Reviews: museum game apps

I got a lovely email last week from the people working with the Tate to announce their newest game app, “Race Against Time.” As I was downloading it, I remembered that Dave Schaller had sent me a link to Eduweb’s latest game app “Moon Walking”. Must be time to tackle games again.

This past Summer I wrote a series of four posts on gaming and museums.  It covered interactivity, the qualities of good interactives, games and play, and finally “gamification” the process of applying game principles to non-game activities.  Now, there’s a growing crop of museum games you can try out to see what’s possible.

Apps as ways to fill interstitial time
Somebody wise said the killer apps for mobiles is that they are a way to kill time while waiting for the bus – those down times that occur while we’re between places, or waiting for something to happen are a great time to engage an audience. Three of these games fit that bill.

Race Against Time

Tate’s latest game, possesses the same irreverent spirit that animates Tate Trumps, their first game.  In it, you play the part of a color-collecting chameleon, out to save the world from having all its colors sucked up by Dr. Greyscale.  Along the way, you traverse 12 decades of modern art in the background.

Race Against Time is a classic sidescroller (think “Mario Brothers”) where you gobble up color while avoiding perils and enemies. The concept is pretty simple “Don’t get killed.” I will confess I’ve been unable to get past the Fauvists before getting killed.  You can play the game anywhere, and there’s no benefit I can see to playing it in the Tate.

Meanderthal

Meanderthal is one of Smithsonian’s most appealing apps in my opinion.  It’s another dead easy app in terms of functionality; you take your picture using the phone’s camera, choose a human ancestor and presto, the images are combined to make you appear Neanderthal. You can also learn about the three early human species presented in the app, but clearly the thrill lies in having your picture morphed.

What I like about Meanderthal is that it is a great snack. It does one thing and does it very well. And you actually learn some paleontology along the way. It’s got rudimentary social features like email and Facebook sharing, and it actually uses a built-in feature of a mobile – the camera – which is still surprisingly rare in museum apps.

MoonWalking

An app that goes a bit further in using the mobile platform’s advantages seems to be Eduweb’s augmented reality (AR) app MoonWalking. This app lets you overlay scenes from the first Moon landing over wherever you happen to be at the time. Thanks to GPS positioning, you can walk around Tranquility Base and use your mobile as a window into real-time recreations of highlights of the mission.

What I like about the concept behind this app is the potential it has for heritage sites, or anywhere out in the world where you might want to overlay digital content on what you’re looking at. A ruined castle could be restored, an archaeological site become a living settlement. And it is best done with a mobile device. How well MoonWalking works in the wild I can’t say. My iPhone is too old and my iPad doesn’t have 3G so I can’t get the app to work.

LaunchballI think Launchball actually predates mobile apps. This simple physics simulator-meets construction set game was launched as a website (how old school is that?) back in 2007 to much acclaim. It won awards at Museums and the Web and some other conference called SXSW, where it picked up Best Game and Best of Show awards. In 2009, it was released for iOS and is available for iPhone.

UPDATE: Mia Ridge clarified the development history for me. Thanks, Mia!

NOTE: Apparently, Science Museum and the game’s developer are renegotiating contracts, so the game has been taken down from the App Store temporarily.  Try the original Flash version to get a sense of it’s addictive gameplay.

What I like about Launchball is the extent to which it works as a great game, and as a museum game.  It lets you play loads of levels, but it also lets you build your own, and share your creations with the Launchball community. First and foremost, it’s a good game. Second, it does a great job of getting you to experiment and engage in the “I wonder what would happen if…” thinking that’s an essential prerequisite to learning how scientists and engineers think.

Apps as ways to encourage visitors to pay attention in the museum

All the games I’ve mentioned thus far could be done anywhere. Nothing about them requires a museum visit, though you probably would never find them unless you were at that museum and saw a sign directing you to download the app.

Tate Trumps

Tate’s most well-known app, Tate Trumps, behaves differently than the apps above. It was originally designed to work in the Gallery, and has been updated to work anywhere. Like the title says, it’s a way to play a simple version of the card game trumps, only the cards are various artworks at the Tate.

In each of the three different games that make up Tate Trumps, you pick a hand of cards that are Tate artworks, that have attributes, some mundane like “size”, and others wildly subjective like “strength”.  When you assemble a hand, the game picks a suit, and the players try to put out their highest card with that attribute. Winner gets points, player with most points at the end of seven hands wins.

