Friday, December 11, 2020

Games Games Games

 Museums have used games to engage visitors for decades. From full on role playing games to scavenger hunts, games can be digital or analog. Barry Joseph and I chatted games this week.

SR: I came to games before I came to museums. My grandmother cheated at Candyland and uno. :) Games, I think, have a nice Venn diagram of overlap between museum lovers. There are many game lovers who don’t know they could love museums, and so it’s a great way to encourage new visitors. We have scores of games at work and we were a big part of the hastag #museumgames. We also run an annual game program, called GameFest Akron. I love thinking we're getting new museum lovers through games. How did you get into museum games?

BJ: I love that you knew your grandmother was cheating at Candyland (and that she felt she had to!). Did you know at the time or was that something you realized later, and how did that affect how you thought about games and play?

In any case, when I was a kid, growing up on Long Island, the newly opened Hall of Gems and Minerals at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) was like a mysterious dark cave for my sister and I to explore, ever on a hunt for gems. As a teenager, asserting my independence, my friends and I would take in the train to catch late night showings of Laser Floyd in their Rose planetarium. In my twenties, the museum became quite literally a giant board game in scavenger hunts I designed for my friends (next time you go to their dinosaurs look down at your feet - the floor tiles turn the room into a perfect life-sized boardgame). And now, as a father, the museum has become a place where my children can now experience the same wonders, using our cellphones to take extreme close-ups of exhibits and challenge each other to find the original. 

Which is all just a long way of saying I have ALWAYS treated museums as a game, as a remarkable set of resources for engaging with the world in a playful way. As Bernie De Koven (of blessed memory) once said, “The Path that is best for you is the Path that keeps the best of you in play.” And I have always found museums to be one of those places that keeps the best of me in play. 

SR: What’s the hardest part of making a game for museums?

BJ: Let me flip that around, first. So: What’s the easiest part of making games for a museum? I was fortunate enough to spend a good portion of my six years at AMNH designing games. Games about gut microbiology. Games about pterosaurs. Games about killer snails. Games about the Sixth Extinction, the global food chain, lyme disease, and so much more. There was so much low hanging fruit, it was never hard to find the next scientific system that could be gamified through adapting it as the core mechanic within a digital or physical game. So players got to learn by doing in a social context. 

Okay, so the hardest part? The production system at the museum was not designed to make consumable games. Yes, the department responsible for the web site for kids, Ology, often included simple games, and the exhibitions department designed awesome digital interactives for our special exhibits (which often incorporated game mechanics), but by and large no one was tasked with thinking about the explosion of interest we have seen in the past decade in both tabletop and mobile gaming, and how we as an institution might address that need. So yes, I was able to finagle this, and chat up that person, and get someone to pay for a few thousand card decks, and get them into the store at the end of an exhibit. But there was just no pipeline in place to support each of these efforts and integrate them into the museum product and promotion system. So the hardest part is when it’s not seen as aligned with the strategic vision.  

SR: My favorite part of game design is playtesting. I love when people are enjoying my games. And it is truly edifying, and humbling, when you find your game is more complicated than it needs to be. What’s your favorite part? 

BJ: Most games I have designed through museums have been in partnership - with professional game designers, with high school students, with scientists (and other content experts), and with digital developers (that AR component of the pterosaurs card game was amazing). So for me, the best part is the collaboration - getting to put our minds together and see what incredible experiences we can create for others. That, and not knowing what the game will be like until it’s published. The iterative design process, especially with games, means you can hold on to a set of learning objectives over the course of a development process, but you have to be open to everything else changing along the way. Collaborating with others to look into the abyss of the unknown and have faith in each other, and the process, and to emerge on the other side with something wondrous - you can’t beat that. The game itself then becomes a document of that relationship (for those in the know). 

