Interactive Games Make Museums A Place To Play On a recent evening, 100 museum professionals gathered in Washington, D.C., to hear a lecture — not about funding, or curatorial responsibility — but about games. Museum directors are hoping alternate reality games will get visitors of all ages engaged with their collections.
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Interactive Games Make Museums A Place To Play

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Interactive Games Make Museums A Place To Play

Interactive Games Make Museums A Place To Play

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This is All Things Considered. From NPR News, I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris. For the past seven weeks, we've been exploring the challenges facing American museums. There's the architect's challenge: How do you design museums that are both beautiful and functional? The challenge for art educators: How do you get students in the door when field trips are becoming more and more expensive? And the business side: How do you keep a museum afloat in a recession? Today we end our series with a look at the future. Here's NPR's Elizabeth Blair.

ELIZABETH BLAIR: On a recent evening at Washington's Newseum, about a hundred rather somber-looking museum professionals went to hear a lecture by Jane McGonigal from the Institute for the future in Palo Alto. McGonigal didn't talk about funding or curatorial responsibility, she talked about games.

Ms. JANE MCGONIGAL (Institute for the Future): Because I think that games will be one of the most important materials of the future.

BLAIR: Jane McGonigal has been called the guru of alternate reality games, which millions of people play on their computers several hours a week. She says games make people happy, and she takes happiness very seriously. She's come up with four things she believes we all need to be happy - one, satisfying work to do; two, the experience of being good at something; three, time spent with people we like; and four, the chance to be a part of something bigger. McGonigal says these games do all of those things.

Ms. MCGONIGAL: Games work better than most of reality because they give us clear instructions. We know exactly what we're supposed to do when we start to play. They give us better feedback. You can't be good at something unless you're getting feedback. And for gamers, what's really interesting is gamers don't mind criticism. Getting told why you suck is actually a really fun part of the game experience because that's when you're really engaged in learning and getting better. So games provide better community because everybody is a part of the same mythology and cooperating, and finally games provide better emotions.

BLAIR: Jane McGonigal says museums should take some cues from game designers, perhaps turn visitors into players.

Ms. MCGONIGAL: When people show up at museums, can't we give them a mission or a goal? Can we give them feedback? Are there virtual honors that you can show to your friends online afterwards depending on what exhibit you were interacting with? Is there a better community that we could provide real-time interaction with other visitors?

(Soundbite of visitors talking in the Smithsonian Gallery)

BLAIR: About 50 teenagers from New Jersey are practically running around a pristine Smithsonian Gallery, the Luce Foundation Center for American Art in Washington. They've broken up into teams to play a multimedia scavenger hunt where objects in the collection are part of the clues and you need cell phones with text messaging to solve them.

(Soundbite of teenagers playing multimedia scavenger hunt)

Unidentified Man #1: New text message, OK.

Unidentified Man #2: Find the biggest screen in the Luce Center.

Unidentified Man #1: Biggest screen in the Luce Center.

Unidentified Woman: OK, oh, that's where we came in.

BLAIR: This game is a scaled-down version of something the Luce Foundation Center tried earlier this year, an alternate reality game called "Ghosts of a Chance." For about three months, the players have to solve clues that were planted on Facebook, Web sites, YouTube. Instead of advertising the game, they sent a tattooed bodybuilder to a conference for hard-core gamers.

Ms. GEORGINA GOODLANDER, (Program Coordinator, Smithsonian's Luce Foundation Center): We think we're the first museum in the world to host an alternate reality game, and we haven't yet been challenged on that claim.

BLAIR: Georgina Goodlander of the Smithsonian's Luce Foundation Center.

Ms. GOODLANDER: Alternate reality games have a very distinctive narrative. They have beginning, middles, and ends. They take place in real time. So that was very appealing to us because the Luce Foundation Center has over - around 3,300 objects. We have 3,300 stories associated with those objects. So the idea of bringing in a narrative and using it to engage people with the collection was fantastic.

BLAIR: The game was designed for the museum by the company City Mystery. It revolved around restless spirits who are haunting the museum.

(Soundbite of the museum game)

Unidentified Voiceover: Please repeat the following incantation with as much fuertso(ph) as you can muster. And if you have any trouble with the lines, refer to your screens. Double, double, toil and trouble...

BLAIR: The object of the game was to learn the stories of these spirits and put them to rest. Now, it's unclear just how much these museum gamers are actually learning about the art itself. One teenager said he liked the scavenger hunt because he got to see a lot of art in a little bit of time. But Georgina Goodlander isn't worried about that at all.

Ms. GOODLANDER: I think just kind of changing the mindset and having them think about art museums in a more positive way is our main goal.

Ms. BETH MERRITT (Center for the Future of Museums): Because biologically play games are how we're hardwired to learn. That's its evolutionary role.

BLAIR: Beth Merritt heads up the Center for the Future of Museums. She's a big believer that in 10, 20 years, the best museums will be as interactive and fun as alternate reality games, and they'll be for kids and adults.

Ms. MERRITT: Why shouldn't adults play a game? It's still the most effective way to learn and to punch our biological buttons to get something inside our heads.

BLAIR: Beth Merritt is also excited about the possibilities for museum researchers. She points to Jane McGonigal's work using games to try and solve real world problems. Since millions of people are playing these games, McGonigal figures, why not harness that energy towards something that will benefit society? One of the games she helped design was called "World without Oil." Eighteen hundred people around the world played. They made videos, they blogged, they wrote research papers.

Ms. MCGONIGAL: We asked our players to act as if peak oil had already arrived, and this was in the spring of 2007. So we set up a Web site where you would receive information about a fictional oil shortage. And when we started the game, we were at this dramatic price of like $4.07 a gallon. At the time it was still under $2.00. So this is, like, really crazy land - we'll never be in a situation like that. And, of course, a year later we were, and the players who played were like super happy. So you had this...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MCGONIGAL: Because they were ready.

BLAIR: Now the Institute for the Future has created "Superstruct," a game that asks people to imagine all kinds of different scenarios for the year 2019 - business, the environment, food. And some players are coming up with ideas for museums. A player in Amsterdam came up with the Museum of Impossible Things.

Ms. MCGONIGAL: And this is a museum where you would propose something impossible and then the museum would bring people in to try and create it. And then as soon as it had actually been created, it would get moved out because it was no longer impossible.

BLAIR: Other gamers came up with ideas for what would be in the Museum of Impossible Things, like a coat that would measure your body temperature and the Calvin and Hobbes Transmogrifier. Jane McGonigal believes the ideas people imagine today are the keys to the planet's future, and that games have a way of pushing people to be creative problem solvers. McGonigal thinks museums need to get on the bandwagon, that they can no longer afford to simply be places that house collections.

Ms. MCGONIGAL: Basically the fate of humanity hangs in the balance over whether we're going to get crowds to do anything useful or not. Are they going to put all of their cognitive bandwidth into virtual worlds or are they going to contribute? And nobody is better poised in the world to sort of - we have all this pent-up knowledge in museums, all this pent-up expertise, and all of these collections that are designed to inspire and bring people together. I think the museum community has a kind of ethical responsibility to unleash it.

BLAIR: That is, of course, if museums can first make people happy. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

BLOCK: And you can find the other stories from our museum series at

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