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How To Avoid The “Gamification” Trap In Your Museum

Studies consistently show the educational benefits of incorporating games and play into learning. Games, and increasingly digital and video games, have become mainstays in many museums’ educational programming and exhibits. The rise of games as educational tools, particularly in museums, has also led to a global interest in the principles that make games popular and marketable and how that success can be channeled to increase use.

The result is “gamification,” or the principle of applying game elements to non-game-related activities. However, gamifying museum experiences can be ineffective, as well as a waste of your museum’s time and money if not pursued thoughtfully and with clear goals in mind. How can your museum create quality games that maximize their educational impact and avoid the pitfalls of “gamification”?

What is “gamification”?

Ever notice how every app on your phone seems to have some badge or point system to entice you to use that product more frequently? That’s gamification. Developers know that people like games; many games have a reward system, and therefore their app should do the same to attract more users. They’re not necessarily wrong – let’s be honest, it can feel oddly rewarding to unlock a new badge for posting a Yelp review. As Ed Rodley wrote in his blog Thinking About Museums, the gamification elements in his apps “sure work on me! When I finally got my LinkedIn profile progress bar up to 100%, I felt like I’d accomplished something.”

Museums took note of the gamification concept. In 2011, it achieved buzzword status and was hailed as the “next new thing” in museums. But after the initial urge to collect points fades, consumers can find themselves asking – “what was the point of that?” As Rodley came to realize, the badges in his LinkedIn and Yelp apps “didn’t add up to anything really. The game mechanics worked on me…But the mechanics without the context of the game to give them substance left me feeling a bit like a chump…What’s it add up to?” Similarly, Jasper Visser of Museum of the Future found in 2015 that “ Gamification – leaderboards, badges, achievements – doesn’t necessarily create games; it doesn’t necessarily stimulate play.”

Gaming in museums can be highly educational and leave a lasting impact on visitors, but they must be done well to be effective with our audiences. It’s not enough to lure visitors with the promise of points or badges if these don’t serve to educate. As Rodley noted, “ At the heart of every good game is the dynamic we’re already looking for in museum exhibits; people interacting with a situation and learning how to master it, because…learning is fun and intrinsically motivating to humans…And badges and points and contrived dynamics won’t get you there.”

How to Create Effective Games

What makes one game meaningful as an educational tool and another a gamification gimmick? Over the last 40 years, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has pioneered and studied what he calls the “flow” state in learning, in which someone achieves maximum results while enjoying the learning process. According to Csikszentmihalyi’s studies and further research by Curtiss Murphy, Dustin Chertoff, Michael Guerrero and Kerry Moffitt, there are several key features that make up the most engaging games: the tasks are clearly defined and the person understands what they are accomplishing, players receive feedback, challenges are matched to a player’s skills, and distractions are minimized.

Culled down to the basics, between the boredom of playing a game that is too easy and the anxiety of playing one that is beyond a user’s skill level there is a sweet spot, or Csikszentmihalyi’s flow zone, that results in enjoyment and engagement with the content. Good games are challenging; gamification is mindless and a distraction from learning. Furthermore, when it comes to learning via games in a museum setting, Catherine Beavis and Leonie Rowan observed in a blog post entitled Digital Games: Core Principles in Games-Based Learning that it’s important for learners to feel agency in the game “as well as the ability to produce and not just passively consume knowledge.”

With these guiding principles in mind, how can museums incorporate these elements into their exhibits or educational programs? One particularly successful game is The Australian National Maritime Museum’s The Voyage digital game, launched in 2015. Within one year it had already attracted over 63,000 players worldwide. The game is available to play online and has even been used in curricula in London area schools. The international reach of this game is impressive, but its content and attention to detail are responsible for its success. Users play as the Surgeon Superintendant on an 1830 voyage to move convicts from London to what we today know as Tasmania. “You’re charged with delivering several hundred convicts to the colony in the shortest time with minimum loss of life,” reads the game’s introduction statement . “This is the way to make money and further your reputation and position. Are you up to the task?” The Voyage tells a story, rooted in the museum’s historical documentation, and the tasks reinforce that narrative. From selecting a ship (watch out for the ones that leak) to hiring a captain (that one likes his rum too much) and surviving life out at sea (you must be quick to catch the rats!), this game is entertaining, well designed, and its activities are always informed by the historical record and the story’s narrative. Gimmick it most certainly is not.

Avoiding “gamification” pitfalls

Museums should feel encouraged to incorporate fun and games into their institutions. When done well, games can be a huge asset to an organization and its visitors. To create content that will serve your museum and visitors, keep in mind the following guidelines:

● Good games are not mindless. Have a narrative and ensure the story informs the game.

● Feedback (often in the form of points or rewards) is a part of helping players get to a “flow” state, but they are not enough on their own to encourage true engagement with content.

● Don’t be afraid to challenge visitors.

● Make sure the rules are easily understood so that players have the best chance of maximizing their enjoyment and connecting with the content.

By committing to games and play and eliminating the distraction of gamification, museums can stimulate learning with audiences in new and exciting ways. In the words of former Tate Kids Editor Sharna Jackson , “Games have rules, toys don’t, and play is a way of engaging…with an object or a concept…no matter what your collection is.” The possibilities are endless.

About the author – Andrea Marshall

Andrea Marshall is based in Washington, DC and produces museum exhibits, most recently the National Museum of the United States Army. She has also worked in museum content development and community engagement. In her free time, she explores creative exhibit presentation, design and visitor experience through her blog, Mission: Exhibition.

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