Stay Curious! Museums and Learning Games

This week 0n Mashable, Zoe Fox wrote about the 5 Ways Museums are Reaching Digital Audiences — specifically how social media helps museums break free of old stereotypes and engage audiences in unexpected ways. It turns out that museums are also reaching gamers in addition to arts patrons.

Last fall, I decided to go check out Pheon, a multimedia scavenger hunt/alternative reality game at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. (Pheon is follow up to the game, A Ghost of a Chance.)  I’m used to going to art galleries and quietly spending time looking at paintings, but this funky game provided me with an unexpectedly satisfying and engaging museum experience. Joining with two other professionals, a school teacher from Baltimore and a videographer, we formed a motley (but enthusiastic) crew of gamers armed with mobile phones, instructions, and our wits. Throughout the hunt, I felt a little bit like a weak link, but was able to contribute in a big way through one of my strengths — a deep knowledge of Abstract American Art. I knew exactly where the Arthur Dove image of a sun was displayed when it was described in the list of clues. (This was a small, yet epic, win for me.)

The Smithsonian American Art Museum continues to blaze this trail by hosting upcoming exhibit The Art of Video Games from March 16 through September 30, 2012.

In the book Digital Museum, A Think Guide, I’ve been exploring how museums have grappled with the digital revolution. One of the essays, The Name of the Game: Museums and Digital Learning Games by Susan E. Edwards and David T. Schaller, provides an excellent follow up to the the theme of games that began with my blog post about the book Reality is Broken. While the target audience for Digital Museum, A Think Guide is clearly museum professionals, I think the book would be beneficial to gamers and educators hired to create digital tools for galleries, museums, and educational organizations.

Benefits of learning games for museums include:

  • Promoting of general awareness of the museum
  • Informing audiences about museum’s scope and content
  • Exposing collections to audiences that might not likely browse them directly
  • Creating new ways for existing audiences to explore a museum

The authors remind us that for museums the name of the game is the content and explain that “understanding the structure of a particular game genre and how it guides the player’s learning will help the museum choose the best approach for their particular content,” and point to a study of the intrinsic learning motivations behind done by cognitive psychologists Thomas Molone and Mark Lepper in the 1980’s.

The study found 4 key traits that define all effective learning games and should function as guideposts for game designers.

  1. Challenge – Players tackle a specific challenge that is relevant and feedback guides them toward success. Feedback from both success and failure promote feelings of competence.
  2. Curiosity –  Cognitive curiosity is triggered by discrepant events arising from game play. Sensory curiosity is triggered by multimedia elements.
  3. Control – Players have meaningful control over their actions in a game, causing clear, powerful effects. Contingency, choice and power are key elements of control.
  4. Fantasy – The context of a game includes some degree of fantasy, which engages the emotional needs of the learners while providing relevant metaphors or analogies.

A couple of years ago, at the AAM convention in Chicago, I purchased what is now my favorite daily workout cap from the deCordova Museum and Sculpture Park. The deCordova logo is on the back, but the front features the bold command Stay Curious……

What unexpected interactive museum experiences have excited your curiosity?


The Digital Museum: A Think Guide