So You Want to Make a Museum Game? Words of Wisdom from Sharna Jackson

“Games are a conversation opener,” Sharna told me over drinks at what she described as an ‘old man pub’ chosen for its reasonable prices and accessibility to the Tate. Sharna is the Editor of the Tate Kids website and graciously agreed to sit down and chat to me about games one brisk London evening after work. The Tate Kids website has four main components – My Gallery, Films, Tate Create and Games. I have been thinking about museum games and how I don’t think we museum professionals always have a good understanding of games and what we are asking of them so I asked Sharna if she would talk to me about that aspect of her work.

Our conversation continued with Sharna explaining that games are not a way to delve deeply into the collection, to learn extensively about an object, or follow a detailed story. Games are engaging and fun and can be educational but they have a limit. They are a way of introducing people to the museum. Like marijuana is purportedly a gateway drug, games are a gateway to the museum. You might just partake in recreational use of the game and never enter the museum but if you enjoy it you may consider stepping through the threshold and trying something a little harder, so to speak.

Throughout my conversation with Sharna there was a theme that became apparent – be aware of your museum’s brand and create a game that makes sense for you as an institution. For example the Tate has a graffiti game, Street Art,(I played it as part of my “research” and had a lot of fun). This game makes sense for the Tate because they are a cool institution. Sharna explained that she wants kids to know the Tate’s a bit naughty and it is a brand and place where you can come in and be yourself. In addition she had the teaching objective of understanding graffiti as art. This type of game would not work for a place that has a more serious brand and a more historic collection such as the National Gallery.

Sharna shared a wonderful analysis of games with me from her friend Mark Sorrell of Hide and Seek. Mark explains the interaction between stories and games for museums and in what instance a museum should use a game for a story.

If you’re looking to commission games, it’s of the utmost importance that you understand why you’re doing it. Games are fundamentally different to pretty much every other form of media. The biggest mistake I see is not giving games a clear job to do, or expecting them to do a job they are not suited to.

There’s an interesting thing to be said about how story and game (probably) play a zero sum game inside a product. So you can either have a lot of story (and little game) or little story (and a lot of game). In museum or gallery contexts, there is often a story to be told, so games can sometimes get in the way, unless they are designed very carefully, with distinct ‘story’ and ‘game’ phases. Stories tell stories to users. Games let users create their own stories. And they do this via giving users a system to explore – games enable learning through doing, rather than seeing or being told.

To boil this down into something small and useful – use story when you want to tell and games when you want to let others tell.

Like Mark suggests, museums need to be aware of what they want to achieve. Sharna’s advice is to not rush into games. Figure out your goal: do you want to engage a particular audience? Tell a story about object, or how it was made? Do something technologically different, new or amazing for your site? Pick one area and do it. You can’t do it all. At least not well.

Sharna’s advice to museums who would like to create games:

A game doesn’t have to be expensive. It doesn’t have to be a game in a traditional sense. Offline games are good – paper and pen games, ARG like Murder at the Met. These games can have digital components as a way of saving money (i.e. rather than having the whole game as a digital one, use mostly analog components with some digital ones). Be realistic about what you can achieve on your small budget. Keep in mind who you are what you are trying to communicate and to whom. Come up with concepts that work for who you are.

So who in Sharna’s opinion is doing a good job of creating museum games?

The Welcome Trust is doing a great job with games. The Met. SFMOMA Art Game Lab. Not quite games but really good stuff-  National Maritime Museum of UK. A really good game – Chicago Museum of Science and Industry’s Code Fred. It is funny humorous and a nice way of engaging with the audience and brand; it makes you feel warm to the brand.

Who do you think is doing a good job of making museum games?



2 thoughts on “So You Want to Make a Museum Game? Words of Wisdom from Sharna Jackson

  1. Dave Bar says:

    Thanks, Mairin. All good stuff. Games indeed have their place for museum visitors. But all of this it seems, is different from gamification – the art of giving museum learning some game-like qualities that can make it more engaging for museum visitors.


    • Sharna Jackson says:

      Yep, you’re right – my approach is very different from gamification. To me, gamification is the rather cynical process of adding ‘game-mechanics’ (actually, more accurate terms would be ‘badgification or pointsification) to a thing or process and calling it a ‘game’, when it really isn’t.
      I call upon Hide & Seek again – this from Margaret Robertson pretty much sums up my feeling on gamification:


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