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Museums are typically thought of as destinations to house and display art, artefacts and collections of cultural interest. But in an age of shortened attention spans, it’s becoming more obvious that museums can’t simply be something nice to look at — they must actively engage their visitors. To do this, many institutions are turning to games, in their various forms, to both engage and educate those who walk through their doors.
Games are great tools for learning. We’ve known this from a very young age whether we were learning to clean up after ourselves or memorize our times tables. The wonderful thing about games, though, is that they’re not just for kids and can be effective education tools in your exhibitions for adults and children alike.
Beyond just a learning perspective, games also foster a wonderful sense of connection, and there are many examples involving cultural institutions. Visitors can interact with Pepper, the Smithsonian’s robot guides, who offer interactive games on a tablet. At the Museum of Modern Art in New York, visitors connected with the museum — and each other — by jotting down their “I went to MoMA and…” experience on slips of paper that were either posted on museum walls or scanned and featured online. And people across the globe flocked to download Google’s Arts & Culture app, which offered the ability to match the user’s face to a famous work of art.
If you’re willing to get creative, almost any concept or idea can be improved with gamification. The experience of your visitors need not stop at passively consuming your exhibitions. Oftentimes, individuals experience better retention when they can physically or digitally interact with a topic, and to keep things fresh, games can be played in a myriad of ways. Whether your institution implements analog games, live-action games, mobile/app-based games or even quizzes, it’s important to consider gaming experiences for your visitors.
The UK’s Science Museum offers in-museum games, as well as games through its app. One example, the museum offers a game that allows users to design and test their own space rover.
“Games should have purpose but must also be fun,” says Dave Patten, Head of New Media at the Science Museum. “We develop games that teach you about things in an entertaining way where you are probably not even aware that you are learning. For instance our Rugged Rovers game teaches you about the design process that engineers use to design, test and iterate. It teaches this by doing, but we never explicitly say this is what is happening.”
This illustrates a great example of how games can provide accessibility to complex topics. The Science Museum could absolutely offer an exhibition devoted to the art of engineering that would provide visitors with valuable information. But by offering a game, more individuals will better grasp the concepts and engage with the lesson. And with today’s unique struggles in holding visitors’ attention, engagement is everything.
“In the museum, games are a great way of allowing visitors to have agency over often quite complex areas of content, allowing visitors to explore ideas and content in a very interactive way,” Patten says. “In-museum games have long been part of our interpretive approach in the museum and we have developed and commissioned many games for use in exhibitions and galleries. In-museum games tend to be very short, lasting from only several minutes whereas online games are designed with much longer playing times.” (see Dave Patten talking about the history of games at the Science Museum here).
Varying types of cultural institutions can benefit from games. In 2019, for the first time ever, the Palais Garnier in Paris introduced its immersive game “Inside Opera,” which they describe as “a truly life-sized adventure with the immersive thrills of following in the footsteps of the Phantom of the Opera.” Players are guided by actors in period costume to solve puzzles and lift the curse of the Phantom of the Opera once and for all. History buffs and puzzle-lovers alike can play independently or in teams as they move about the entire building.
Beyond providing an incredible learning experience, Inside Opera in particular illustrates the power games have to, as an institution, journey outside your traditional audience and interact with the public in new ways.
“The main goal was to provide a new kind of cultural trip in Paris, a different way to visit a place with immersive and interactive experience,” says Gregory Mangeret, who co-created Inside Opera. “Opera management knew that Inside Opera was the opportunity to have a new category of visitors.”
By thinking outside what a museum or institution typically offers its audience, you can get creative with whom you are engaging and how. For example, Inside Opera was created with the intent of attracting a younger, more urban audience. This demographic might not be as inclined to buy a ticket to a performance, but they’ll still come through the door to participate in this experience with their friends.
Just as within the museum industry itself, technology and the greater digital landscape are forces that continue to rethink and reshape the way things are done. As the idea of what makes a game continues to evolve, museum’s have a unique position to combine learning and play in a physical space using digital elements.
“Digital games increasingly have physical components, and I think the future of museum games is probably going to be a much more blended experience,” Patten says. “We are always looking at games both digital and physical for ideas and inspiration.”
Gamification is a great way for any institution to educate and engage with its audience. If you’re in the process of brainstorming ideas for interactive games to offer your patrons or website users, Patten provides this advice.
“Be very clear about who the audience for the games are and develop for that audience,” he says. “Be thoughtful, work with agencies who understand how to make good games, make the games widely available, put them on gaming portals and not just on your museum’s website. Keep the ideas simple with great gameplay.”
Regardless of the type, games keep things fun and fresh and can provide an experience at the intersection of connection, learning, and enjoyment for anyone who walks through a museum’s doors.
Lauren Styx is a magazine editor and freelance journalist in Chicago. Her storytelling explores health, culture, sustainability, and the ways in which those areas intersect.
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