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?





3 thoughts on “Serious Play = Serious Learning for Museums

  1. Cath Styles (@CathStyles) says:

    Nice summary of the state of play, arr, arr. Sounds like it was a great conference. On in-game flow, I’m curious to know whether there was any discussion of the affect of that experience of flow beyond the game, ie in real life. Is that capacity for submersing into the flow understood as one of the real-world skills that games can teach? Pointers to research appreciated 🙂


    • Erin says:

      Hi Cath,

      Sorry for the delay in replying! You bring up an interesting point. Czentmihalyi didn’t speak to your question, but I think serious game designers are pretty in sync with it. It is one of the mighty appeals of gaming, and serious game designers are trying to connect that flow space with real world problems. I’m afraid I don’t know of any specific research, but I think Jane McGonigal’s work is probably the closest you’ll get at the moment. Try her book Reality is Broken, if you haven’t read it already, or check out her website


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