A confluence of related projects and talks has got me thinking about where games in museums should be going in the future. There have been some notable successes in museum games to date, and some failures. Where to go from here? Here are some assembled thoughts on the types of games and game design practices I would love to see more museums exploring.
Now, I love competitive games, but not everyone does, and competition can be off putting and disruptive in, say, family situations (I’m sure you all have stories about the game of Monopoly that ended in tears). Collaborative games are perhaps more suited to the mixed audiences and interests that are represented by museum visitors.
For example, Spaceteam is absolutely one of my favourite games of the last few years. It manages to be ridiculous, hilarious, breathlessly exciting, social and visually striking, all at the same time. Go find 3 other people with smartphones or tablets and have a go, it’s hard to explain. What’s particularly brilliant about it is the way that players become instantly collaborative through the mechanic of needing to convey information to each other rapidly. There is no competitive element, you are all working together to stop your spacecraft coming apart at the seams.
There are also lots of board games that work this way, (I tried Forbidden Island the other week, which is a good example), search for co-operative play on Boardgame Geek. The UVA Bay Game, a team based sim about sustainability, is another interesting case, and seems to have resulted in genuine behaviour change as players realised they would have to work together to solve the issues, both in the game, and in real life.
Discussion based games
Where discussion is happening, thinking is happening. Most museums want to be in some way thought-provoking, and recognise that seeing people deep in conversation about the objects or display they are looking at is a good sign. But many people don’t feel entirely comfortable sharing opinions about art, or history, or science, feeling they lack knowledge or will say something that will be ridiculed. Or, perhaps, it isn’t part of their normal group nature to have discussions of this sort. This means if you want to encourage discussion, you may need to scaffold it in some way, and games can be great for this.
One of the most interesting game experiences I’ve had was playing Liliane Lijn’s Power Game at the ICA a few years back. The atmospheric set helped, but at it’s heart it was a sort of poker game (actually based on Chemin de Fer, I believe) where you had to make the case for why the word you had been given was more powerful that another. Everyone at the table would then vote, and if you won, you got the chips in the middle. It’s more complicated than that, in truth, but what it means is that you end up having to make arguments for abstract concepts you wouldn’t normally think about (i.e. is “war” more powerful than “love”?).
An online discussion game which I’ve enjoyed playing is the Foresight Engine. In this, there a future scenario to which players must respond by playing different types of card that discuss the outcome or effect of that scenario. You get points for each response you play, for responses to discussions that you start, and for having your response highlighted by a moderator/judge. It is effectively a collaborative crowd-sourced future forecasting tool and it’s been applied in all kinds of real world situations (they used it in Christchurch to help citizens work through the implications of certain scenarios for their earthquake damaged city, for instance). I’m certain a card based game that was a mix between this and Power Game could work really well in a museum setting, perhaps as part of events.
Rapid, casual games
Fast, casual games with the right mechanics can be super addictive. This is why I don’t open Bejeweled Blitz unless I know I have at least half an hour to lose to it, even though each game only takes a minute (and is totally brainless, yes, I know, I don’t care). They can also manage to convey a simple point effectively, as we found with the Axon game at Wellcome. In Axon, players click to move a neuron forward via protein targets, with games lasting sometimes just a few seconds, and in doing so (as we found via a survey of players) they learn something small but interesting about foetal brain development, get a sense of the aesthetics of modern brain imagery, and have their interest piqued sufficiently to follow up with a visit to Wikipedia.
Also look at super fast task based or point and click based games such as Wario Ware or McPixel. Each level takes seconds. This format can work really well, be exciting even if the task is incredibly unsophisticated (and therefore work for a range of abilities) and can also be fun to watch. Try also Tenya Wanya Teens if it comes to a place near you. It’s physical, quick, and fun for spectators as well. Oh and whilst we are talking about crazy fast games that are also hilarious, if you haven’t tried QWOP, or any other of Bennett Foddy’s games, you really must.
The temptation is for museums is to create games that convey a lot of information (because we have so much interesting content, so it’s understandable), or that are a bit worthy. But those games are really really hard to do well, and risk turning off a lot of people. For in-gallery games, museum visitors may be time conscious, or assume it will be serious, or just want to watch, and fast, funny games could be the answer.
Museums are great spaces. And recently Lates events have become very popular. Many of these are already using pervasive games to get people interacting with the spaces in new and different ways. Hide and Seek’s Sandpits do something similar, as at the National Maritime Museum a while back. Capture the Museum (Thoughtden and National Museums Scotland) is a team based pervasive game that also uses smartphones to deliver puzzle based challenges (if I’ve got that right, I haven’t had a chance to play yet).
