Museums and Games for Learning

Written by Erin Branham.

This past Tuesday I attended a panel discussion titled Will Gaming Change the Way We Learn? (full video above) sponsored by Zócalo Public Square and held at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. (And kudos to MOCA, Zócalo is fairly awesome and it’s nice to see them convening in a museum space.) More and more museums, as well as schools and other educational institutions, are becoming interested in the educational potential of games. Full disclosure – it was games that sparked my initial interest in digital education.  Several years ago, while in grad school, I began reading about the work of Jane McGonigal, Director of Game Research and Development at the Institute for the Future. McGonigal maintains that games are powerful instigators of motivation and happiness for people, which is why folks will dedicate hours upon hours to mastering games. This feature of gaming, termed “stickiness”, is what has caught the interest of many educators.  After all, anyone playing a game has to learn a lot – all the rules of the game, all the strategies, all the secret spaces.

The obvious next step is right there.  If you can make what the player has to learn to win the game the information you want students to master – Epic Win! You have an educational game.  Provided, of course, that it is also fun to play, because no one wants to play a game that’s no fun. In 2010 I attended the Meaningful Play Conference at Michigan State University as part of a panel about games developed by and played at cultural institutions. There I learned that the educational video game industry and the entertainment game industry had parted ways early on, resulting in educational games that were boring and entertaining games that were empty of meaningful content – mostly.

The great exceptions often noted were Civilization and SimCity. These two commercially-produced games have been around since the 1990s and both have gone through numerous versions, with new ones being developed because the games are still very popular.  Civilization models the growth of, well, civilization from 3000 BC to 2000 AD (or so – it depends on what level you are playing). SimCity is an urban planning simulation in which the player constructs a city and has to balance multiple variables for success. For well over 10 years, teachers have been making use of both games, and both have attracted attention from academia as well. Meanwhile, games have evolved far beyond the CD-ROM model of Civ and SimCity. Now we have console games, Alternate Reality Games (ARGs), MMORPGs (that’s massive multi-player online role playing games for the non-geeks among you – best known of these is World of Warcraft) and the hot new kid on the block, Open World, or sandbox games. Open World games are online environments where players are given the ability to manipulate the environment and pursue objectives over which they have a great deal of control.  These games allow for a tremendous amount of personal customization when it comes to what exactly you want to do to “play” them.  The uber-example is Minecraft.  I have two nephews, 9 years and 11 years old which means that all I ever hear about anymore is Minecraft. Teachers are seeing the potential – a group of educators from the US and Finland have started Minecraftedu, an online space for teachers to exchange ideas about how to use Minecraft in the classroom.

Minecraft was mentioned several times during the talk on Tuesday – the speakers were two game designers, Chris Dahlen and Richard Lemarchand, James Gee, a linguist who studies and writes about what games have to teach us about learning and literacy, and Kaveri Subrahmanyan, a researcher and associate director of the Children’s Digital Media Center. In the audience were game design students, teachers, gamers and game designers who develop educational games – digital and otherwise. A couple of the major points from the talk were that research is indeed showing that games result in cognitive skill gain, at least in the short term; and that what happens while people are playing games is only part of the story.  James Gee in particular spoke several times about “modding” which is the gamer practice of modifying games, that is, customizing them. Originally people did this by hacking software; these days game designers include tools for modding games. According to Gee modding represents much more sophisticated thinking than simply playing games, and therefore is an aspect of gaming that may have even more application to education. Mention was made of companies springing up who are specifically designing games for use in schools.  Once such company that I’ve had the chance to talk to is Gamedesk, which is located here in LA. They’ve taken to heart the idea that modding is where the deep educational value is. With programs such as MathMaker they’ve had great success improving the math proficiency test scores of students.

A further point the speakers made was that the communities which develop around games are spaces of significant social learning. Subrahmanyan mentioned a study of World of Warcraft players that I had seen presented in detail at the Meaningful Play conference.  The study demonstrated how players do sophisticated statistical analyses of game play while having discussions in online forums about how to play (and win, of course).  Schools, afterschool programs, and homeschoolers have all made use of WoW, with encouraging results.

What does all of this have to do with museums? The way I see it a couple of things are worth noting.  Firstly, games are a free choice activity, therefore, as free choice educators we should pay attention to what games do well to see if we can replicate those qualities – one of the most significant being these engaged communities that spring up around games.  Gee described games as “designed experiences”, and designed social experiences are also what museums do.  As Gee said, if games can be designed to create experiences which liberate people to learn, then many experiences can be designed to the same purpose.

Not that museums creating games is a new idea.  The Smithsonian American Art Museum launched the ARG Ghosts of a Chance in 2008, and the Facebook game Pheon in 2010 – both sprang from efforts to increase engagement with the Smithsonian’s collection. The Tate offers a few games as apps – Tate Trumps and Race Against Time, both of which have been quite popular. The Met recently premiered Murder at the Met, a game which was developed with direct education department involvement, making it a rarity so far in museum game development.

