Serious Play = Serious Learning for Museums

Written by Erin Branham. 

The Heart of Serious Game Design as defined by the Games and Meaningful Play program at Michigan State University

The Heart of Serious Game Design as defined by the Games and Meaningful Play program at Michigan State University

I just returned from the Serious Play conference in Redmond, Washington. It was a small conference, which affords the marvelous benefit of really getting to mix and mingle with very interesting people. The serious games industry involves some surprising (to me anyway) players, such as the US military, the health industry, leadership and management training as well as formal education and museums.

Side note: “serious” play means that the intent of the creators is serious – not just about making money or affording people a mindless pastime. Some people refer to them as “transformational games”.

As most of us know, museums have been creating games for a while now, but I discovered it had been going on for longer than I knew – at least 10 years in the digital realm according to a couple of presenters. Here are a few of the lessons I learned about serious games.

Games are Hard

The marvelous Jesse Schell treated us to his 7/11 talk, in which he enumerates what games are good at, and what they’re bad at.  They’re not cheap and they’re not easy.  Good game design is an elusive skill.  Games must be hard enough to be challenging, but not so hard as to be frustrating. They need rules complex enough to structure play, but not so complex as to be confusing. In other words, hitting the multiple sweet spots needed for a game that is both interestingly playable, and teaches something, is a real challenge. My greatest takeaway from the conference was to enter game design in the museum with the following questions:

  1. What problem are you trying to solve?
  2.  Is there an easier way to solve it than creating a game?

If you can’t define point a, and the answer to point b is yes – don’t try to make a game.

This may sound as if I’m trying to talk you (and myself) out of making games for the museum.  I’m not. I think games can do a lot for museum education, but I’ve learned it’s critical to think through your motivations and your goals before beginning the complex creative endeavor of creating a game – and I’ve learned it the hard way. But once you’ve answered the above questions, it’s also important to know:

We Don’t Have to Do it Alone

I learned about several ready-to-go game creation platforms. I haven’t had a chance to thoroughly check them all out yet, so I can’t give reviews (note to self: future blog post…), but I’m going to look closely into these:

  1. The Edventure Builder, created by Green Door Labs, this tool lets you build a web-based choose your own adventure style game for your space.
  2. TaleBlazer – Arising from the work of MIT’s Scheller Teacher Education program, TaleBlazer is designer to create location-based augmented reality games.
  3. Scratch – also from MIT, though it’s a project of the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the MIT Media Lab and is designed for kids to use.  Hands-on game-making workshop anyone?
  4. GameSalad – is a DIY game design engine, no coding experience necessary (but do please refer to point 1 above – coding is only one of the difficult things about game-making)
  5. Aris – another tool for building location-based experiences, dependent on GPS and QR codes


Museums Can Learn a Lot from Games

My wonderful colleague, Susan Edwards, has been working on digital museum games for nearly as long as anyone in the field. Her slideshare What Museums Learn by Making Games gives a great overview of the last 10 years of museum games, but then changes focus from the outward facing goals museums can achieve with games. Turning the lens around to inward facing questions, Susan concludes that the philosophy of gaming has a lot to teach museums about how to operate.


  1. Games are about building systems that are fun and engaging.

A great museum team is also a system, and ideally the work is fun and engaging. Not just because we’d all like to work in a place where it’s fun and engaging – but because that’s where the best work happens. It came up again and again that people playing games are not “goofing off”, but actually working quite hard to solve problems. Exploring a game space means exercising your creative and critical thinking – these are qualities any museum leader worth her or his salt wants to try to infuse into their team’s work. Keynote speaker, and frequent education guru, Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi discussed his theory of flow, or optimal experience, and how it intersected both with games and business leadership skills. Basically, we could all stand to think about the systems of which we are a part, and consider how the game principles of feedback, challenge and play can inform our workplace.

  1. Playing to win? No way!

A basic strategy of good game playing is that the player has to fail in order to succeed. Museums are not known for setting up work spaces to encourage the risk-taking that many commercial companies have realized is vital to creativity and best work practices, not to mention high employee satisfaction. However, if we’re willing to learn from games, maybe more of us can take that leap and the practices of our field can learn to tolerate more failure, for the sake of more, and greater, success.

My final, and most critical takeaway from the conference was an observation by Jim Bowers, the rather brilliant mind behind Whyville, a virtual space that uses games to teach kids about pretty much everything. Jim tweeted:

Jim tweet

And this is certainly true of museum games. There’s very little evaluative data that would allow us, as a field, to judge how effective games are at achieving the goals we’ve set out for them. Identifying a gap in the research is always a good moment. There’s some work to be done in pulling together a comprehensive history of museum games, and looking at how they’ve performed and why so that we can go on to create games that do what we want them to do.

