Tag Archives: heritage

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 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 starwars.com

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?