Guest Posts, The Digital Museum

Guest Post: The Perfect Game…Or Not

Photo by Ryan Somma via Flickr.

By Kellian Adams

I’ve been building location-based games for arts and culture institutions for five years now, first for SCVNGR and now for Green Door Labs and the Edventure Builder and often I’m asked the question: what would your perfect game be? My response is a standard post-modern disappointment: Every game is special in its own way. There’s no perfect game. The game depends on you! Everybody have a cupcake!

Cop-outs, I know. But, I will tell you honestly, the reason I say those disappointing, evasive things is that my perfect game would be a complete and utter flop and I pray that nobody will ever ask me to build it. It would be an epic, disastrous game.

My perfect museum game would obviously involve traveling around the world to see art, history and culture. There would have to be augmented reality, physical objects in the environment that respond to your device and, of course, internal GPS navigation. It would definitely follow a storyline with AAA art and graphics along with some costumed non-player characters and custom sculpture and clues hidden on location. There would be puzzles, lockboxes, mini-cars, hidden caverns and more cupcakes.

In short, nobody would play.

Visitors could only play this game if they had the time and money to play an epic adventure. They would have to learn how to use lots of complicated technology and as we all know, the more complicated the technology, the higher the chance that it will break.  Considering how much they would have to pay to play it in order to recoup the enormous cost of productions…players would have unrealistically high expectations about everything going perfect in this perfect game.

Photo by National Bank of Belgium via Flickr.

In fact, I think what we want to dream about isn’t really the perfect game at all. We want to dream about the perfect experience. The perfect response to a game.

“What would your perfect game experience look like? What would your users do?” Ah. Now that I can tell you without guilt. People would be working together, communicating, maybe meeting new people, feeling challenged, creative and capable, connecting with their cultural institution and internalizing the learning goals that we set forth. There would be many moments of fiero, which if you haven’t heard before, is that wonderful moment when humans have to raise their hands in the air and say “Huzzaaah!” because they’ve succeeded. We’ve seen it happen before: it happens at sports games all the time. It happens when people win something or solve a problem or when a character in a story prevails.

But, the truth is, achieving that response will be different for every single institution. You have to know yourself, know your environment, know your audience and know your resources. There is no perfect game in a bubble. The perfect game experience is one that takes its players into account.

“Murder at the Met” is a fabulous game but I do not think that it would have had the same type of success had we built the exact same game for the Boston MFA. The game is a simple web-based murder mystery. Players need to walk around the museum to discover the murderer, weapon and scene of the crime.

In the end, the user experience was just where we wanted it to be: full participation, community building, connecting to the institution. The Met’s greatest resources were their incredible educators and artists, who made a very simple game into something visually gorgeous. When it was time to play, the Met’s clever educators sent out an “invitation.” NYC teens showed up in top hats with canes, suits, corsets, netted hats, monacles!

Would Boston kids know where to get a top hat? Would they notice or care that the visual design is gorgeous? (This is Boston: the kids might worry about what programming language it was built in.) Can you get 200 Boston teens to an art museum in one night? Possibly…but I think I would design a different kind of game for kids in Boston.

For instance, the DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lexington (just outside of Boston) ran the famed “Soundscapes” with Hallsey Burgund’s amazing Roundware, which you may have heard Nancy Proctor speak about. One of my all-time favorite stories is how that “Soundscapes” inadvertently created a zombie apocalypse game.

Photo by Stephen Dann via Flickr.

If you haven’t seen “Soundscapes” before, it was a sound installation where you can walk around the DeCordova Sculpture Park and hear different music from a mobile device depending on where you are. You can also record your responses and hear other people’s responses along with the music. Apparently, as one kid was listening to “Soundscapes” listening to other visitors reflect on the form and feeling of the art, he decided that he was going to write a story: zombies were chasing him around the sculpture park.

Other kids, playing with the same device at later times heard his story and thought (naturally) that this was an awesome idea. They started also recording vignettes of being chased by zombies. On one hand, you had people reflecting on this beautiful art. Then there was the subtext: a group of children who had never met each other, building a storyline around the art. It just happened to involve zombies.

The user experience was the same result as “Murder at the Met:” full participation, community building, connecting to the institution. I’m sure there are a lot of Boston-area kids who really want to go back to the DeCordova Sculpture Park. Would this have happened in NYC? Could it have happened in Florida? The resources at the DeCordova were the space of the sculpture park and a handy donation of smartphones. But even more important probably were the uber-liberal MA parents and teachers who thought that zombie stories were a perfectly valid way for children to connect with fine art. It was the perfect game for Mass, but maybe not as perfect for other communities.

My last example of a game that’s perfect for just that community would be “Ghost of a Chance” at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. This game required some committed participation—it wasn’t something you could complete in an hour at the museum or in 20 minutes on your phone. People built artifacts, they told stories and most importantly, they went to the museum multiple times.

The ability to allow people multiple entries to their museum for no extra cost is a serious Smithsonian asset and means they can do things that might flop in other places. Would people enjoy “Murder at the Met” or “Soundscapes” if they couldn’t complete it in one visit and had to go back (and pay admission) a second or third time? The Smithsonian used this asset to its peak advantage! Just like the Met used their top-notch artists and the DeCordova used their free and unfettered space. Did each of these places use other internal resources in their games? Absolutely, but I think these are the ones that really made their games something to remember and write about years later.

I could name a million more just in organizations that I personally work with who create simple but great game experiences for visitors just by playing to their strengths. The Joslyn Museum of Art used their connections with a local middle school to have kids build game content with “iArt for Kids by Kids”. The Quartermaster Museum in Fort Lee, VA, uses their museum games as part of soldier training. The Artlab at the Smithsonian has their teens build games to help the wayward tourists who are ALWAYS stumbling into the Artlab space. These resources were not money or talent, they were just aspects of the local communities and smart educators who knew how to best leverage these communities. The types of unique capacity and resources for each community are endless. The possibilities and ways to create that ideal experience for just your visitors are also endless.

So go forth, gamebuilders, and build the perfect experience…not the perfect game. And how to give users that perfect experience will largely depend on what you have existing right now, this moment in your own museum toolbox.


Kellian Adams is the Co-Founder and Mastermind behind Green Door Labs, a game design consulting firm based in the Boston area. In addition to working on projects like “Murder at the Met” and “ArtLab,” she also spends some time discussing games, museums, and much more over on Twitter. Find out more about Kellian at @Museumninja.

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