Why museums need to play more

Play has always been used as an educational resource, and MuseumNext Barcelona showed us how Museums are also gradually adopting the strategy of play.

“Tate Ball” Foto: Verta Barels.

Since 2004, the concept of Gamification has been used to refer to the use of playability mechanisms in non-game contexts in order to make people adopt certain dynamics or attitudes. Play has always been used as an educational resource, and MuseumNext Barcelona showed us how Museums are also gradually adopting the strategy of play.

Why Museums Need to Play More? In his presentation, Ben Templeton (Thought Den) argued that all of us have a playful side, and encouraged cultural institutions to incorporate play in their exhibition rooms and activities. “Play is a simulator that allows us to imagine different scenarios with little risk”, Templeton said quoting the anthropologist Robin Dunbar. Play is about experimentation, curiosity, expression, choice, learning, the legitimisation of error and challenge. Play offers an alternative, more entertaining way of approaching museums and their content, and, as Templeton pointed out, it has become a powerful tool for audience engagement.

Templeton has worked on numerous projects including Capture the Museum (for the National Museums of Scotland), in which play promoted visitor engagement and new ways of interacting with the museum space: two teams of visitors fought for territorial control of the museum by solving puzzles and winning points. And Magic Tate Ball, an app inspired by the iconic Magic 8 Ball, in which players shake the ball in answer to one of life’s mysteries. But in this case, visitors shake their mobile phone and the answer is an artwork that is linked to their surroundings. Thanks to a tagging system (over 2,500 works were tagged), the app trawls through geographical location, time of day, weather data and ambient noise levels to come up with the best match.

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Games aren’t just for kids

Many of the projects presented at MusuemNext already use game mechanisms: the magic of augmented reality, collaborative tagging, all kinds of competitions, creative apps, etc.

But not all games are linked to children’s programming. The exhibition Money and Beauty. Bankers, Botticelli and the Bonfire of the Vanities held at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, which looked at the links between the Florentine art world, the banking system and religious powers in the fifteenth century, was accompanied by an online game called Follow Your Florins. Davide Zanichelli from Netribe srl presented the project at MuseumNext Barcelona.

Flollow your Florins was exhibited on 15 touchscreens throughout the exhibition galleries, and the game is also available online. Players travel back in time to 1400 and decide how to invest 1,000 fake florins with the help of an animated narrative. To start with, they choose the city in which to invest their money: London, Bruges or Geneva. The decisions they make in each of the four stages of the game will affect the success of their investment. And if they make a profit they can choose to donate it to charity, which was a way of winning the goodwill of the city and God in the 15th century.

The project Talk Science, presented by Beth Hawkins & Micol Molinari from the Museum of Science in London, offers teachers a range of innovative tools and techniques to help them run science discussions in the classroom, and to motivate students to critically reflect on the impact of science in their lives. To participate, simply sign up on their website and you will automatically receive content that will help you generate debate. This project includes online games that stimulate students to learn science in an entertaining way.

When we’re dealing with children, play is clearly the best language way to reach them. TATE’s Sarah Jackson and Juliet Tzabar presented Airbrush, a drawing game that uses motion-tracking technology which allows children aged 6 to 13 to literally paint in the air. They can pick colours and brushes and emulate the style of painters such as Monet, Van Gogh and Jackson Pollock. It is included in the GAMES section of the TATE website. Once a drawing is finished, users can learn about the works in the museum and add their own creation to an online gallery.

Glenda Smith, from the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House (MoAD) and Darran Edmundson from EDM Studio, talked about an interactive learning project at MoAd that allows students to experiment and play with the museum itself. Fifty monitors with touchscreens placed throughout the museum display questions and puzzles for students to solve, which refer to the objects exhibited in the same room. Once they pass the test they can go to the next level, and continue the game in the next room, where more screens and challenges await them.

Catherine Roberts (Imperial War Museum), Lucy Neale (DigitalMe) and Cliff Manning (Radiowaves) talked about an interesting educational project taking place at the Imperial War Museum in London. Through social networks, school communities were encouraged to participate in Build the Truce, which explores modern conflicts and possible ways to prevent or resolve them. Students have contributed to the project by commenting on blogs and choosing and sharing experiences about the culture of peace.

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Why museums need to play more