Pinball Wizard: Games for Learning

Last Thursday, Charlie and Tom went along to an event organised by the London Museums Group and hosted by the Jewish Museum London that was all about games in museums.

The day consisted of a series of talks by game makers from both inside and outside museums, all with lots of interesting takes on what games are and what they (should) do. It was a great chance for us to fill our brains with expert information and got us both thinking about how we might use some of the principles we learned to make Museum in a Box even more engaging and – gasp! – fun 😀

Needless to say, they had a healthy amount of fun and they share some of the ideas as well as their own thoughts in this post…

Some of our fave takeaways:

It’s fun to have fun – you’ll learn stuff along the way.

The day began with a keynote from Martha Henson who distilled what makes a game into three basic constituents:

  • Mechanics
    The rules of your game. How the game is played, what actions the player can make, win or fail states, how rules are enforced
  • Dynamics
    How the rules act in motion. How they respond to player input and interact with other rules. The “run-time” behaviour of a game.
  • Aesthetics
    The player’s experience of the game. Is it fun? Social? Frustrating? Hilarious?

From Martha Henson’s talk Creating Compelling Museum Games

I don’t know about you but I find it really handy – as an inexperienced game designer approaching the subject – to be able to turn to simple principles like these to keep me on track when making something.

Another reason I enjoyed Martha’s keynote is that she used games to explain the principles she was describing – she got the whole room to perform the act of game  design by playing Cat on Yer Head and showed how you can get people to do things they don’t normally do through play:

In the above short video I’m trying out an app called Bounden which was developed by Game Oven Studios for the Dutch National Ballet, an app that gets you to – if not exactly dance – at least move your body in an unusual way.

Check out slides form Martha’s talk here.

Games don’t have to be on a screen (gasp!)

While I am most definitely familiar with screen based gaming (the original GameBoy and SNES being my first memories of such things), it’s good to be reminded of the fun to be had with simpler technology.

Lo-fi Fun

Charlotte Derry spoke about some amazing user research that she and colleagues had undertaken at Manchester Museum around allowing play to take place in your museum.

Instead of the perhaps more familiar ‘stop that’, ‘put that down’, ‘shush!’ school of public engagement, visitor services staff were encouraged to observe where visitors to the museum were making their own fun and to allow this to happen. They also experimented with simple and cheap activities – making animals and objects out of newspaper and sticky tape or using simple prompts to encourage fun and giggles:

Even better than just doing this research, Charlotte and friends produced a handbook to help other museums do the same.

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Taking Turns

Fran Jeens from the Jewish Museum showed off the fresh-off-the-press games that had been commissioned to promote discussion within school groups that visited the museum.

Teachers take a particular board and set of cards to a particular exhibit in the museum, sit about on cushions and everybody takes turns picking cards that relate facts, ask children to visually inspect the object in detail, pose questions or suggest activities.

This definitely got us thinking about how we might use cards to prompt activities around museum objects in Museum in a Box…

Barriers to play

Sophie Sampson gave a great appraisal of the barriers to playing games in public via observations gleaned from her work as one half of Matheson Marcault.

Having organised large scale gaming events for New Scientist, Somerset House and Kings College London Sophie has had the opportunity to watch people while they are playing all kinds of games but also to observe what it takes to get reluctant gamesters involved (and we’re talking mostly about adults here as kids generally have less inhibitions).

Sophie boiled it down to The Five Elements of the Decision to Play (I’ve added my summary interpretation in italics,  Sophie explained it much better tho…)

  • The Attractor
    “ooh what’s that? looks like it might be fun…”
  • The Invitation
    “hiya, it’s OK to act a bit differently in this space…”
  • The Threshold
    “…beyond here, you are in the game zone, prepare for funz!”
  • The Call and Response
    “Right, now you’re here, this is what you do…”
  • The End
    is the game over? ah, yes, the game is over… one more time?”

So hopefully I’ve not mangled those ideas to much but the main take away for me was that, even if you have a well designed, it’s worth your while thinking about how you invite people to actually play it.

Taking Inspiration from History

Andrea Cunningham & Sophie Sage from the V&A Museum of Childhood took us through the new exhibition Game Plan: Board Games Rediscovered which recounts the history of the board game and  ‘celebrate[s] the joy, excitement and occasional frustration of playing board games.’.

The exhibition features all kinds of board games that you can sit down and play, while the exhibition itself can be experienced like a board game:

The exhibition also includes some related events like a dress up family tour as well as a wel attended board game night for grow-ups too… turns out that everyone likes having fun 🙂

At the end of the exhibition patrons can take a ‘board game personality test’ and discover out what kind of board game player they are. Andrea and Sophie invited us to take the test too and it turns out that I’m a Goody Two-Shoes type, always playing by the rules and trying to help everyone get along….

My take away from this section was that you can infuse most things with fun and games and make them more interesting and engaging. The fact there are enough board games for an exhibition in a museum suggests that humans have had an appetite for gaming for quite some time, too.

OK, I’ll leave it there.

There were plenty of other speakers that said interesting things, like

But this  post is already long enough. Suffice to say plenty of people believe in the power of play to engage and enthuse and educate in the cultural heritage sector and there are plenty of examples of it in practice.

A couple of thing I was left wondering about at the end were

  • The purpose of games – are they marketing/headline grabbers for museums? are they a learning tool? what needs do they address for a museum visitor?
  • How you measure success of a game – number of downloads/plays? inferred learning through observation? a written test? a laugh and a smile?

These might not even matter that much as fun is often an end in itself and if you’ve had fun, you might just have learned something along the way.

T.