Games in museums

One of the last posts I wrote was about learning and creativity and the visitors experience in museums. While writing it, it has appeared to me that gaming may be one of the most engaging experiences museums could offer their audience. I almost concluded the post with this point but I finally didn’t. However, I decided to read (at last) one of the books that has been on my to read list for a long time: Reality is Broken by Jane Mc Gonigal. I began to read it in the plane back from Sydney after attending the Museums Australia Conference. Bingo! Games theory matches with the criteria of an engaging experience as defined in the museums field. Let me explain.

“Define what you are talking about” is one of my mantras so, first, let’s precisely define what is a game. According to Jane McGonical, all games share 4 features.

  • There is a goal. It is “the specific outcome that players will work to achieve”.
  • You follow rules. “The rules place limitation on how players can achieve goals”.
  • You get some feedback.You know how close you are to achieving the goal through a score, a progress bar or another feedback system.
  • Your participation is voluntary. You know and accept the goal, the rules and the feedback and you enter and leave the game freely.

There may be complementary features (story, score, narratives, etc.) but there are not defining features. Actually, it is even not necessary to be able to win. There are games where you can’t win, like Tetris.

Life if like Tetris. You can never really win, you can only try to keep going

In the first part of the book, Jane McGonical explains why games make us happy by highlighting results in psychology (especially in positive psychology that deals with achieving a satisfactory life rather than treating mental illness) and game studies.

Unnecessary obstacle, hard and satisfying work and hope of success

Quoting the philosopher Bernard Suits, Jane McGonigal explains that “playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles”. When playing we face challenges and put our strengths to better use. Actually, we always play of the edge of our skill level. Hum… this could be something interesting in terms of learning considering learning is one of the main motivations of people when visiting a museum. Obviously I am not the first one to have that idea. There is even an entire school using game-based learning in New York. In Europe, the game lab of CRI works in that perspective as well. Well, getting back on track: hard work.

If we define work as the effort applied to accomplish a task then gaming is working. It is even hard working. However, we often consider playing as the opposite of working. Actually, the opposite of play is not work, it’s depression!  The hard work we undertake in games has several features. It is high-stakes work, it is thrilling and risky. You can reach epic successes and epic fails as well. It is busy work that keep your brain and you hands focused and produces clear results. It is intellectual work that calls for your cognitive faculties and put your brain to good use. It is physical work that put strain on your body (your heart beats faster, you secrete endorphins). In massive online game like World of Warcraft (which remains the most popular game ever even if it has recently lost 3 millions subscribers) or Halo, a lot of the game is about teamwork. Gamers go on quests together or fight the same enemy. Thus, games provide opportunities for social interactions.

Some researches have shown that engaging freely in hard work, as we do when we choose to play a game, is highly motivating and contributes to our well being and life satisfaction. It is an efficient way to tackle the stress we face in real life. Moreover, games provides opportunities for  satisfying work. There are clear goals to reach and tasks to do. You just do it and you see the results of your efforts, whereas in your real life work (the work you are paid for) you may feel useless and unproductive because you can’t see the consequences of your effort. Finally, what is amazing in games is that if you fail despites your hard work, you don’t feel depressed. On the contrary, it provokes a positive feeling that gives you the motivation to try again. Because you have seen that there is hope for success, you want to play again and again as soon as you don’t achieve the goal.


Overcoming hard work through gaming provokes powerful emotions. One of the most powerful positive emotions fostered by playing video games is fiero. It is an italian word for pride. Jane McGonigal explains that “fiero is what we feel when we have triumphed adversity”. It is one of our primal emotions. From what I have understood, I would associate fiero with what we feel when we are doing a victory dance.

Games also provide  flow experience. The concept of flow has been shaped by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He is from Hungary and as a young boy he wondered what made people feel like life is worth living  in the traumatised context of post WWII. His research has lead him to define flow as a taste of intense emotional involvement and timelessness that comes from immersive and challenging activities such as software coding or rock climbing.

When you are in a flow experience you:

  • are completely involved in what you are doing
  • have a feeling of being outside of everyday reality (ecstasy)
  • clearly know what has to be done and how to do it.
  • use your skills adequately to perform the task, it is doable.
  • have a sense of serenity, you don’t worry
  • feel hours pass by in minutes
  • are intrinsically motivated, flow becomes its own reward.

Flow experience provide a “satisfying, exhilarating  feeling of creative accomplishment and heightened functioning”. It is a kind of happiness and a lack of flow could contribute to depression. Activities that imply “challenging endeavors with a clear goal, well-established rules for action and the potential of increased difficulty and improvement over time” (p. 45) like playing chess or composing music, are flow inducing. Games are also an excellent source of flow but unlike lot of other flow inducing activities, they don’t require years of training and practice. Games make flow accessible cheaply and quickly and provide fiero as a reward. This reward is intrinsic, it is not provided by an external element. Positive psychology has demonstrated that intrinsic rewards contribute to happiness and extrinsic rewards don’t. That is why  levels of income are  not related to the level of happiness.

