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Game-makers and Curators: How to develop engaging museum games

Danny Birchall and Martha Henson on how making a good museum game means serious collaboration between game-makers and curators.  

It seems traditional for any article about games to start with an introduction which includes a statement about how much money they make each year ($65bn a year according to Reuters), a supposedly surprising statistic about who plays them (a 43 year-old woman is the average player of social games), and a query as to why they aren’t therefore taken more seriously than they are. However, it seems this might finally have become unnecessary since, in many spheres, games are already being taken very seriously indeed.

The potential of games to inform and engage has long been recognised by groups as disparate as the military and schoolteachers. Groups like Games for Change, whose recent conference was opened by Al Gore, believe they can even have a positive impact on our society. So, what about museums? Is there a space in museums for games that will help us achieve the kind of learning and engagement that we have been reaching towards in recent years? Moreover, for those of us working in this area, how can we learn from each other?

Many museums have already been creating or commissioning online games of their own, with varying degrees of success. Games like Rizk or Launchball from the Science Museum, or Vanished from the Smithsonian and MIT notably avoid a prevalent tendency to attach game-like mechanics to didactic exercises in delivering information. We have not always been immune to this tendency ourselves in the past, but since 2010 we too have been taking games very seriously at Wellcome Collection.

We began not just with the desire to make games, but with a vision of what’s important about games, and how they can work for museums. We had five basic assumptions:

1. Good gameplay comes first. A game is no good to anyone if its educational objectives get in the way of it being fun and satisfying to play. An interactive walk-through that heavily predetermines players’ choices in order to deliver text-heavy chunks of ‘learning’ isn’t really a game.

2. There is an audience (and it’s not an existing museum audience) that plays games, and is hungry for more. Millions of people play games on portals like Newgrounds and Armor Games every day: these games are good, but mostly devoid of any educational or cultural content

3. Making a good museum game means serious collaboration between game-makers and curators. Many agencies are used to making entertaining games for consumer brands, but if you take the idea of educational gaming seriously, you can’t just ‘hand over the brand’ and expect something that reflects your true mission.

4. Existing game models can be profitably reused. Often, trying to invent a new form of gameplay that uniquely fits your content or mission is a waste of time. Existing game models (the platformer, the first person shooter) are both flexible and familiar. The player wastes little time on picking up the gameplay, and can concentrate on what’s unique about your game.

5. Games can work in unexpected ways. It’s not only through narrative that players can pick up what you’re trying to get across. Sometimes the rules of a game itself, from simple tasks to detailed strategy, can help a deeper, and more intuitive understanding of the subject matter.

With this in mind, we started modestly, with simple game called Memory, in which the player matches cards in pairs. The game itself was not original but we wanted to create something simple and effective conveying a sense of our collections through images. Though the game would have worked with many fewer, our picture library staff selected and themed over a thousand images into thirty possible game levels.

We also hoped to give a sense of the manner in which the Collection’s founder, Sir Henry Wellcome, collected many different examples of the same kind of object to illustrate his theories about the development of modern medicine. As you progress through the game, levels become harder through virtue of the similarity of the objects: the final level featuring obstetric forceps, is a nightmare challenge to the memory.

Our next effort was less stereotypically ‘gamey’: a quiz engine that drives multimedia quizzes that can be deployed across different websites. Here, the practice of putting the quizzes together is what makes a difference: we bring together exhibition curators and subject experts to write quiz questions for each new exhibition that make the most of our collections as well as the subject material of the exhibition. A question review at the end of each quiz offers links onwards not only to our own website, but also Wikipedia, the Internet Archive and others. For both the quizzes and Memory we are able to see basic statistics about the number of plays, which have been in the low tens of thousands, but have no real qualititative data. For our next game, however, we went much further, launching the game with an extensive programme of evaluation that proved to be very informative.

That game, our most ambitious yet, is High Tea. It takes the form of a strategy or trading game in which the player adopts the rôle of a nineteenth century British smuggler active in the Pearl Delta during the 1830s, the decade before the outbreak of the First Opium War. The subject matter was taken from our wide-ranging exhibition about the history and culture of recreational drug use; High Society. The exhibition took an illustrative approach to its subject rather than a didactic or historical one, including both contemporary illustrations of the opium trade and a large installation ‘Frolic’ by the artist Huang Yong Ping, including a giant opium pipe.

