“Gamifying Museums Pt 2. – Aardman and The American Museum of Natural History on the Dos and Don’ts”

Blooloop is an online resource for “professionals working in the visitor attractions sector.” They have recently been exploring games and museums, with the second half of their latest post focusing on our work at AMNH. For the full article please go here, or read on to explore our work with Minecraft, MicroRangers, Playing with Dinos, and more.

In Gamifying Museums Pt 1 we looked at how Minecraft and Gamification are enabling museums to reach out to new audiences. In Part 2 we ask two key players, Aardman and New York’s American Museum of Natural History, if gamification automatically makes a museum more engaging?

The American Museum of Natural History

Barry Joseph (right), a keen exponent of Minecraft, is Associate Director For Digital Learning at the American Museum of Natural History.

Barry Joseph Associate Director For Digital Learning at the American Museum of Natural History AMNH
Barry Joseph

He was a speaker at the recent Minefaire in Philadelphia which he attended with his ten-year-old son. His talk was entitled, ‘Growing Up Minecraft: A Father and Son explore six years of living (and learning) in Minecraft’.

“We were largely focused on the types of learning my son has experienced outside of any classroom for the past 6 years, as he’s been engaged in Minecraft and Minecraft associated activities, ” explains Joseph.  “He has explored the twenty-first century through his self-directed engagement, which reflects the kind of learning that we wanted to build in a learning institution like ours.

“I spoke in part about how, when he was younger, his learning was about problem solving, and designing in a 3-D space. When he was older, it was leadership skills, civic values; he was developing e-commerce abilities. He was also learning transmedia navigation – how to move through different media.”

New Ways of Learning

“I’m coming from the perspective of having seen my son be involved for six years in one type of game engagement. I’ve seen how it has changed what he expects learning to look like. So, for us at the museum, we’re aware that young people growing up in the digital age have new ways of learning.

“Now, the game itself and the game process has become sophisticated enough to be able to teach the player how to play within the world of the game itself. And, so, young people are in these learning systems where failure is not bad: it’s how you learn. You develop grit by trying things again and again with slight modifications, until you learn to develop mastery around something.

“The games are able to create zones of proximal learning, where it’s like Goldilocks: ‘It’sAMNH american museum of natural history logo (1) not too hot, it’s not too cold…’ It’s not too hard that you feel overwhelmed; it’s not too easy that you feel bored, but it keeps you in that zone between, where you’re constantly engaged by learning.

“And, that’s one of the great opportunities for us, as a learning institution.”

What Joseph has observed is that games are played not necessarily because they’re fun, but because they’re engaging.

“The thing that’s engaging about them is when the player is being challenged to learn, ” he says. “Young people are experiencing more and more that excitement of being able to self-direct their own learning experience. That’s an incredible opportunity.”

explorer app amnh phone
Explorer app, AMNH

Promoting a Personal Connection

When many museums were founded in the 19th century, it was believed that just looking at a significant object was enough to make the viewer more cultured. The object would communicate everything valuable and meaningful about itself.

“Now, we’re in a new space where we’ve learned a lot and we’ve got time to learn, ” he says. “We come from a more constructivist perspective where we understand that the object itself is just part of a larger system of learning.

“So, being museum professionals, we’re not only responsible for protecting and providing people access to these incredibly important objects that are valuable to humanity, but providing people with the right means and knowledge to develop a personal connection with the object and what it represents.

“In that context, games, and not just games but play, become just another tool in our toolkit.”

It took Joseph and his team two years to develop the MicroRangers. They worked with two groups of after-school youth programmes, as well as professionals: game designers, programmers, writers, experts in augmented reality. The result offers an unprecedented game layer to the AMNH experience.


“It takes four of our permanent halls: the Hall of Ocean Life, the Hall of Biodiversity, the Hall of North American mammals, which got a refresh in 2013 and has our Kodiak bear and our bison, and the Hall of North American Forests.

“The game challenges visitors to shrink down to the microscopic level, interact with scientists inside our exhibits, and engage with the microbiomes at a microscopic level and biodiversity at a global level.”

The first thing the game asks players to do is role play.

“As soon as you give people the opportunity to play, you are engaging them in a wholly different way, ” says Joseph. “You’re engaging their creativity and giving them the space to figure things out.”

“Shrinking to a microscopic size is magical but the magic is serving science, science knowledge and science information.”

Microrangers learning about sharks at the AMNH gamification
Gamification in the museum: Microrangers learn about sharks at the AMNH

Players Interact with Exhibits

The other key element is that the players are required to interact with the museum’s exhibits.

“We’ve created a virtual way for them to climb on the bison, or go in to where the seals are. The bison ‘walk out’ of their diorama and you get to push them back in. You get to search underneath the forest floor. The forest floor exhibit is a giant exploded version, with a millipede that’s bigger than two people combined. So, visitors have already seeing something blown up in size. Through the game, they go even smaller into it, and investigate the microbiomes inside the roots of the plants that have grown there.

