What’s in a Name?

This is a mostly serious and occasionally tongue-in-cheek open response to Kevin Bacon’s (@fauxtoegrafik) thoughtful and honest blog post “Nameless Gameless.” I’m hoping it will spark some open dialogue between a variety of folks interested in cultural heritage and meaningful play (and of course, those tricky games).

Bacon, the Digital Development Officer for the Royal Pavilion and Museums, has a position that I covet but a responsibility that I don’t necessarily envy: creating fun and educational experiences for visitors that help interpret their “accidental jumble of collections bound by time, place and ambitions of permanence.” It’s certainly not an easy task, and he expounds the reasons why on his personal blog. He’s noticed a trend in his work: when he has the opportunity to create a game for the Royal Pavilion and Museums, he creates something else. He provides some (admittedly) lukewarm possibilities: “gamish,” “non-games,” “ungames,” and even “post-games,” to describe what I’ll call playful learning experiences (could we call them “PLĒS,” please?). He’s even worked on quite a few of these “non-games,” including the beautifully simple crowdsourcing project Map the Museum, an alternate reality scavenger hunt Story Drop, and the point-and-click mystery (un)game Murder in the Manor.

I won’t insult his or our readers’ intelligence by summarizing everything he writes (and I encourage you to read his original post – really, go!), but instead will respond to the practical and conceptual problems he has run into while developing video games for museums with some partially-developed ideas of my own:

1. Video games are expensive! Apart from traditional means of securing funds, there are some ways to lower the costs of development while creating interesting and creative games. Hosting a game jam around a topic or theme at your museum (or perhaps suggesting participants to choose an artifact!) could help secure funding for future projects and provide you with the opportunity to see game designers in differing stages of their careers in action. Prudential sponsored a game jam at the New York University Game Center and was transparent about the possibility of game designers being hired to work on concepts generated during the jam.

2. There’s too much competition. This is certainly a tough one, but assuming that the game (or “gamish”) is a fun, good one, there are two options to consider. One is exclusivity in space and time, like how indie arcade BabycastlesSpace Cruiser was featured during an opening exhibition party called “Cosmic Cocktails and Space Arcade” at the American Museum of Natural History. Another is extreme accessibility, like how the Wellcome Collection allowed their game High Tea to be pirated (with Google Analytics embedded, of course).

3. History and games don’t naturally (i.e. procedurally) mix. We’ve struggled a bit with this concept here on Play the Past as well. While simple machines and physics seem to easily translate into game form, historical narratives and processes don’t! Ron Morris of Ball State University suggests that games and historians need to focus on good processes that privilege meaningful decisions over narratives, and Trevor Owens agrees.

4. Collections and/or/versus subject. I’m a big fan of museum games highlighting artifacts and documents in the museums’ collections, and failing to do so was one of my only criticisms of Wellcome Collection’s game High Tea. Why not have artifacts play a central role in the game experience (Murder in the Manor does this, and players must consult a historical document for information in Jamestown Adventure) and in establishing the historical context (maps, clothes, coins, etc.)? Just be careful with image rights if borrowing, in case there is the remote possibility of putting the games online someday.

5. Creating a bad game is a big risk and possibility. To this I reply with the glib mantra “there is no great reward without great risk.” But seriously, study and emulate best practices, collaborate with talented game designers who “get” museums, practice iterative design, cross your fingers, and good luck!

In conclusion, if we’re creating meaningful playful learning experiences for others that meet our institutions’ goals, shouldn’t we be pleased with that? Bacon seems to think so (and I agree!), and hopefully this post will spark some discussion as to how we (as museum professionals and interested persons) can both create games and meaningful playful learning experiences.

Image credit: “Minecraft Rose” by ~Fluffgar, DeviantART


  1. Thanks for this response to my post, Rebecca. I rather like ‘PLES’ as an alternative to ‘gamish’ things…

    To pick up on some of your points, most of the impediments to making games that I mentioned are reasons for pause rather than excuses not to do it. Funnily enough, we’re already underway with one of your suggestions: next month, we’re working with Lighthouse on a Game Jam for the Brighton Digital Festival (http://www.brightondigitalfestival.co.uk/events/game-jam-with-hide-seek/), and will be encouraging young coders to make games with our collection data and images. It’ll be interesting to see how that turns out.

    But I agree that the issue of whether game processes and historical narratives mix is a difficult one, and the Trevor Owens piece you linkt to is an interesting approach. Danny Birchall posted a good piece on suffragette games in response to my blog (http://museumcultures.wordpress.com/2013/08/12/gaming-the-suffragettes/), and has even found some contemporary examples. Whether this proves that games can articulate social history is a moot point though; my feeling is that they can do polemic but not history, and there is a real danger of mixing the two. When I get time I’ll write something up on this…

    1. Author

      Kevin, thanks for your comment (and sorry it took me so long to respond)! It’s great that you’re going to be holding a game jam next week, and I look forward to hearing how it goes! We recently held a summer camp at the New-York Historical Society with Pixel Academy and the middle schoolers in our Camp History made games about the American Revolution using images and information from documents and artifacts in our collection. It was more of an educational experience for them than a way to create games for the museum. I was, unfortunately, not involved in the facilitation or creation of the camp and haven’t had a chance to play any of their games yet.

  2. regards #3

    3. History and games don’t naturally (i.e. procedurally) mix…

    You mean computer games, not games, I assume. Napoleon played games and games relating to history all through childhood and it seems to have helped him!

    1. Author

      Thanks, Erik! I was indeed referring to video games in this comment, but I was also being a bit facetious. I think history and games can and do mix, it’s just that historians tend to gravitate toward objective narratives instead of game mechanics. Trevor Owens once asked me what I think historians need to “unlearn” in order to work well with game designers. I’m wondering what you might suggest historians or designers creating games about history would need to learn or unlearn? (I said letting go of Benjamin’s “aura” and objective truths, while learning to embrace the ability to create alternate histories, but I should probably think more about this!)

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