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The Next New Thing: Gamification At Museums

If polling the public is one way museums are trying to engage people, can another trendy method be far behind? I’m speaking of gamification, also known by techies as “funware.”

The practice, which turns non-game activities into games, is rampant on sites like Facebook and in the commercial world. In these games, participant rack up points, or achieve levels, or earn fake money, or compete against themselves or others, and so on. (Think “Farmville.”)

jane-mcgonigal.jpgI am not much of a game-player (and never online), but I confess that a few years ago, when I was invited to participate in solving a mystery at the Metropolitan Museum, for which the more you knew about art, the better you’d be at finding the culprit, I said yes. In the end, the friend who invited me could not round up the minimum number of people required, and the evening fell through. (Whether the problem was the Met, the lack of art knowledge, or something else (cost?), I do not know.)

Some years ago, the late Thomas Hoving published a book of art games, Master Pieces: The Curator’s Game, which has now been turned into an app for the iPhone and iPad.

The point: gamification of museums is starting to happen: even current non-gamers might fall for gamification, and that might help museums win new audiences.

This isn’t a museum, but there’s a game coming up soon at the New York Public Library. Called “Find the Future: The Game,” it is being directed by acclaimed game expert and author Jane McGonical, author of Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, pictured above. The game was created with Kiyash Monsef, and designed and developed by Playmatics and Natron Baxter Applied Gaming.

It starts on May 20, and involves staying overnight in the main library on Fifth Avenue. In it, 500 people aged 18 and up “will spend the night exploring the Library and its world-renowned collections as they write a book together,” the member newsletter says. Here’s the description:

During the May 20 “Write All Night” event, from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m., 500 prequalified players (18 and older) will explore the building’s 70 miles of stacks, and, using laptops and smartphones, follow clues to such treasures as the Library’s copy of the Declaration of Independence in Thomas Jefferson’s hand. After finding each object, players will write short, personal essays inspired by their quest — for example, how would they write the Declaration? Winning the game means writing a collaborative book based on these personal stories about the future, and this volume will be added to the Library’s collections.

Sign me up. But that won’t happen. When I went online to see details, I discovered that the game is meant for “young people.” See here.

GoSmithsonianTrek.bmpLast summer, nine Smithsonian Institution museums (including the Hirshhorn and the Freer-Sackler) cooperated in a game called goSmithsonian Trek, which could be played from any iPhone or Android phone. It received some good press.

Are there other examples? Please comment if you know of any.

I’m calling attention to gamification now for a couple of reasons:

  1. It seems bound to happen at museums, but I hope art museums don’t spend too many resources on it, for now. 
  2. There’s a lot to learn about gamification before that. 
  3. Let’s hope that museum games truly center on the art, and are a learning experience as well as rewarding fun. 
  4. If possible, museums ought to share what they’re learning about gamification.
  5. Competing with big games, developed by big developers, is bound to be expensive.




  1. Dr. McGonigal gave a lecture on applying the principles of games design to the museum experience for the Center for the Future of Museums a couple of years ago. Go to the CFM website to access her slides, a video clip, transcript of the webcast and a downloadable discussion guide on museums and gaming. (AAM members can access a recording of the lecture.)
    There is a trend towards the use of games in museums, in response to an increased desire on the part of the public for participatory experiences. Also, its fun. So we’re covering games and games-design in museums in the CFM Blog You can find the relevant entries by selecting gaming or gaming;arg in the tag cloud.
    I look forward to seeing what other examples your readers contribute!

  2. Nancie Mills Pipgras says

    “Let’s hope that museum games truly center on the art…” Lighten up! If a game on his mother’s iPhone gets art on a five year old kid’s radar screen – SCORE! When I was a kid, it was cartoons that introduced me to classical music and art icons like the Mona Lisa. Yes, there will be some games that are better than others at transmitting information. Just as there are some displays that teach more than others. Be not afraid of the game!

  3. What you describe is about art…

  4. Elizabeth Renant says

    I can see that it’s going to be dark days for the few remaining art lovers among us who go to museums just to:
    1) get away from the bloody “community” and spend some time in what IS, to us, “sacred space:
    2) get away from the games, the cell phones, the Blackberrys, the IPhones, the apps, and the constant need for distraction and inability of most of the “community” to remain quietly reflective for more than ten seconds, and who
    3) ponder the ineffable mystery of Great Art (yeah, that was Cap G and Cap A) and who aren’t afraid to throw the term around these days, and who dare to utter aloud the highly politically incorrect notion that it’s possible that Van Gogh’s “Crow Flying over a Wheatfield” and some Rembrandts and a few works by Titian and Velazquez and Michelangelo and Caravaggio just MIGHT have more artistic merit than, say, graffiti or graphics from “Star Wars” or hip-hop.

    • False “either/or” dichitomies like this do more to harm high culture than hip-hop or gamification ever will. It’s attitudes like yours that would have silenced Mozart, Beaumarchais, Freud and Darwin.

      Are you incapable of imagining a world where quiet appreciation of fine art can coexist with other methods of enjoyment? Is your imagination really so stunted, calcified or atrophied?

  5. Thanks for your comment, Elizabeth. I would say it’s not necessarily true: it depends on how museums use games. Some may choose, wisely, to have the games online, in lounges, etc. — but never in the galleries. Let’s hope!

  6. It's not all bad says

    The National Library of Finland has used gamification to help them digitise their newspaper archives. Players correct the words in the clippings that the computer couldn’t read ( because the words are smudged or whatever). Thus saving the library millions of man hours and a lot of money!

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