So, now the question is: can museums provide flow experiences to their audience? I think we can look at the hands-on and mind-on activities developed by science centres as flow-inducing activities. They aim to engage users fully, both intellectually (mind-on) and physically (hands-on). Users use their skills to answer the question they wonder about the phenomena it is about. They freely engage with the exhibit and can keep going as long as they want. The reward users get is generated by their use of the exhibit, it is an intrinsic reward. We can also see these activities not as flow-inducing but as arousal-inducing. Csikszentmihalyi defines 8 states of mind related to the challenges we face and our ability to overcome them. In the arousal state we are quite good at doing what we do but we don’t master it as yet. We are at the edge of  our skills and we have to improve. This kind of situation is a typical learning situation.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's model of flow related to challenge and ability.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s model of flow related to challenge and ability.

Social connections

Social interactions provide one of main intrinsic rewards that makes us happy. Actually, most of the games we know involve other players and today many online video games are highly social. Here are a few examples. In World of Warcraft you can enrol in a team with other gamers for a common quest. In Farmville you can help your neighbours (the  friends you play the game with) with their farm and make them gifts. In Lexulous (kind of a crabble) you can play against your friends and relatives (through an asynchronous mode). Engaging in a game with someone is making a commitment to interact with them. It provokes prosocial emotions directed  towards others and helps create social bonds that contribute to our happiness. It is a great way to stay in touch with people we care about. Researches have shown that people prefer to play online with people they know even if they don’t mind playing with strangers.

Keeping in mind that there are few visitors who visit a museum alone, museums can easily offer social connections through games where visitors can play together. It is a bit more tricky to make them play with people that don’t belong to their visiting group. Collaborative games, where players have to play together and not against each other, is a way to do it. That was the case in the game XXX in an exhbition about climate and oceans in la Cite des Sciences in Paris in 2011 or the game Gaya : as part of a council, gamers have to manage an environmental crisis. In the same kind of crisis management, La Cite had experimented an interesting format in the exhibition Epidemik where players were moving on a 500m2 set provoking high physical engagement.

 Epic scale: let’s save the world!

Today, gaming is becoming more and more of a community thing, especially because a community can achieve epic missions with deep meaning that an individual can’t. Games provide opportunities to fight for a cause and be part of something bigger than ourselves. Jane McGonical gives the example of Halo 3. In 2009, Halo 3 players all over the world celebrated a collective achievement: 10 billion kills against their enemy, the alien coalition who wants to destroy the Earth. One may say it is not important, even not real, in a real life point of view but it doesn’t mean that it has no meaning for gamers. Their feeling to be part of something bigger was real.

Actually, “to experience real meaning, we don’t have to contribute to something of real value. We just have to be given the opportunity to contribute at all. We need a way to connect with others who care about the same massively scale goal we do, no matter how arbitrary the goal is” (p. 113). The emotion we feel is called awe and we want to enrol to achieve, collectively, an epic mission. We want to save the world. Video games give us the opportunity to do so in an epic environment, that is to say an environment that is the result of a huge collaborative work like a cathedral or a pyramid. It makes the feeling of awe even bigger.

Can museums provide epic environments? I would say yes, especially if you have a decent scenography budget for an exhibition. But if the museum is a place to visit for itself like a palace, a lighthouse, a factory, etc. the epic environment already exists and you just have to let visitors explore it (you may just have difficulties to convince some of the curators). What about epic missions? Yes again. In a natural history or science museum it is easy: unfortunately the global environmental crisis provides many epic missions to save the world (climate change, pollution, loss of biodiversity, etc.). We can also imagine a war against an enemy who would try to destroy books in a library or paintings in a gallery. Gamers would have to save their cultural heritage.

Could/should museums be game producers?

At the Museums Australia Conference there was a big focus on the power of narratives (Xerxes Mazda’s presentation) and how museums can be storytellers (Kim McKay’s presentation). What about game producers? After reading the first part of Jane McGonigal’s book, I think museums should be game producers. As we have seen in this post, the power of games in terms of engagement and experience, especially learning experience, is huge. It would be a shame to do without it. Museums also have the assets to develop games : stories to tell, special relationships with their audience, creative staff, venues people visit, etc. But could they be game producers? I am less sure about the answer. To produce meaningful and engaging games and not boring ersatz of games, museums may need a small cultural revolution. I think more impertinence and a slightly wild way of thinkingwould be required.

Well, I still have to read 300 pages to finish the book. Be sure that I will come back to you if I find other inspiring thoughts for museums. In the meantime, if you have seen engaging and relevant games designed by museums, please let me know.

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