Opinion

Why Would a Museum Bother With Gaming?

Who's the Pest? series image (via Wellcome Collection)
Who’s the Pest? series image (via Wellcome Collection)

There’s only so much the brain can absorb in a museum, and for the 2012 Brains: The Mind as Matter exhibition at Wellcome Collection in London, the museum created an online game to keep their visitors thinking about the anatomy of their own skulls. Called AXON, it’s a surprisingly fast-pace neuron-creation game, mixed in with visually interesting science information. It’s just one of the many games that Wellcome Collection has created, and recently they addressed why exactly they are so interested in involving gaming in their programming.

“It’s all about engagement,” wrote Danny Birchall, Wellcome Collection website editor, in a post called “Why Do We Make Games for Wellcome Collection?” on their tumblelog. “As players of games we know that getting into a good game is a learning process itself: figuring out the rules, exploring the game world, learning how to win. We also know that games are a worldwide phenomenon, from mobile and casual games to major console titles, and that the audience for games is in the millions. It’s too good an opportunity to miss.”

Their most recent creation is Who’s the Pest?, a game where you play as both a human and an ant to show our ecological connections. It sets the tone for their upcoming events series of the same name, and follows games like High Tea where you were an opium trader in an examination of the 19th century British-Chinese conflict, which was created for their 2010–11 High Society exhibition on the history of mind-altering drugs. They’ve also released Magic in Modern London, a mobile app that concentrated on early 20th century beliefs in amulets and guided you to their real world locations, in conjunction with the 2011-12 exhibition Charmed Life: The Solace of Objects.

High Tea (screenshot by the author)
Wellcome Collection’s “High Tea” (screenshot of the game by the author)

Wellcome Collection is far from the only museum to use gaming, and interactive online content with exhibitions is certainly not uncommon. The Brooklyn Museum turned their image tagging into a game, using crowdsourcing to make their online archives more user-friendly. Durings its rampage of visitors for the Alexander McQueen exhibition, the Metropolitan Museum created an app with SCVNGR that offered trivia on the art the queue of visitors would walk by, to capture interest in more than just the ostentatious fashion. The Science Museum in London has numerous online games, such as Ouch where you “protect the brain from pain” after things like a dog bite, trying out a placebo, an actual pill, and spider venom as a futuristic cure.

Yet these are all mostly one-off projects, and often oriented at a younger audience (unlike, for example, the opium trading game), which is always great, but adults can be engaged with gaming, too. According to Wellcome, in a survey 70% of the people who played AXON responded that they sought out more information on the brain after playing. The question shouldn’t be “why does the Wellcome make so many games?” but why don’t other museums make more games? Sure, at their core, these games are entertainment, but they’re continuing Wellcome Collection’s exhibition ideas into a visitor’s world outside of the museum and encouraging them to continue thinking about what they’ve seen. As Birchall concludes on his post: “You could find out more through play than you expected.”

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