And then, of course, it’s fun.

“In the Hall of Ocean Life, they learn about bioluminescence. In the game, the animals are not glowing – what’s wrong?

“The player shrinks down to microbial level, and goes inside the marine life to see what’s happening with the photobacteria. They discover, during this one activity, that pollution is making it difficult for the photobacteria to breathe. They learn that it’s the breathing that allows them to glow, and it’s their glow that makes the animal glow.”

Mircrorangers with buffalo at the amnh
MicroRangers at the AMNH gamification

Simple Gameplay

“What is interesting is the players get to learn this information through gameplay. They do this by holding up their phone and getting a 360 view. They’re seeing the room that they’re in, but they’re also seeing the squid all around them. They can click on one of those squid, go inside that squid. They have to tap the phone to push away the pollution and help the photobacteria recover.

“This is very simple gameplay – move the phone up and down, right and left, tap the phone – they get to see how this system works from the inside out.

Joseph stresses that what he didn’t want was for people to come into the museum and play a game on their phone.

“They could do that at home, ” he says. “We wanted them to do something where you need the museum to participate in the gameplay, and where the gameplay enhances your experience, your understanding and your love and admiration for the things in the natural world represented here in the museum.”

Taking the Magic Home

The museum decided to allow the visitor to take some of that magic home.

“In the game is this beautiful, weighty coin which becomes your portal for connecting with characters inside the game, ” explains Joseph.

“When you hold the coin up, you hold your phone over your hand, and you’ll see your hand and the coin. You’ll also see one of the animated scientist characters you’ve already seen in the game.

“There’s one coin per scientist. You can take the coin home, and continue to play with the scientist. This augmented component is part of how we’re bringing narrative to this layer of digital interpretation, rather than keeping it all in the virtual realm of the mobile device. A physical object you get to keep opens up cooperative possibilities – you hold the coin while I hold the device; maybe we’ll switch.

“It keeps kids socially interacting with each other.”

Game Night at the AMNH
Game Night at the AMNH

Game Nights for Adults

The AMNH held a gameplay evening for adults in March, offering science games in the evening, with alcohol.

game night amnh
Game Night at the AMNH

“It was called ‘Game Night Gone Wild’. It sold out two and a half weeks in advance; we had over 450 people here, and MicroRangers was the first station that people came to when they came in. It was after hours and the museum was closed, and we had hundreds of adults playing the game.

“Yes, the game was designed for families with kids. But, it was also designed for adults who love to play games, and it speaks to them each in different ways.”

Drawing a distinction between gaming and play, Joseph says:

“So that’s a game. It has goals, a narrative, challenges, objectives; you can lose the game and have to start again.

“But also there’s the question of play, which doesn’t have the same constraints and boundaries, but still creates a magic circle within which people get to pretend and act differently from the way they might otherwise, developing a sense of engagement with the activities that they’re performing.”

game night at amnh
Game Night at the AMNH

Playing with Dinos

Playing with Dinos is a different way of thinking about games and game playing in museums, and is very much in the spirit of now defunct London design firm Hide & Seek’s Tiny Games: location specific, non digital, low learning curve social games.

“Tiny Games was our source of inspiration (with their permission – we contacted them) for thinking about how we could make games like that for people to play here in the museum.

“We started developing our own types of games that fit that model: games to be learned in 30 seconds and played here in our famous Dinosaur Halls with the people you’re with, using the space around you.

“And, we worked with high school students to develop them, and then we worked with graduate game design students to develop more. The museum has a few dozen of these games.

“It’s a mobile web app, and you go to it when you’re here at the museum; it asks you how many people you’re with, and what kind of mood are you in. The words – brainy, quiet or inspired, there are others, too – are associated with the types of activities embedded in the games.

“If we pick a brainy one, it’s going to ask us to do things like play some kind of game with the Latin names of the dinosaurs, while the quiet one might be one where we just have to do some observation.”

sleepover at american museum of natural history with whale
Sleepover at the AMNH

Permission to Play

“One of the things we have is the Night at the Museum Sleepover, where we sleep at the museum. An activity we now offer is the chance to play in the room. When people are given the permission to play, it allows them to learn in a different way. They can connect with the people they’re with in a different way, and engage with exhibits in a new way.

Sleepover with sharks at amnh
Sleeping with sharks at AMNH

“It may not be comprehensive, their experience of the hall, but it lets them go deeper. If they’re playing that game about the Latin names, each player will remember his or her dinosaur forever. It will be ‘their’ dinosaur from that point on.”

So, perhaps the gamification of museums isn’t necessarily all about technology but about learning through play in whatever form.

“We’re creating a game mechanic, an action, that gives people permission to engage deeply with something they don’t know about, learn something in the process, and develop a deeper personal connection with the exhibit/aspect of the natural world.

“I think we’re at a time when there are opportunities, ” says Joseph.

“Museums are just one of many institutions that get to decide what we do with those opportunities.”



About Barry

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