Massively Multiplayer Online Game EVE Online, boasts around 500,000 players who populate a science fiction galaxy called New Eden. In New Eden, players can explore, build, and come together in communities for mutual aid and protection. This had led to factions fighting over control of swaths of space, sometimes at huge scales. In the 2014 Battle of B-R5RB, two alliances with ~7,000 players fought for control of a strategic system in a battle that lasted 22 hours. At the end of the battle, more than 20 million soldiers had been killed and over 600 warships worth a combined USD$300,000 had been destroyed. January 2018’s Battle of 9-4RP2 was predicted to be three times as costly, but server issues intervened, causing the battle to never escalate to the level predicted.

But why is it enjoyable? The fact is that the game itself is not; it is the act of playing the game that is. So our search has to go deeper and look into playing.

Peeling the Onion, Part One: Gamification


Red onions. image by Flickr user Gwendolyn Stansbury CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

The kinds of leisure activities available to potential museum-going audiences have multiplied exponentially over the past twenty years. Games and gaming have moved from being the domain of children to becoming a multibillion dollar global industry. Alongside this, visitation at cultural heritage organizations in Europe and North America continues to decline at a steady, alarming pace. Gaming clearly has something to offer heritage professionals, but what? And how to separate hyperbole and sales pitches from substance?

In trying to pick apart the pros and cons of gamification, I wound up exploring game theory. That led quickly into examining the relationship between games and play, and underneath all that, the concept of fun and how it relates to learning. So, let’s start peeling the onion. Hopefully without too many tears!


I first want to briefly go over where I come from (professionally) and acknowledge the gaps that I have in my understanding. Or at least acknowledge the gaps I know of. That’s part of the appeal (and terror) of blogging; knowing you don’t know it all, and putting out what you have to offer anyway.

I still tend to think of myself as an informal educator, a self-image I developed at the Museum of Science in the ‘90s and ‘00s, though that’s shifted over the past couple of years. I’ve had some pretty transformational learning experiences, like attending Alibis for Interaction and realizing the powerful synergies between interaction design, exhibit development, interpretive planning, and game design. When I am confronted with forms that want me to list an “OCCUPATION”, now I’m likely to write “experience designer”.

I’ve spent the bulk of my career thus far making science and natural history exhibitions for American science museums. I’ve consulted for a number of historic sites and U.S. national parks. And since 2013, I’ve worked for a museum of art, culture, creativity that also happens to maintain 20-odd historic buildings from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. I’ve travelled pretty far and wide, and try to keep abreast of what’s going on in the field.  So while my cultural heritage experience is diverse and broad, it is definitely rooted in the U.S., and inside museums or out on the web. What I don’t know about historic house practice, both here and abroad is a lot! Ditto for the unique issues of working in European contexts and the ways that ethnic, regional, national, and European identities overlap and jostle with each other. Part of the excitement of going to Iceland for me is having the chance to learn from all the people there about what’s happening in the Northern Periphery, and with what issues they’re grappling.

Defining terms

So, with that said, let’s talk about five things; gamification, games, play, fun, and learning. The tangled Venn diagram of the first four is pretty gnarly, and I think a lot of the examples of bad game experiences in cultural heritage settings that I’ve seen come from a failure to disambiguate them, or think that one is the same as the others.


I have a complicated relationship with gamification. I used to be unable to even say the word without gagging a little, having seen it oversold and overused so much. In the great debate over the ethics of “tricking” people into doing something non-ludic by using the elements of gameplay, I was squarely on the side of those who argued that the kind of social engineering exemplified by gamified platforms like Foursquare was just immoral. As Peter-Paul Verbeek said in What Things Do (2005), “Things carry morality because they shape the way in which people experience their world and organize their existence, regardless of whether this is done consciously and intentionally or not. Designers … materialize morality. [Emphasis mine]


The warning many gamified experiences should have to carry. Source unknown.

For some of the early proponents of gamification like Gabe Zicherman, it’s just “using some elements of game systems in the cause of a business objective. It’s easiest to identify the trend with experiences (frequent flyer programs, Nike Running/Nike+, or Foursquare) that feel immediately game-like. The presence of key game mechanics, such as points, badges, levels, challenges, leaderboards, rewards, and onboarding, are signals that a game is taking place.” The obvious bait and switch in that statement is the acknowledgment that using game mechanics tricks people into feeling like a game is taking place.

But a gamified thing is not a game. Game designer Margaret Robertson railed against this, “Gamification is an inadvertent con. It tricks people into believing that there’s a simple way to imbue their thing (bank, gym, job, government, genital health outreach program, etc) with the psychological, emotional and social power of a great game.“ Note that she modifies the goal to be not like a game, but to be like a great game. This is important. Ian Bogost proposed that the term itself was a con, claiming that “”gamification” is a misnomer. A better name for this practice is exploitationware.” Will Wright (of The Sims, SimCity, and all the other Sim games fame) once said that gamification proponents treat it like monosodium glutamate or crunchy flakes you can “just add” to any interface, application or service to make it more fun, motivating and engaging. It’s like umami; a little hard to define, but yummy.

Why are so many well-meaning people interested in gamification? Why make something seem like a game in the first place? The mental equation seems to go something like this:

Playing games = fun

Doing my thing < fun enough

Doing my thing + “gamification” = more funner!

With the end result being

More people do my thing

That “more people do my thing” is better defined in Huotari & Hamari’s definition of gamification as “a process of enhancing a service with affordances for gameful experiences in order to support user’s overall value creation”. People do more and do it better in a process that feels more like a game. And like it or not, gamification works. And the empirical evidence is rock solid. Or is it?

A growing body of research seems to back up the claim that gamification works, but only up to a point. In Hamari et al’s 2014 study “Does Gamification Work? — A Literature Review of Empirical Studies on Gamification” they found that “gamification provides positive effects, however, the effects are greatly dependent on the context in which the gamification is being implemented, as well as on the users using it.” Sailer et al’s 2017 study, “How gamification motivates:  An experimental study of the effects of specific game design elements on psychological need satisfaction” found that “…badges, leaderboards, and performance graphs positively affect competence need satisfaction, as well as perceived task meaningfulness, while avatars, meaningful stories, and teammates affect experiences of social relatedness. Perceived decision freedom, however, could not be affected as intended.” Their conclusion in part stated that “gamification is not effective per se, but that specific game design elements have specific psychological effects.” Mitchell et al’s 2017 study,  “Understanding how gamification influences behaviour in social marketing”, the authors questions the very assumption that gamification works because people are intrinsically motivated to play games and suggest that “the mechanics of gamification may involve different factors beyond the production of intrinsic motivation through gameplay”

So what does this mean for designers of cultural heritage experiences? Is gamification a panacea or a placebo? I’d say that the drive to look to game design and game theory to make better heritage experiences is wise and potentially fruitful, but that gamification is not the shortcut to instant success that it is often sold as.


“These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.” Image from

The answer, I think, lies in looking more deeply at games and playing. What makes playing a great game fun? And what can that tell us about how we might differently design our cultural heritage experiences?