Monthly Archives: June 2011

Gaming the museum – separating fad from function – Part two of ?

In the first part of this post, I alleged that I’d be examining gamification (ack), and trying to sort out some substance from the hype surrounding it.  And I will, really!  To give it some museum context, I ‘d first like to posit a number of qualities that good interactive exhibits possess and then review what the game theorist/ludologist/game designer/user experience types say about gamification (ack) and see what areas of synergy exist. So, stick with me for maybe two more posts after this one and hopefully the trip will have been worth it.  As an added incentive, there’ll be lots of links to research and juicy reading in the last couple posts.

What are the qualities of a good interactive exhibit?

A good exhibit has a point

Pinball Wizard by Flickr user Jared Kelly

Luckily, I don’t have any photographs, but I’ve used some really awful interactive exhibits. One example that sticks in my mind was a pinball game, dressed with science content, where you “attacked” diseases with white blood cells that were pinballs.  Amassing a high score involved being good at pinball; hit the targets with the ball using the flippers, and since the targets were labeled as “diseases”, you learned that white blood cells destroy diseases and that‘s a good thing, right? Right…?

Yeah, not so much. I’m sure most people who used that exhibit learned more about pinball than they did about medicine. The content of that exhibit could’ve been a single label or an annotated graphic.  The interaction had nothing to do with the content and, in fact, completely overwhelmed it. I will spare you the story of the time I saw the ‘Rapping Refrigerator”. You’re welcome.

A good exhibit is rooted in its physicality

The Field Museum by Flickr user T a k

A museum is a physical space, a built environment. Everything we do in the building is rooted in that physicality, whether we acknowledge it or not.  Our physical spaces themselves are affective teaching tools.  Just the fact that there is a huge building dedicated to (art, history, science and technology, etc…) makes a powerful affective statement.

In the interactive exhibit world, it’s easy and rewarding to test components and make them better, polish their content and design until they’re good enough, and completely ignore the context they will placed in once they’re built.  I know nobody has the money to prototype entire exhibitions, but it behooves us to pay more attention to the experience of being in space full of exhibits, and not just make sure all the bits work.  I’ve seen the difference it makes in prototyping multiple exhibits at the same time. Even something as simple as the way an exhibit is oriented in relation its neighbors can have measurable impacts on visitor use.

A good exhibit provokes emotional responses

Marina Abramovic exhibition by Flickr user La Citta Vita

This may get me in trouble, but when I think back on museum experiences that have stuck with me, I find that they all shared one thing in common – they made me feel something. Informal education is a great forum for affective learning; formal education can do a much better job at cognitive learning.  Nobody ever got a degree from going to a museum, and I don’t want them to.  That said, we should have both affective and cognitive learning going on here, but our emphasis and pride should be on our affective learning programs.  We will never explore as much physics as even an intro physics textbook, but that book will never provide an affective experience with physics to a broad audience.  A successful museum visit is one that has an emotional outcome.

A good exhibit encourages play

by Flickr user hoyasmeg

Play is an important entry point for folks of all ages into any subject matter. For us, play is a crucial element to engage the interest of the non-literate public in the sciences.  We all know this intellectually for children, and yet we look down our noses at those parts of our offerings called “entertainment.”  Entertainment is merely an adult word for play, and entertainment can be a device to get adults involved with any topic. I consciously use “play” instead of “playing games” in this sense because of the open-ended nature of play.  This will be important later.  Games are a form of play, but play is much bigger than games.

Sometimes, casual observers of the enthusiasm and energy evidenced by children in the science museum environment conclude that this behavior is so different from what occurs in school, it must be entertainment and not education.  The same high levels of energy and enthusiasm can be found in video arcades and amusement parks.  However, nothing about entertainment excludes it from being educational.  Museums are amusement parks for the mind.  Our activities are not designed simply to engage motor skills and reduce reaction time, or to provide visitors with whole-body disorientation, but to provide the sensory/motor experiences and concrete knowledge that are necessary for understanding.  Entertainment value in museum exhibits and programs is not a distraction but a key to any museum’s educational success.

Entertainment need not be dumb

Entertainment versus Education is straw dog.  Too often, the idea of entertainment gets conflated with the idea of “dumbing down” content that is too hard for visitors to comprehend.  They are, however, separate issues.  Done properly, entertainments can be powerful affective teachers, and an integral part of them, what Csikszentmihályi calls “flow experiences” only happen when they are challenging enough, a common mistake that Mitch Resnick from MIT points out.

“…Too often, designers and educators try to make things “easy” for learners, thinking that people are attracted to things that are easy to do. But that is not the case. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihályi has found that people become most deeply engaged in activities that are challenging, but not overwhelming.  Similarly, Seymour Papert has found that learners become deeply engaged by “hard fun”—in other words, learners don’t mind activities that are hard as long as the activities connect deeply with their interests and passions.”

A good exhibit rewards visitors

Academy Awards by Flickr user cliff1066™

Visitors choose to come to museums. As Edward Deci wrote in Why We Do What We Do: “Self-motivation, rather than external motivation, is at the heart of creativity, responsibility, healthy behavior, and lasting change.” This intrinsic motivation drives the vast majority of our visitors, not external rewards. This point is lost on many in the field who seem determined to turn a visit to a museum into a test, or a frequent flyer program.

