How Games Transform Museum Experience: An Interview with the Smithsonian’s James Collins

Below is an interview I did for my column on DMLcentral. Click here to read it or scroll down below.

Officially, James Collins is the Digital Media Project Manager at the Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access, working across all 19 Smithsonian museums, nine research centers, and the National Zoo. But, to me, as someone deeply interested in how games can transform museum visitor experiences, he’s the right guy in the right place at the right time. His email sig reads “Games are a series of interesting choices.” Yup, the guy I want to speak with.

I ran into James recently at the Serious Play Conference in Pittsburgh and we sat down to explore his perspective on what digital games, and specifically game narratives, afford museum-based learning.

Please tell us about the Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access.

Our office looks at how the collections and expertise of these museums and research centers connect and how we can use educational technology to reach broader digital audiences. My title, Digital Media Project Manager, encompasses a lot of different types of work but the common thread is implementing educational technology in digital environments. For example, we were at Museums and the Web a few years ago talking about the LRMI project and the Learning Registry. I also work extensively with interactive media and games. That is probably how I am best known to other museum professionals.

I recently heard you speak at the Serious Play conference. [note: slides here] In brief, what were the main points you wanted to get across?

As you know, Serious Play attendees have a high level of expertise. I didn’t want to just do a presentation arguing that museums should explore the use of games. I wanted to talk about something new and maybe get people thinking in a different way.

The presentation had five main takeaways:

(1) There’s enough academic research out there now that we no longer need to be arguing about whether or not game-based learning is worth exploring. We can have conversations about efficiency, economics, and design strategy, but we know that game-based learning is effective when done right.

(2) Narrative can educate and persuade. We’ve seen it do this in other forms of media, and we’re seeing narrative maturing in games now.

(3) The form of media — that is whether you’re looking at a video, a book, a game, etc. — defines and bounds the narrative experience. A narrative, I argue, cannot be freely transferred between types of media. Because narratives are not freely transferable, each time we explore the same narrative in a new type of media, we are essentially redefining the entire experience.

(4) Based on that last point, you can see then that digital offices are critical for museums. If we do not have staff working with our digital collections, we won’t be able to fully explore the different facets of our collections. We won’t be able to tell the full stories of our objects.

(5) In order for museums to explore this area, they will need to continue increasing their efforts to experiment with and publish digital media, including digital games. This means that museums will need to hire more digital content creators.

So let’s get specific. Can you give us an example of something museum-based whose narrative had to be re-thought within the context of a game?

One great example would be the prototype that we built at the White House Education Game Jam last summer. We tackled the subject of evolution in marine environments. It’s a topic that has been addressed many times before by natural history museums, biology documentaries, and others.

For the game prototype, we had a need to abstract scientific concepts and wrap them in a narrative that would appeal to a broader group of gamers. We had the player exploring an ocean-covered Earth in the far distant future, examining creatures that had evolved over time, and piloting an underwater sea vessel that could mimic adaptations to solve puzzles.

We worked with two educators to ensure accuracy and to tackle questions of pedagogy. At the same time, we allowed the game to create a fantastical experience that would be impossible to replicate in a physical museum. We built an environment that could connect people with the core of this amazing content in a new way.

What else do you think games have to offer museums as they consider their emerging role in the 12st Century?

A lot of people think of Monopoly or Super Mario Brothers when you use the word “game.” The category of “game” includes much more than that. I would argue that games are directed, narrative experiences fit within systems. The rules define the interplay between the system and the player.

On a general level, then, we can understand a museum visit, itself, as a game and a visitor as a player. We must then ask ourselves: what “game” are we having our visitors play and why? Do these “games” amaze and inspire? Thinking in this way can provide us with a new perspective on what a museum experience should be.

Given your vantage point, how would you describe how museums in general are approaching the use of games within their halls (or even outside them)?

I did another presentation for Serious Play that goes through some examples of museums using games in innovative ways. You can find an archive of that presentation online. [note: video here] I think that connecting with gamers where they already are is a powerful and maybe overlooked method of reaching these audiences. Instead of using games to augment the physical experience, we can redefine the museum experience by placing it in an entirely new context. The two approaches represent a fundamental difference in perspective that merits further exploration.

About Barry

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