Museums have always aimed to engage their visitors with the spectacle of their displays, be they works of art, fossils, or historical artifacts. Increasingly, this has resulted in numerous efforts to integrate an interactive, game-based dimension into the museum experience, as opposed to relying on more passive observation of collections. Using multiple platforms like augmented reality, tabletop games, or digital displays, curators and designers are hoping to immerse people more deeply in their exhibitions, and to push the limits of what it means to take a trip to the museum.
"For a number of years now we've been exploring what it might mean for museums to employ games and play as a way to increase visitor motivation," Barry Joseph, associate director of digital learning at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), told me over the phone. "We want to offer something to people that makes them want to leave their home, come to the museum, and experience something and it also gives them an opportunity to not only appreciate, but actually connect with the objects themselves."
Take, for instance, the mobile game MicroRangers, which debuted at the AMNH last December. Players download an app and use a scannable collector's coin to activate missions around various halls in the museum, at the behest of animated scientists. Augmented reality displays at each station provide clues about how to tackle each problem, while constructing a larger narrative about the effect of microbial life on entire ecosystems.
Barry Joseph demonstrating the MicroRangers game. Video: Moosha Moosha Mooshme/YouTube
MicroRangers drew inspiration from a diverse range of existing gaming platforms—including cooperative board games like Pandemic and the Disney attraction Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom—and was developed with active input from the target audience.
"We got a group of students together and spent a couple of months teaching them about the science of what would be in the exhibit, teaching them the basics of game design, and then working with them to create this prototype for what would eventually become MicroRangers," Joseph said.
The result demonstrates how AMNH, along with many other museums, are integrating both analog and digital gameplay into the visitor experience as a way to connect with exhibitions on new levels. The idea is not to edge out the more traditional ways of exploring collections, like aimlessly wandering through halls or reading about the backstory of specific displays, but rather to complement them with new avenues of engagement.
"An exhibition is a multimedia environment," Hélène Alonso, director of digital experiences at AMNH, told me in a phone call. "Some people like to just observe. Some people prefer to read. Some people prefer to be told a story in a movie. So, in the department of exhibitions, we have people that think in all these different ways and we have to balance it out between all of us to get an exhibition that is attractive to everybody, and tells each one of these stories in the most compelling way."
One of my personal favorite examples of this interdisciplinary mashup in action was AMNH's exhibit "Pterosaurs: Flight in the Age of Dinosaurs," which ran from April 5, 2014 to January 4, 2015. In addition to displaying intricately preserved pterosaur fossils and colorful scale models of these extinct animals, the experience included a fun interactive game called "Fly Like a Pterosaur." Using a motion-sensing Kinect simulator, players could flap their arms to pilot an onscreen pterosaur avatar through different environments and challenges. Needless to say, it was a popular corner of the exhibit.
"It is a natural thing to want to fly," Alonso said. "That's what makes pterosaurs unique in that world of reptiles."
"The subjects of the exhibition are the beginning of everything," she continued. "The science behind the topics always reveal the best way to tell a story. The goal is always to explain. Explain how something works, and make [visitors] fall in love with the science too."
To that end, AMNH has also introduced game experiences that transcend the museum walls, such as the card game Gutsy, developed for "The Secret World Inside You" exhibit on the human microbiome.
"The games in the exhibit give people a fun and engaging way to connect with the content, and then when you bring a game home, it gives them an opportunity to go deeper," Joseph said.
In addition to his role at AMNH, Joseph is also a co-founder of Games for Change, a nonprofit organization that aims to channel the popularity of games into educational and social initiatives. At the time it was established, in 2004, Games for Change encountered much more resistance from educators who were skeptical of games as a learning aid.
"It was at a time when principals would respond to a request to do game design with youth in the context of trying to understand why you wanted to bring Grand Theft Auto into the classroom," Joseph told me. "There was a lot of confusion about what games were, and what they afforded for learning."
But over a decade later, the idea that games to augment and enhance educational experiences is becoming more mainstream, and museums are more eager than ever to adopt these interactive elements into their exhibits.
"We are at a very different point now," Joseph said. "There are still concerns people have about youth access to computer screens, or about the role that video games have in young people's lives, but those conversations are much more informed and thoughtful. Certain games in certain contexts offer tremendous possibilities. I think over the next ten years, we're going to see a lot happening in our section of the civic space around understanding what games afford for learning."