What do you think about educational games in the museum?






Are Museum Apps Boring?

In my last post about museums and mobile I quoted someone who had commented on Matthew Petrie’s article in the Guardian claiming museum apps are “spectacularly boring.” This comment seems to have stuck with me as I’ve been asking myself if it’s true ever since.


Current Mobile Technology Offerings. From AAM Mobile Survey

Current Mobile Technology Offerings. From AAM Mobile Survey

As you can see from the chart above most museum mobile interpretation comes in the form of an audio tour. That’s the same old content repackaged into a shiny new device. So are museum apps boring? Yes. I shouldn’t be so glib about it. Ed Rodley actually just wrote a post about how the right narrator can make one of those boring audio guides into an engaging experience. Content does matter, as Museum Nerd wrote in his recent review of a number of museum apps

I found that some of my favorite apps were no more than an illustrated audio tour, but the content was well-written and compelling. In short, you don’t need to wow me with your newfangled app technologies, just give me information presented in a compelling way and show me what you’re talking about and I’m happy.

Yes good content can make any format interesting but truly exciting apps do something new, different and take advantage of the medium they are in.

Lateral Thinking

I had a professor in Grad school who used to tell us to use “Lateral Thinking.” Why reinvent the wheel when you can look at what others are doing successfully and emulate it? So let’s apply this and look outside the museum industry to see what’s working that we can use.

Candy Crush

Candy Crush

There’s an excellent top 5 matrix showing the most popular free and paid apps in different countries across categories on a daily basis. Here are some of the most popular apps:

–          Addictive puzzle games like Candy Crush and 4 Pics 1 Song

–          Skill building games like Bad Piggies where you have to build contraptions

–          Games based on adorable film characters like Minion Rush

Games are popular, especially ones with puzzles (no surprise). Museums have already been using puzzles in both digital and analogue content. Maybe it’s about looking at how the puzzles are presented and why they are so compelling in games like Candy Crush. This is not a scavenger hunt where you have to answer obscure questions about a painting. Maybe that would work if you had to match three paintings or you lose one of your five lives and once you’ve matched them you proceed to the next level while letting all your Facebook friends know.

Something that requires a little creativity and skill with a bit of silliness like Bad Piggies would also be good (also check out Plants vs. Zombies for the silliness factor). Maybe we need to take ourselves a bit less seriously to create interesting apps.

Minions are cute and adorable but so are many museum mascots who would make good subjects of museum games aimed at families.

Museums and the Web Best of the Web Awards

Museums and the Web, an annual conference about exactly what its title implies, has an annual Best of the Web award. This is a good place to see the crème de la crème of museum tech. So let’s take a look at the apps that have won the mobile category since it was established in 2011.

2013 – Sound Uncovered by Exploratorium in San Francisco, USA

Explore the surprising side of sound with Sound Uncovered, an interactive collection featuring auditory illusions, acoustic phenomena, and other things that go bump, beep, boom, and vroom.

Besides all the technical wins, it is extremely fun and engaging. A variety of interaction styles keeps the user interested in what the next activity will be and keeps the experience fresh and interesting.…more

2012 – ArtClix by High Museum of Art in Atlanta, USA

Art Clix

Art Clix

Explore Picasso to Warhol: Fourteen Modern Masters temporary exhibition with photo-recognition and social media.

  • Snap pictures of artwork to access text and audio

  • Create personalized postcards to share with friends on Facebook, Twitter, and Email

  • Join the ArtClix Community to discuss the artwork with other visitors

  • Engage with Museum staff about the exhibition

2011 –  AB EX NY by The Museum of Modern Art in New York, USA

Now you can enjoy highlights from the exhibition Abstract Expressionist New York and the related publication on your iPad. Use the free MoMA iPad App to view superb high-resolution images of selected Abstract Expressionist works. Learn more about the artists and NYC history with a multimedia map of studios, galleries, bars, and other points of interest. Watch in-depth videos on key works of art, browse a glossary of art terms, read about the exhibition and exhibition catalogue, share your favorite works on Twitter, and more.

Are these proof that museums can make apps that are not “spectacularly boring?”

I still have a lot of questions. I would like to know the number of downloads, one time vs. multiple use, the demographics of those who download, if they are on or off site and how users enjoyed or did not enjoy these apps. Without measurement how can we gauge our success or failure?

What do you think are the best museum mobile apps? Or do you agree that museum apps are all boring?