(Almost) The Most Important Museum App of 2012

I don’t care if it was first launched in November, 2011. As Version 2.0 came out October last year, I’d like to call The Field Museum’s Specimania the best app of 2012. I’d like to, but I can’t. It is tantalizingly close to a revelation, but ultimately falls short. As my six year old son, Akiva, summed it up: “It’s a bad game, but it is fun to play.” Good or bad, by the end of this critique I might just convince you that Specimania is certainly one of  the most important and suggests a path for the future.

Note: Before I wrote this I first contacted The Field and asked my contacts for permission to write a thoughtful, respectful but honest critique. They are my colleagues, whom I deeply respect, which means at times viewing their bold work with a critical eye as a way to elevate our field (no pun intended).

SPECIMANIA 101

In short, Specimania is a two player card game. You can play against the computer, a friend, or a stranger online. Each player organizes and strategically deploys their cards against their opponent’s. Clicking on a card reveals it in full screen, detailing its attacks and defense capabilities and, when flipped, real information about the museum’s object around which the card is based.

“info” side

“play” side

Cards essentially attack other cards, attempting to lower their value to remove them from play. In the example above, the Terror Bird begins with a health of 90, and can make two types of attacks, one causing 40 points of damage and the other causing 60. The first player to defeat four cards wins.

Player 2 has defeated two of Player 1’s cards.

At this point in my description Specimania is either sounding remarkably familiar, or not. This next section is for the later. “This is just like Pokemon,” my son told me, “but with different things.” Pokemon, the still wildly popular Japanese franchise, has been around since 1996, when it was first introduced as a video game. Thing changed however in 1998 when a version of Pokemon was released in a new game format first developed earlier in the decade: Collectible Card Games.

COLLECTIBLE CARD GAMES

Collective Cards Games (CCGs) were invented in 1993 and first popularized through Magic: The Gathering. In short, CCG’s combine the idea of card collecting with a strategy game. Simple, yes, but twenty years later Magic alone can claim twelve million players and as of 2008 the worldwide market for CCGs had grown to $2.1 billion (with North American sales estimated to be around $800 million). Other popular CCGs, now and in the past, include Yo-Gi-Oh! and related deck building games like Dominion and Ascension and Living Card Games like Android: Net Runner and Game of Thrones.

In 2012, graduate students Sonam Adinolf, Selen Turkay, and Devayani Tirthali of Teachers College published “Collectible card games as learning tools.” Their paper presented research findings that examined how CCGs “stimulate creativity, cognition, and logical reasoning, and how these elements could aid players synthesizing knowledge, and develop skills that might be difficult to teach in a classroom setting.” One of their most interest recommendations, based on their findings, was that “if CCGs are to be used as learning tools, educators should leverage the motivational power of deck building… aspect of the game…”

What is deck building? While games like Poker and Blackjack work from the same shared, and standardized, deck of cards, CCGs are different. Each player has their own deck of cards, build over time through trading and purchasing additional cards. And this deck is too large to be used during any one particular game. So part of the initial strategy of most CCGs is constructing the most power deck (predicting, at the same time, what sort of characteristics will be dominant within your opponents deck). In fact, this research at Teacher’s College found that while only 36% of players they interviewed liked to spend time collecting new cards, slightly more than twice that number enjoyed time spent building their decks.

Specimania was designed to be a CCG. The way a player builds his or her deck, uses resources to turn on attack capabilities, and strategically deploys those cards to attack (and be attacked by) the opponent – these are all new game mechanics developed in the last two decades. It is perhaps a sad statement about the state of museums, but it is remarkable achievement that The Field Museum was able to use a game mechanic so young as the basis for their app. It means they have push the envelope for museum-based mobile and blended learning experiences. The effort itself is almost enough to make me forgive its shortcomings. But I can’t, and there are three key areas where the game fails.

THE GAME IS UNBALANCED

“What can I do?!!” Akiva complained during one round with me. “Go ahead. Kill me.” Like entering a dead-end in a maze without the power to go back, the game had allowed him to hold a hand that left him both alive but powerless. There was nothing he could do from that point to the end of the game than to accept damage points from me, again and again and again, with no hope of changing his cards. And as you can imagine, that feels terrible and just no fun.

Akiva’s hand of frustration, as Player 1 waiting to die.

There are all sorts of ways around this (a typical CCG feature is the ability to discard cards) but this is a good example of where Specimania is not balanced. Balance is that magically quality sought by game designs that keeps a game engaging for all players, both novice and expert, of all ages, from beginning to end. Game designers also use the term “leveled.” At the moment Akiva lost any chance of winning, (or if inversely I had lost my chance of beating him) the game became unlevelled. That power imbalance is expected at the end game, before the moment victory is declared. If it comes any earlier the game feels unfair and risks losing the player’s trust.

THE GAME IS BUGGY

I don’t want to list all the bugs, as it would be tedious and perhaps even verge on bullying, but the technical errors through the game are inexcusable. Viewing a card in full-screen mode occasionally gets you stuck, with no way to return to the game. Sometimes the game seems to forget that you defeated your opponent and you lose a win. The special “play an extra round” card is inexplicably inexhaustible; once you play it you can use it again and again, controlling the game until you defeat every card in sight.

THE GAME CONTENT IS SHALLOW

As mentioned earlier, the cards each represent something from the museum, such as the Terror Bird. The cards are also divided into four categories – Anthropology, Botany, Geology, and Zoology. This is all well and good. Playing the game often created within me a need to know. I had no idea what an Terror Bird was before I played the game but, once I did, I wanted to flip the card and read all about it.

But knowing anything distinct about the real item had no impact on the game play. It didn’t matter if the creature on my card was carnivorous – it was just as effective against another animal as against a plant. Many game designers recognize that content taught by games comes not from the skin wrapped around the code but the mechanic itself, the actions taken by the player to win the game. In other words, if attacks by a carnivorous card were ineffective against a plant, that feature would now become both relevant to the game play and a learning moment.

There is another problem here as well, a missed opportunity. “Did you know each card was something real?” I asked my son. Yes, he says. “Did you know they were all objects you could go see in this museum?” He had no idea, nor that the four categories of cards represented four halls in the museum. Not only does Specimania fail to leverage the generated “need to know” to drive traffic to the museum, but it also misses the opportunity to connect the two – the digital game and the physical object – by making something happen if a player bridged the gap. What if the card provided the location of the real object on a map and provided directions to get there? What if a QR code next to the real object unlocked a new card in the game, or a special attack or defense, or a 3D image of the object, or… anything that could turn this digital game into a blended learning experience?

But even will all these problems, Specimania – before it gets unbalanced and the bugs come out to play – is great. Seriously. It looks gorgeous and is engaging. But after awhile, its shortcomings interfere with the fun. “The game is so busted. This place is doing a terrible job,” Akiva told me. “Let’s go to your site’s games. I want to see which one is better.”

Um, I hated to tell him the AMNH don’t really have any mobile games. But if we ever do, I hope it will build on Specimania’s audacious efforts.

About Barry

The Associate Director For Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives at the American Museum of Natural History.
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