Museum as Game Board

This post is cross-posted on Mathias Crawford’s personal blog.

A couple weeks back I was invited to participate in a fantastic discussion at SFMOMA entitled Museums as Game Board. Held in conjunction with the museum’s inspiring ArtGameLab, I was joined on the panel by GlichLab’s Sarah Brin, Ian Kizu-Blair and Sam Levigne from Situate, Tom Russotti, an experimental art/game designer who was Skyped in from somewhere in Eastern Europe, and SFMOMA’s superlative Erica Gangsei, who also served as the moderator of the panel.

Before an hour-long discussion (which will hopefully be available as a podcast at some point in the near future), panelists were invited to talk briefly about their work, and what they see as the intersections between games and museums. Ever since my cover piece for Kill Screen last summer, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about play in the context of a museum space, and so I was thrilled to get the chance to articulate some of my ideas. The following is the text that I prepared for April 19th panel. Although the actual presentation was differed slightly in specifics, my overall theme was the same.

Natron Baxter Applied Gaming designs and realizes blended reality games for social good. Across web, mobile, and no-tech platforms, we use games to solve real problems for organizations, inspire new perspectives, and bring out the best in people.

For us, applied gaming refers to the thoughtful application of game design to address problemtunities from a novel perspective. Game design is by one such tool available to contemporary organizations, and though games are by no means the magic bullet for every situation, in the case of museums I believe that there are some fundamental synchronicities that make games and museums a great match.

I believe that at their core games and museums strive for the same goal: namely, providing people with emotional experiences. Whether in the form of a particularly striking landscape, or a tense round of chess, at their best both seek to move individuals.

When we talk about where museums and games might intersect, I think that there are a few dimensions that it is useful to articulate. On the museum side, it is helpful to get a sense of whether we are talking about the physical space within a museum: the lobby, café, gallery floor, etc., or about the mission of the museum itself (e.g. providing education about a particular time) regardless of where the public intersects with that mission.

On the game side, on one hand we can talk about games that are designed to draw attention to things that already exist within the museum space, or we can refer to games that are intended to serve as physical, emotional, or intellectual experiences in line with the museum’s content – that is, not as a supplement to the museum experience, but as entirely other way to experience the museum.

While there is certainly tremendous value to games that make use of existing museum exhibits in the context of the physical architecture of these spaces – indeed, Natron Baxter has helped produce exactly these types of games, most notably Find the Future with Jane McGonigal’s SuperBetter Labs and the New York Public Library – what I’d like to address is the second type of game. Because I think that given the overlap between the goals of game design and museums, I think there is a real opportunity for game designers to partner with museums to produce fundamentally new ways to interact with the traditional domains of museums such as history, art, and science.

(Image via)

I mention science because growing up in Toronto, Canada and Canberra, Australia, science museums were a huge part of my childhood, and I think that they offer a great perspective on why games and museums are such natural bedfellows. These are some pictures from the Ontario Science Centre, which was a staple of my youth: I both visited the science centre on countless occasions throughout my formative years, and ended up working at the science centre during high school. What science museums show us is how the use of well designed artifacts can offer a type of learning that is altogether distinct from what we might think of as “display-oriented” museum exhibits. Rather than relying on absorption of knowledge through reading and observation, science museums make use of an embodied learning – one that relies on tangible, experiential interactions with artifacts. This type of procedural learning is great because it maps what the subject of the learning with the experience of the subject, and it is in this respect that I think games can do great things with places like SFMoMA.

(Image via)

What we see here is a picture of SFMoMA’s rooftop garden. This is a great image because it shows us the space where we as patrons of the museum are put most proximate to the artifacts that populate this fantastic space. What I think is sad about this image, however, is that while this space offers so much potential for bringing visitors into tangible contact with works of art, the space is still organized around the logic of a divide between the art and the viewer. The benches in this picture really drive the point home for me: families are expected to sit in a row, like spectators at a baseball game, and not to forge connections with and through the art.

What is heartening to know, however, is that this has not always been the case. In fact, for a time during the middle of last century SFMoMA’s sister organization in New York was engaged in projects that sought to both forge new connections between visitors to the museum and the objects within the museum, as well as to extend the mission of the museum outside the bounds of its physical location

In the 1950s, MoMA sponsored a competition which was, according to a press release from the time “to encourage the design of new kinds of playground equipment which, by its shape and use of colors, would stimulate children’s imagination.” Stimulating imagination — as an aside, to me that sounds exactly like the type of goal that game designers and museums might try to pursue in collaboration. The museum received 360 submissions, and pictured here is the winning result, which was put into production by Creative Playthings.

And throughout the next decade, MoMA repeatedly partnered (with varying degrees of success) with artists, architects, and industrial designers to bring this notion of engaging with the museum to the world outside the museum’s walls. What we see here is one of the results from this partnership. Built in Brooklyn, NY, Charles Forberg – the architect of the playground – described its logic beautifully: “This design intentionally accepts traditionally rugged and indestructible materials with the belief that these can, in provocative arrangements, provide children with play excitement which does not depend on the materials themselves, but rather on the spaces they create. All of the parts are stationary, but they are intended to intrigue the child to move and to give him rich and varied spaces to be in, run through, climb up…

Images from Kill Screen 

Coming back to the present, what we have now is an opportunity to try to re-visit the types of partnerships that MoMA forged in the mid 20th century. 

My friend Keita Takahashi, designer of the celebrated PlayStation 2 title Katamari Damacy, offers us a nice vision for how we might go about this type of project, since his career trajectory shows an unconscious harmony with the goals of 1950s MoMA. Between jobs as designer of digital games, Keita took on a project to create a playground in Nottingham, England. When I spoke to him about why decided to make this shift in his career path, he corrected me, pointing out that game design and playgrounds stem from the same core. To quote Keita:

I prefer to make things that are entertaining; not just videogames. That’s why I want to make a playground, and if I’ve got a good idea, of course I want to make games too. I think developers now are too fixated on what’s on the screen. Since your job is to create fun experiences, I think it’s good to expand your horizons. It’s so wasteful not to.

What I am encouraging here, therefore, is for museums and game designers to expand our horizons: for us to come together to dream up new ways to create meaningful experiences that we are uniquely suited to bring to the public. As Keita said, it’s so wasteful not to.

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