Notes From “Gaming in Museums to Engage Audiences” Panel at #ASTC2013

This afternoon I participated in a panel at the ASTC conference called Gaming in Museums to Engage Audiences. It was organized by Sarah Carter, of SciGirls, Twin Cities Public Television, and was a fantasticly diverse panel, composed of Sookram Ramsaroop, New York Hall of Science, Keith Braafladt, Science Museum of Minnesota, Linda Ortenzo, Carnegie Science Center, and Tamara Schwarz, Chabot Space & Science Center. The panel asked the question “How are science centers and museums taking advantage of the new technologies?” and explored how some museums are utilizing different methods to help 6th-12th grade audiences connect with content.

It was a PACKED house – almost 40 or more people NOT at the tables. Around 125 people in total, I would say. The topic was clearly very popular. After each presenter shared their work for five minutes, we split up to different corners of the room to hold court. About 40 or so people came to my table, asked me all sorts of questions, and shared their excitement about games in museums.

Below I would like to share the main points from my presentation then, the best I can recall, share highlights from the dynamic conversation that followed.

I started by explaining that our recent exploration of games-based learning has grown, in part, from a broader strategic plan around digital media youth learning.

The Museum, specifically the area where I work, Youth Initiatives in the Education department, has begun to explore this equation – the Museum plus science plus games equals 21st Century Learning.

To break it down further, AMNH Gets Science – 0ur 200+ AMNH scientists research topics from astrophysics to zoology; Games Get Science Learning – a report from the Research Council reported that “Games are worthy of future investment and investigation as a means  to improve science learning” and found evidence that they increased player’s scientific discourse, conceptual understanding, and motivation to learn; finally, Youth Get Games – According to a Pew study, by the time children are 8 more than 70% of all children play digital games on an average day while 97% of all teens play digital games.

I then explained we just launched two new youth science gaming programs. I explained Minecraft in the Museum, how it is structured, and how it was inspired by the following program, FoodCraft, shown in this video, developed earlier this year:

I then spoke about Pokemon and the genre of Collective Card Games, listed some science-based card games we have already been testing in programs, and introduced the #scienceFTW program, in which youth will play science-based card games with museum educators and scientists, co-design a card game about pterosaurs, and then co-design a larger game about the work of scientists in a museum context.

It seemed all of this work really jazzed a lot of people, and they came to the table will all sorts of great questions, which I will paraphrase below along with my responses as if it were an interview:

I was really excited about your use of existing card games. Please say more.

This summer we used both Bone Wars (“The Game of Ruthless Paleontology”) and Phylo, a collectible card game about biodiversity. Through the process we learned three key lessons.

First, you can’t tell youth how to play a game and then expect them to understand how to play it. You also can’t play one on one with each kid to teach them either – who has that much human resource? Instead we learned to play the game in front of the youth, projecting the cards on the screen as we played, and narrating it to reveal both gameplay and strategy.

Second, we found youth easily got the “skin” of the game, or the presented content – for Bone Wars it was the early history of paleontology and the petty in-fighting amongst the scientists. What they may have learned but could never articulate was what the game taught through its mechanics – what the players actually DO in the game, which in the case of bone wars is comparative fossil anatomy. So we found we had to contextualize the accessible lessons (and talk about the importance of professional ethics) while teaching them language and literacy around the activities they were doing in the game and how they related to science practices.

Finally, we are trying to think less of games as something that teaches than as games as something that inspires, develops interests, and supports adults as an education tool (whether a parent or a teacher) to teach through processing youth’s experience within the game.

I was really excited about your use of of the museum itself, like when you use Our Global Kitchen within FoodCraft. Please say more.

This is a challenge – what is the right balance between using the museum to enhance the game versus requiring the museum for the game to function? Now that Our Global Kitchen, which was a temporary exhibit, has closed, how can we use the FoodCraft curriculum? On one hand, we want to use the museum – it gives new meaning to being in the building – but on the other hand we want something that can scale. It’s a question we always have to ask and the answer will be different every time.

When you spoke about Minecraft you talked about the potential of youth to act as docents, facilitating the experience of others coming into the game to experience the science learning experience the program youth will create. Please say more.

I like to think of digital youth media projects as a coin with two faces. One one side you have the youth who learn through producing the project. On the other side of the coin are the youth who learn who get to experience it. It might turn out that through Minecraft there is a third place of learning – the relationship between the two sides – when the youth in the program have the opportunity to interact with the youth who visit it.

What about gamifying content? What happens when you bring content into a game and, as a result, falsify it?

When we were building FoodCraft, we took literal inspiration from the exhibit’s life-size diorama of a pre-Columbian marketplace. When we first built it in Minecraft we build the actual architecture. This labelled the space in Minecraft to be a representation of the real world – a particular culture at a particular time in a particular place. But food in Minecraft is far from real. We were called to a reality check when it was seen that chocolate chip cookies were being sold in the Minecraft marketplace. We just couldn’t have it both ways – a realistic setting with unrealistic content. The cookies stayed; the architecture had to go. We were able to teach food processes in an abstracted context, freeing us up to make sure the process was accurate.

I spoke earlier about the second session of Minecraft at the Museum, when the youth went mining in Minecraft to look for minerals, notice patterns in their quantities and locations, and then compare it with geology in the real world as they learned more through taking a tour of our Hall of Planet Earth. Yes, diamonds and iron exist in both Minecraft and the real world. But “red stone” exists only in Minecraft. So what we did when presented with a less than accurate representation was critique that representation, to understand it AS a designed experience, and develop amongst the youth both the science and game design literacy required to understand the balance to be struck when creating an accurate and compelling science experience.

The Field Museum’s Specimania is also a great example. This is the first collectible card game made by a museum and the first one as a mobile game. The front of each card is a dramatic and somewhat fictional depiction of items from within the museum, with characteristics (such as the ways they might attack the other card) that are not real. BUT if you flip the card you view a real photo of the object with real background on it. So that is how the Field struck the balance between the two.

It was a fun presentation and exciting to see how many people had such a deep hunger for good games that could be use to teach good science.

Watching FoodCraft


About Barry

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