SR: My favorite games are board games, I think. I love all the collateral you create to make the experience. We have a free downloadable tile game of building your own museum that makes me pretty happy. But, I will say, I also love a game with a story. In an old job, with a colleague, we made a zombie game for museums. It’s hard to describe, but man it was fun to play. How about you?

BJ: What’s my favorite type of game? Forgive me, as I am going to tackle this sideways, as your answer brought up a different question for me: am I a ludologist or a narratologist? While for many the divide has now been bridged - turns out it’s not so binary - but for many years people argued that what made games special is their gamey-ness, the things it allows people to do; meanwhile, others focused on the unique ways games can be used to tell a story. I am big on the story - that’s why I love the new legacy games, like Pandemic Legacy, which uses an evolving board game to tell a rich and engaging story; but that story is mostly told through the ways our range of actions change over time (so back to ludology). In the end the best game to me is one which supports you and I to be the best we can be and together create a story together (the story of the game we just played). (So this is all just going back to Bernie again, and everything he and his colleagues taught me as a little kid in gym class playing New Games).

SR: while I think games are great for museums, it can be incredibly helpful for museum pros to work with others to hone their skills. What are some of the skills that you think help folks design games? 

BJ: Being able to look at something in the world and translate it into a system - identifying its core components and tracing how they interact. And being able to reference games not just from our nostalgic memory (like your memory of your grandmother cheating at Candyland) but critically - as one might see a recent movie and recognize a particular shot is an homage to Citizen Kane - so one’s work can draw upon past precedent but then make it into something new. Also, familiarity with game design techniques, and tools, and exercises, and processes. Then there’s design thinking - lots of design thinking. And most importantly, not being afraid to have fun. 

SR: Over the years, I’ve made all sorts of games, but also taught others to make games. I hadn’t quite thought of it how you just said that, being able to translate something into a system. Often I notice people want to make a game but they don’t quite get that. Like puzzles, people often think of them as games. We make a lot of puzzles at work, and I enjoy making them, but they’re not games. Another Venn diagram here, games can use puzzles but not all puzzles are games. Being able to make an enjoyable game is a lot easier when you have help learning the rules, as it were. You’re working on something that feels like a gift to museum educators and their patrons. Tell us about it.

BJ: That is sweet of you to frame it like that. During this holiday season, I do feel a bit like it’s offering a gift to museum educators around the country. But all credit is due to Games for Change, as I’m just a hired hand to spread their ludological word. 

Games for Change is looking for innovative museum educators to sign up for their new initiative: Game Plan. Funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services and General Motors, Game Plan is a new professional development program, designed for our current era of social distancing, to raise museum capacity for using games and game-like learning within youth programming. Along with a modest stipend, Game Plan will provide curriculum, online training, a supportive community, and the opportunity for museum youth to compete in a nation-wide game design challenge themed on the idea of resiliency. 

If someone wants to apply they can fill out this interest form:, read this FAQ, or contact Barry on LinkedIn (or on Twitter at @MMMooshme). 

Author Bio: Barry Joseph is founder of Barry Joseph Consulting, a driving force at both the strategic and the tactical level in digital engagement, youth development and digital learning. For a dozen years, at Global Kids (a NYC-based after school organization) then for six years at the American Museum of Natural History, Barry oversaw the strategy, design, and implementation of a slate of over 100 youth courses that applied the latest technology to engage youth to develop their skills and passions through youth media productions and design practices. He has also worked for over a decade with museums to innovate visitor-facing experiences through iterative design, with a particular focus on prototyping and evaluating cutting-edge visitor-facing experiences. Most recently, as VP of Digital Experience at the Girl Scouts of the USA, he used tools of user experience (UX) and customer experience (CX) to make complexity accessible, supporting the development of a seamless digital customer experience that increased retention and drove new membership. Barry has taught thousands of NYC youth and facilitated over a thousand hours of youth programming, including as troop leader of his daughter’s Girl Scout Troop. His first book, Seltzertopia, came out in 2018, and he often writes about digital engagement on his blog @mmmooshme

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