My thoughts and questions about museums and games for learning are extensive, because I am among the converted – I believe games have a lot to teach us about engaging people. What do you think? Have you played any museum-designed games, and if so, what did you think of them?  I also want us to think about how we can design games that reach the higher levels of player engagement, that encourage communities of sharing and anaylsis, and that incorporate options for player input or customization? Is there a way for a museum to create a modable game?

9 thoughts on “Museums and Games for Learning

  1. dana allen-greil (@danamuses) says:

    I have often wondered if more impact could be achieved by partnering with or piggybacking on an existing commercially produced game. There are obvious pitfalls with such a collaboration but I’m surprised that we aren’t seeing more of it since building immersive multimedia games isn’t a core skill at most museums.

    I’m really intrigued by this concept of modding–can you say more about how you might see museums tapping into this?

    Finally, I hope that we will all keep in mind the benefits of building a game–via mobile, for example–that encourages players to get up and out of their chairs and out into the world. I’m enthused about how we might use games to connect people with their communities and provide opportunity to be outside, get exercise, etc. at the same time. Some citizen science apps seem to be doing this well but they aren’t necessarily as fun as a true game.


    • Erin says:

      Hi Dana – great points! I’m also very intrigued by modding and the idea of piggy-backing on exisiting games. While researching this post I ran across this by Canada’s Natural History Society which uses a mod of Civilization to teach Canadian history: – certainly this is something a history museum might be able to look to as an example. I work at the Getty Villa, a recreated Roman Villa with a collection of ancient Greek, Roman and Etruscan art, so I was wondering while having my nephews teach me about Minecraft this weekend, if there was potentially a project in which we might get a class of 6th graders studying ancient culture interested that would involve creating Roman architecture inspired structures in Minecraft? Science museums could probably do a lot with SimCity or SimEarth – if nothing more, set up a bunch of terminals and host tournaments with educational programs around the science and engineering the games present.

      I think I’m going to be writing some more about what makes a game a game – maybe you’ll lend some thoughts on your idea about what would be some key ideas for getting people out into their communities? Then we can see if there are ways to add the essential elements to those activities to make them into a game.


  2. Jane Audas (@shelfappeal) says:

    I found this interesting as I’ve been producing games for museums for a while now – since 2005. But I’ve also been wondering where the definition of interactives starts and that of games end. Museums have been playful for longer than digital gaming has been all-consuming.


    • Erin says:

      Great question, Jane. Can you tell us more about the games you’ve made in museums? As you say museums have been playful for a long time – and not all games are electronic. From what I’ve read (and I’m still learning in a big way!) a few key elements of games are: competitiveness (either with yourself via points of some kind, or with others), and taking actions that affect the outcome of the game but in a way that is difficult to predict. Most games also offer a fairly constant stream of feedback that affects what actions the player takes as they try to predict the outcome. What do you think are the differences between games and interactives?


      • Jane Audas (@shelfappeal) says:

        Reposting my reply as it came out as ‘anonymous’, which it wasn’t.

        Most of the games here:
        I produced. Energy Ninjas way back in 2005 and Ouch is just a few weeks old. I know the Science Museum also has on-gallery multi user ‘games’, that, because they aren’t online and combine physical as well as screen based interactions, are usually called interactives.

        I completely get the unpacking of the wider, popular games sphere for learning relevances. But it’s these museum game sideliners and interactives and pervasive games (and so on). that are designed to deliver specific content and engagement and learning that seem to me, maybe, to not be the same thing at all. Then I go off thinking about whether we should label serious or learning ‘games’ games at all. But that is another story.


      • Erin says:

        Thanks for sharing, Jane – this looks like great stuff! Games are a big subject and you are right that there are significant differences between using games created for entertainment purposes and designing specific educational games. As we all get used to this brave new digital world, I’m just trying to think through as many options as possible so that I don’t find myself missing an opportunity. I’ve heard many people debate the issue of what to call these things – it feels like things are changing so rapidly in this area right now, that it will take a while for the vocabulary to develop. What do you think serious games should be called if not games? What don’t you like about the word “games”?


      • Jane Audas (@shelfappeal) says:

        Oh, I am not sure I have the answer. I do think the word ‘game’ is too broad to encompass all the museum outputs that are playful. But I also see that calling them that, from a public perspective, makes them more attractive to our users. ‘Educational games’ seems to me a fitting description and a good compromise to use internally. But as we start to interpret objects in museums with more sociable and gestural interfaces (I’m working on some of that stuff) then again there isn’t a word to describe that. Whilst ‘game’ doesn’t seem to fit, the outcomes are playful and interactive.

        Yet goodness knows the sector gets over-heated when the word ‘gamification’ is used..


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