When developing an interactive exhibit, what visitors are doing while they interact, is as important as the content.  It is not enough that they seem to have fun doing it, but the fun should come as a result of their finding something out.  Some kind of thinking ought to be involved. The prize in a good exhibit should be a new understanding, a new skill, a new way of seeing something, a surprising result or a confirmation of what you always knew, the satisfaction of knowing or of figuring out.  Visitors may not come knowing what they expect to learn, but they hope they will learn something, and they know when they haven’t.

Here are some more qualities I didn’t get round to explaining. I could go on… and probably will some other day:

A good exhibit responds to visitor actions

A good exhibit is visitor-focused

A good exhibit makes obvious how to use it correctly

If you’ve got any others to add to the list, send ‘em to me!

So now, you’ve got any idea of where I’m coming from when I speak of museum exhibits.
Next up: Part Three – Games and Gaming come to the Museum

Gaming the museum – separating fad from function – Part one of ?

One of the undercurrents running through many disparate projects I’ve been working on this year has been gamification.  It’s probably the buzzword of the year (running just a hair ahead of “mobile”), and seems to be following a classic Gartner hype curve.  It’s going to solve everything, and can be applied to every situation! It makes your boring museum content “fun’! And that’s not all…!  I’ve had it used on me enough that I feel my skin crawl a bit whenever I hear, say, or write the word now.  Is it just a knee-jerk reaction to a buzzword, or is there a deeper discomfort with the idea of making museum exhibits more like games?

by Flickr user Sherif Salama

I’ve been collecting references, reading up, and looking for useful practices to adopt or adapt while I sort out where I think this trend is going.  In the midst of trying to understand and unpack my reactions to gamification (ack), I had a brief Twitter and email exchange with Lindsy Szilvasi (@Ysdnil) that got me to stop thrashing around and start writing it out to see what I thought.  It turns out to be a tangled issue that brings in exhibits, gaming, games vs. play, play in museums, and more… There’s a lot to unpack. This will probably have to be at least a couple of posts long, so bear with me as I try to get to the point. There’ll probably be some ranting, too, along the way. I’ve ridden the hype roller coaster enough times to know this feeling…

by Flickr user

For you impatient readers, the executive summary (I think) is that I think there is a place for applying strategies used in developing good games to develop good museum exhibits, but gamification (ack) is no magic remedy for all the problems that exhibit developers face as they try to make experiences that attract and inspire museums visitors.

First, a word on interactive exhibits

In order to talk about how interactive exhibits might benefit from gamification (ack), I think it makes sense to explain a bit about interactive exhibits, what they’re meant to do, and what  I think they need to be good.

Years ago (think late 1980s- early 1990s), a European colleague asked my boss if her museum should “go with the flow and make everything interactive” so that they could attract more young visitors.  Back then, “interactivity” was the thing that was gong to solve all the museum world’s problems with attendance and “getting the kids interested” in whatever we wanted to interest them in.  Sound familiar? Yeah, that’s where gamification (ack) is in 2011.


by Flcikr user the_exploratorium

If you’ve used interactive exhibits in a science museum, you’ve probably used an exhibit designed by the Exploratorium. They demonstrated both the appeal and educational validity of interactive exhibits way back in the 1960s and 70s.  In their exhibits, visitors generally got to change a variable in the device being demonstrated and see the effect of that change. In Exploratorium exhibits a “Do This” label models the kind of activity that scientists might do if they were studying the phenomena on display.  So having a button, or a switch or some manipulable let visitors change something that a scientist would’ve changed if he or she were investigating the phenomena. The visitor action; pushing buttons, flipping switches, etc… was necessary to the educational goal of understanding what scientists do. And for that goal, interactivity is a great technique to employ.

But it didn’t take long for folks to see that people liked an exhibit much more if they got to do something, and decide that the doing something was the important thing, when what was really the important thing was the learning that it enabled. Thoughtful and clever developers could figure out ways to make button pushing coincide with relevant observation on the part of the visitors.  But, more often than not, the button pushing had nothing to do with the ostensible content being demonstrated and in the worst cases, the button pushing isolated visitors from the important parts of the phenomenon being demonstrated.

 When done well, interactive exhibits can engage visitors in active and prolonged learning experiences of astonishing depth and duration.  When done poorly, or gratuitously, interactivity damages the credibility of informal education.

I often liken the use of interactive exhibits to the use of techniques to make exhibits accessible to visitors with disabilities. If you approach it as something you *have* to do to survive in the market, you’re unlikely to produce a product that is compelling. It is a burden that is imposed by external forces and is resented. If you find a reason that it makes sense for your institution to embrace, then it becomes a lot easier to make it compelling. Exhibits that are universally designed are usually more interesting than exhibits that are designed to be “compliant” with government regulations, like the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) here in the U.S.. Exhibits that are interactive because that’s the best way to communicate the idea are usually more interesting than exhibits that are interactive for the sake of being “appealing”. If I were a betting man, I’d wager that same dynamic will apply to gamification (ack). We’ll find out soon enough!

Next up: Part Two – The qualities of good interactive exhibits

Boston Museum Tech meetup, Thursday, June 23rd, 7PM

All is well with the world. The Bruins won, and hopefully the bar scene has returned to normalcy.  To celebrate, we’re going to have our Stanley Cup postponed next gathering at The Field in Central Square, Cambridge, on Thursday, June 23rd, starting at 7pm.

If you’re into in new technologies in museums, either as a producer, developer, vendor, or just interested party, then come hang out. We’ll talk shop, swap stories, and hopefully be useful community resource.

Tell your friends, and tell me too, so I know if I’m gonna be drinking alone.


The Field
20 Prospect St., Cambridge, MA 02139