Our confidence that we could create something both addictively playable and historically robust came from the collaboration between the exhibition’s curator and the agency building the game”

We wanted to bring this eclectic and thought-provoking approach to bear in making a game to accompany the exhibition. The subject matter suggested a trading game of some kind involving opium and tea; putting the player in the ethically dubious position of a British smuggler selling an illegal drug added a touch of dissonance to a game which is won by amassing money. The topic is undoubtedly sensitive, not only here but also in China, where the leading opponent of the trade, Lin Zéxú, is now revered as a national hero. Our confidence that we could create something both addictively playable and historically robust came from the collaboration between the exhibition’s curator, Mike Jay, and the agency building the game, Preloaded. Mike understood the logic of games, and Preloaded, who have also built educational games for the BBC and Channel 4, understood how to turn Mike’s knowledge into useful elements of the game.

Image: Screen grab from the High Tea game by Wellcome Collection

The game was hugely successful. Within 24 hours of being seeded to popular gaming portals Kongregate and Newgrounds the number of plays went over 100k, and continued to climb once it had also been added to Armor Games before slowly dropping off after the game left the portals’ front pages. Nearly 6 months after we launched High Tea, the number of plays is close to 3.5million. Dwell time on the game averages around 14-15 minutes.

The number of plays was a surprise, especially the large amount from sites we didn’t actually seed the game to, but which “ripped” the game from the official sites. This had always been our aim: the game had been designed to be both self contained and trackable (Preloaded built in hooks that provide rich data in Google Analytics), but we weren’t expecting over 50% of plays to come from nearly 1450 unofficial hosts. The number of plays on our own site was tiny, less than 3% of the total. Though sharing to Facebook and Twitter was available at the end of the game, relatively few people did this, and even fewer people were brought to the game in this way.

We believe there are a few key lessons from this: put the game where the gamers are, make it easy to rip and easy to track, and don’t rely on social media to spread the game. But what about beyond the analytics? Why did people play the game? What did they learn from it? How did they feel about the moral implications of their actions in the game? To answer these and other questions, we placed a link to a survey at the end of the game and then followed up with telephone interviews and a focus group. The findings were interesting and encouraging.

Players were overwhelmingly positive about the game, which they had been attracted to by the curious name and the subject matter (opium and tea) as well as its high rating and prominence on the portal front pages. The audience demographic appears to have been younger than our normal age group, skewed heavily towards 16-24 year olds, though a significant chunk was 25-34 years old.

Around two thirds of players surveyed had some awareness of the relevant history already but over half said that they were likely to go and find out more after playing the game. When we explored this further in interviews, most felt they had learned something from playing. A quote from one player sums this up nicely, and is also reflected in similar comments on the game portals:

“…what you play could probably read in a book and have a test on it, and you probably wouldn’t understand it fully, but when you are actually being put in that situation, you understand it completely immediately and I think it is a really really cool way to learn about certain aspects of history.”

Several interviewees did indeed go on to research the subject further, mostly by searching online, but in one case by reading a book about China, which was especially pleasing for us. Though the game itself is not heavy on information, we had hoped that people would learn a little but then be inspired to find out more, which appears to have been the case.
The issue of ethics was particularly intriguing for us. The game offers no moral judgements, so we were curious to see how players reacted. Some players were shocked by history which they had been previously unaware of. A couple who felt the game showed that the opium trade was a function of impersonal economics were less inclined to dismiss it as evil imperialism. This perhaps explains a survey result that suggested some felt more positively about the British Empire after playing the game.

A huge amount of “unofficial” qualitative information came from comments on the games, reviews on all kinds of sites, comments on those reviews, threads on Reddit and Metafilter, posts on forums, YouTube reviews and walkthroughs, even a podcast review. The power of the game to generate discussion about the issues and history involved was something we had hoped for, but the breadth and scale of this still took us by surprise. Some used the game as a hook to write articles about the history of the Opium Wars, others discussed pure game strategy and posted their scores. Some commenters and one in depth review focussed on the economics, which wasn’t something we’d intended at all.

We believe the success of High Tea on so many levels has justified our approach in its development. Combining it with an extensive programme of evaluation has provided a wealth of information for us (and others, we hope) to build on. Questions still remain which we’d love to try and answer in future games: can we replicate the success of High Tea? Just how much can people learn from playing a game? What would we have done differently with more evaluation and user testing during the development of our games?

We can’t answer all these questions ourselves: sharing and collaboration across the museum sector is key to making more, and better, games. After a workshop at Museums and the Web 2012, participants set up a Museum Games wiki ( It contains links to all the games we’ve mentioned above and more. But more importantly, it offers a place where we can share our experiences, our successes, our research and the results of evaluations like the one we’ve shared here. If you’ve been thinking about games in your museum, please join the wiki and let us know what you’ve been doing. Together, we think, we can raise our (museum) game.

Danny Birchall – Web Editor, Wellcome Collection, and Martha Henson – Producer: Interactive Media, Tate

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