Tate Trumps is a brilliant piece of work in my opinion. It has multiple modes of gameplay. You can play it alone, or with your friends. The attributes are strange enough that they got me to look at the artworks differently than I would’ve on a more typical visit. In Collector mode, you add artworks by going around the gallery, typing in ID numbers off the object labels, “collecting” the pieces you want before your opponents can get them. And it’s connection to the Tate is crystal clear. It’s a game that only Tate would’ve made.

So what can these games teach us?

As I said in my previous app review, trying to synthesize learning from such disparate experiences is a challenge, but there are some things that rise up when I look at these games.

Good games are fun.
Seems like a no-brainer, but as you know, so many “educational” games are educational first and games second (if at all). They’re really gamified (ack) interactives, and they usually suck. If it’s going to be a game, it has to be a game first.

Be in for the long haul
Tate Trumps is on version 5, and has not only fixed bugs, but added major new functionalities as time has gone on. That means the business model has to be a software development model with new version releases and point releases, not a museum exhibition, “Build it and it’s done” model.

Success has costs
I doubt anyone at Science Museum could’ve predicted that Launchball would have such a long life, and morph from being a website to being a mobile app. And whatever agreement they originally had with the developers, I bet it didn’t include this contingency.

Things you can only do with a phone make more appealing apps
Almost all of these apps use the mobile platform to do things you couldn’t do any other way. Using the camera, communication functions, GPS, etc… all make the experience more compelling because it’s obvious that you could only do this with a mobile.

What museum game apps have you played and enjoyed?

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13 responses to “Reviews: museum game apps

  1. Hi, just wanted to say, that there is a benefit of playing Race Against Time at the Tate Modern. The Turbo Mode from the front menu can be unlocked by being at the Tate Modern, the app checks your GPS location with the location of the museum

  2. Nice reviews. The real test, though, will come when it can be revealed the total cost of game development for each; the marketing and promotional spend to get them traction in the market; and data about the number of players, especially repeat players – not to mention reviews. I get the feeling that a lot of museum game apps are marketing campaigns and should be assessed in that way.

  3. Thanks for mention, Ed! Maybe I should add an Achievement to MoonWalking, for using the app onsite…the ultimate easter egg.

  4. Great post, Ed! I especially appreciated the reminder to “be in it for the long haul.” Unfortunately MEanderthal didn’t come with funding for updates, and in fact was a last minute add-on to the larger Human Origins exhibition project at NMNH, so the website it points you to, to learn more about early human species, is not optimized for mobile.

    Seb’s comment also reminds us to decide at the outset what the goals of the mobile game (or any project) are so we can assess its impact appropriately – be it against marketing, educational, or other metrics.

  5. Thanks for the great post!
    I just wanted to add a couple of comments. First, about there being an advantage to using Race Against Time at the Tate. That’s all very well, but I would suggest that developers need to consider those users who download the app in another country. Not much use for those of us in Australia to say that we have to physically visit the Tate to unlock a useful function.
    Second comment is about another game app recently released you might want to check out. It’s called Specimania and comes from the Field Museum in Chicago. It’s modelled on Pokemon or similar games. You unlock cards, which are all related to collecting disciplines in the museum, then use them to play ‘battles’ against the app or a friend. Similar to Race Against Time, you can play the app without learning too much about the Field, but can also learn quite a lot about the collections if you spend time reading the card information (which also allows you to unlock extra powers in the cards). I found it quite difficult to work out how to play but my 13 year old, with previous experience playing using collectible cards, worked it out. He’s returned to the app quite a few times so it does appear to be filling that ‘interstitial gap’.
    Launchball is the absolute perennial favourite though. No other museum apps have ever come close to the use that app has gotten in our house!

    • Hey Ely,

      You hit on a great concern that app museum app developers need to concern themselves with; namely the use scenarios. A lot of apps try to appeal to both in-gallery, and remote visitors, and all with varying levels of success IMHO. It’s a tough nut to crack, and the urge to “hedge your bets” and develop something for both is strong.

  6. This post has also spun thoughts off in another direction – see http://elyw.tumblr.com

  7. Have you seen the latest museum guide app from Periplus? It currently supports quite a few major museums, and that list might grow… Periplus’ guide platform supports content from all kinds of museums, so we might be seeing a lot more museums on board soon… More information at:

    http://www.peripl.us

  8. Pingback: Interactive Museum

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