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Can games ever be considered art, and do they have a place in museum exhibitions?
Computer gaming is hardly a new phenomenon but, as with most digital media, their development over recent decades has taken place at an astronomical pace. Gaming is now part of the fabric of many people’s lives, whether it be through dedicated game consoles, computers, phones, or tablets.
It can be done alone, or as part of a group; it can allow the player to live out a fantasy life, or to overcome challenging puzzles; it can contain both complex storytelling and innovative technology. It is a cultural institution, and like all cultural institutions, it has a variety of potential uses.
Adding an interactive, game-based element to a museum exhibition is a sure fire way to generate interest. This may seem like a simple, attention grabbing gimmick, but it can also help visitors to experience a work of art or cultural artefact in a new and deeper way.
This is a view put forward by Recupero et al in their 2019 study, Bridging Museum Mission to Visitors’ Experience: Activity, Meanings, Interaction and Technology. In the study it is stated that:
“An increasing number of museums are seeking innovative solutions to better exhibit and communicate the tangible and intangible heritage they preserve, while engaging visitors in an educational yet leisure experience.”
But how can museums effectively integrate gaming technology into their exhibits? Does the difference between cultural-historical and art museums affect the methods that should be used for the introduction of digital gaming? And how exactly can visitors benefit from gaming as part of their museum experience?
But first, there is a hurdle that must be crossed: can gaming ever be considered art? Not everyone thinks so. In 2010, Roger Ebert, renowned American film critic, loudly declared over the course of an 1,800-word article: ‘Video Games Can Never Be Art’.
There is a perceived childishness to video games; an idea that people who regularly play them are easily entertained by low-brow stories, formulaic button pressing, and the addictive glow of a screen. They argument goes that gaming has no place in a museum, which remains the home to high culture.
Yet, this is perhaps a simplistic interpretation of the gaming phenomenon. And it belies the fact that this particular industry has evolved into one of the most popular forms of storytelling, cinematic production and, yes, art.
While not everyone chooses to see it, games are capable of being as complex and emotionally stirring, or as lightweight and trashy as any novel, painting or film, and are as worthy of their own exhibitions as any of those other art forms. In fact, they are arguably the most versatile of those art forms.
Gaming can be associated with a range of different media and professions, including audio-visual products, music, graphic design, storytelling and script writing, making them easy to relate to art, film, design and technology in a museum context. They can also be used to comment on different subcultures, such as youth culture and popular culture.
This versatility means that they can also be adapted to highlight and contextualise other art forms relatively easily. The main appeal of having elements of digital gaming incorporated into museums is that it allows visitors not only to appreciate the exhibits, but to interact with them, therefore forging a personal connection with what they see.
A historical site can turn its grounds into an educative treasure hunt for children through the creation of a mobile gaming app; while an art gallery can employ virtual reality gaming to guide visitors into a painting, highlighting techniques employed by the artist and offering some historical context. The possibilities are only limited by the current status of the ever-evolving technology
‘Gamification’ refers to the application of typical video gaming elements, such as point scoring, rules of play, and a sense of completion between individuals or teams, to other, non-gaming activities. Game playing has often been used as an educational technique, and this is where the value of gamification lies for museums.
People like to learn in different ways and for those who prefer not to sit and listen to a lecture or follow a walking tour to accumulate information, playing games can represent an effective alternative. If visitors to an art gallery or historical site can learn through completing tasks and gaining points, they are more likely to absorb the message a particular exhibit wishes to convey, and also enjoy and remember the experience much more afterwards.
An example of effective gamification comes from the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), which in 2015 launched the mobile gaming app MicroRangers, as a way to draw in new visitors and let them experience the museum’s collection in an interactive way. Players downloaded the app, which utilised augmented reality (AR) technology – similar to that seen in other popular gaming apps like Pokémon Go – to project images of animated characters around certain exhibits.
These characters might be creatures who provide clues, or animated scientists who give the player tasks to complete involving certain artefacts. The game creates a narrative for the player to follow, in which they are the protagonist, and the museum their setting. For each task completed, the player is rewarded with a coin, granting a sense of accomplishment, as well as information about one of the museum’s pieces.
Considering the relationship between rewards and information is vital in order for a museum to ensure the success of gamification. The ultimate reward should always be knowledge – but for the child to acknowledge the accumulation of information, a tangible reminder of every success can help to engage and inspire them.
In MicroRangers, the coins act as markers: tokens to show that some progress has been made. If, when playing a museum game, the visitor does not also learn something new and relevant at the end of each task, they are likely to feel cheated. After all, a museum game should be different to other mobile games, and that difference should be being educative.
Gaming in museums should always be used as a way to provide visitors with a sense of agency; to avoid the feeling of passivity that comes from merely being presented with an exhibit. One way to ensure that a museum game provides this agency is to consider the game’s difficulty level. If a game is too difficult, then the player won’t feel as though they’re achieving anything; too easy, and the game will feel like a mindless distraction from the learning experience.
Having easy to follow rules, but challenging and illuminating tasks that reward the player with relevant knowledge, is the magic list of ingredients for a successful museum game.
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Rebecca Carlsson is a journalist writing extensively about the arts. She has a passion for modern art and when she’s not writing about museums, she can be found spending her weekends in them.
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