So this isn’t a new idea, but it would be great to see museums do more of this. These sorts of games are often easier to run and develop (and therefore cheaper) than digital games but are frequently overlooked. If you can turn them into a card or board game or just a set of instructions, you could also distribute online which helps it reach a bigger audience.
Yes, many museums don’t want people running around and yelling during regular museum hours, but not all games have to involve this. At SFMOMA, their ArtGameLab crowdsourced games to be played in the public spaces that were more sedate, but still fun (e.g. go around the museum critiquing artworks using only your facial expressions).
Having mentioned card and board games above, I think it’s worth highlighting them. Are there any examples of existing museum card or board games? I wonder why not.
Locative, mobile games
Taking the game out of the museum is not new. We tried it with Magic in Modern London, Tate did Magic Tate Ball (more toy than game, I guess, but still), and others have released games on mobile. But it feels like the potential of mobile is not yet being fully exploited, particularly around location, and the relationship between objects and the landscape, whether urban or rural.
Developing bespoke apps of this type can be expensive and difficult (but if you get it right, wow). But there are other platforms you can use, I recently looked into using the SCVNGR platform for a museum project and was disappointed to find out that it was now unsupported, which is a shame, because it would have been perfect. But you could use other trail apps to add challenges or mini games, or work with Junaio and its AR functionality to create something playful. In researching SCVNGR I found another ex employee has created a similar platform called Edventure Builder, which could be worth exploring.
Online, casual games
This has probably been the most successful approach to date. Tate, Science Museum and our Wellcome Collection games High Tea and Axon have all demonstrated that online casual games distributed to portals can be successful in reaching large audiences, and having an impact in terms of learning (read the High Tea evaluation here). The Science Museum had a rarer success with Launchball, a game that was only on their website yet reached a large audience (via a post on Reddit, if I recall correctly), but in general distributing to portals seems to be the most effective approach.
What this means is that there is already a good existing model for doing this. Use it! The potential audience is in the millions. And if you develop in a way that your game can be released to mobile as well (using Unity, say), it’s even bigger. This approach isn’t the cheapest, and you need to work with real game design pros, but it can be very effective. When you look at the value of High Tea, it was working out at about a penny per play, and had a genuine impact on players in terms of learning and thinking about the subject matter.
Games based on 3rd party platforms
I’ve already mentioned this in terms of locative games, but there are many game development tools out there that are relatively simple to use (I list some in this previous post on making games on a budget). There are also tools that were designed for other things but could be repurposed to playful ends.
I saw an online production recently (the Nightvision Experiment) that frankly didn’t work for me in terms of plot or acting, but used a clever mechanic of delivering the entire story via twitter and youtube. And The Dark Room used just Youtube and it’s annotation function to create a smart, funny sort of video text adventure. There is no reason social media can’t be used to create games, or interactive experiences, and in fact Liliane Lijn was at one point running her Power Game over twitter as well.
Console game partnerships
I don’t think anyone has tried this yet in museums (although the Wellcome Trust did try it as part of their broadcast and games funding work), but I’m sure there is potential here. Obviously museums are unlikely to be able to afford to develop a AAA console game of their own, they cost millions. There are increasing numbers of indie devs producing games for consoles (especially since Unity can output to several of them) for lesser budgets, but still, it’s expensive.
However, museums do have content. They have stories, settings and objects, and they have all kinds of experts. Many are respected global brands. Might a canny partnership be possible between a console game producer and a museum? Perhaps where a museum can do and fund some development work into the factual elements (or even non factual elements), provide some information, setting, or idea inspiration?
I do go on about this, but this needs to happen more. I’ve just read a fascinating evaluation for a Science Museum game (that I hope will be shared soon) and it was *really* illuminating. I wish I’d seen it earlier. It made me think that we’ve all done enough games now that there should be a pretty good body of knowledge about what works, and what doesn’t, and we should be building on this. Some of this information does get shared at conferences and so on, but it still feels like a lot of museum game development (and other digital development, in fact) happens in the dark.
We can copy other apparent successes, but without knowing in depth information about the player responses, we may just be repeating an empty exercise in gathering hits.
Museums need to focus on working with people who are good at making games, and not get so hung up on the platforms or technologies. This essay by Suzy Glass isn’t about games specifically, but it could be, and it is absolutely spot on about this issue.
Museums also need to be working with those people right from the start of a project, not waiting until they’ve put together an extensively scoped funding proposal without any games expert input. And that means hiring someone, freelance, or full time and paying them from the start. It will be worth the investment. I’d also like to see less of small games and other digital agencies time being wasted by having to jump through multiple time consuming (and therefore expensive) hoops as part of the procurement process, when they have a worse than 5 to 1 chance of getting the commission.
Those are my assorted, random, thoughts, please feel free to add yours!