Press Start to Continue: What Museum Educators Can Learn from Game Design

Over the summer, I helped a group of teens make a mobile game at the Brooklyn Museum.

That’s a pretty innocuous-looking sentence, but it felt like a big, exciting Project of Note.  There were plenty of interesting factors at play: it was my own first foray beyond digital game design into actual game creation; it was a chance to see my home institution’s collections from a new point of view; it was a different kind of programming from my usual roster.  But it’s now almost two months later, and I’m still thinking about it.

Why?  What made it so special?

First, let me give you the basics:

  • This was a program called NYC Haunts, in which teens work together to design and create a location-based game people can play on their mobile devices.
  • It’s run by Global Kids, a great organization that has all kinds of initiatives to help teens become informed citizens of the world.  They’ve run this program in schools and libraries before, and this was the first version done in a museum.
  • NYC Haunts teaches teens the basics of game design and uses TaleBlazer (a free game-design app from MIT’s Scheller Teacher Education Program) to build the game.  TaleBlazer is a visual programming platform, which means you don’t write the code textually.  Instead, you put it together using click-and-drag building blocks that combine to form commands.
  • The game itself is designed to help a player solve a mystery about local ghosts of the past who may still be lingering around in the present.
Screenshot of the TaleBlazer interface.
Screenshot of the TaleBlazer interface.

In the Brooklyn Museum game, our team of thirteen intrepid teen Ghost Hunters collaborated on a game that invites visitors to explore our Luce Visible Storage Center.  The game is called Helen’s Treasures, and the player must find all the precious items collected by Helen (the ghost protagonist of our game, based on a Chester Beach marble bust), in order to help her remember how she died so her spirit can be at peace.

In-game illustration of Helen by one NYC Haunts Ghost Hunter.
In-game illustration of Helen by one NYC Haunts Ghost Hunter.

This program was an exciting step towards a goal near and dear to my heart: using digital technology to explore museum collections without the technology overwhelming or distracting from the artwork.  And it was a chance to explore the world of game design in museums, which has been on my museum education radar for a while.  (I still love Murder at the Met: An American Art Mystery.  More recently, I’ve been watching as Sophia George, the V&A’s first Games Designer in Residence, develops and releases her art museum-inspired game, Strawberry Thief, into the world.)

A big part of what made it feel so special, though, was the open-hearted, open-ended nature of the whole project and that fact that the teens were building something together from the ground up.  Before we talked at all about the museum-specific side of things, we spent a good chunk of time talking (and iterating) about what makes a game successful and how the game design process works.  We started with the basics, which fed into conversations that started to sound a whole lot like the kind of conversations museum educators have when coming up with programming ideas.

There was debate over how the game should feel to a player and how to create that feeling.  What were the goals of the game going to be and how should they be met?  What did we want our players to get out of their game experience?

Once the game creation itself got underway, I co-facilitated the meetings with Global Kids staff, but we tried to stay out of the way of the process as much as possible.  The teens decided what area of the museum they wanted as the location of their game.  They collaborated on the game’s story.  They worked smoothly as a whole group and then as small groups that focused variously on coding, choosing specific collection objects, creating the in-game visuals, and writing the detailed story players discover as they go.

And what they came up with, after only eight afternoon sessions, was a playable game that made my museum educator heart thump proudly.

It was the teens, not me, who identified that it was important for a player to look closely at art objects to answer the game’s questions.  It was the teens who chose the Visible Storage Center for both the artwork and the atmosphere (it’s cold and dim in there, as well as being full of shelves bursting with miscellaneous, sometimes-mysterious things).  It was the teens who created a cohesive story that brought new meaning to objects in the Museum’s collection.

They told engaging and creative stories, they created an immersive experience, and they made a fun, new way for people to discover an often-unexplored space.

Those sound remarkably like some of my Big Goals as a museum educator.

I’m trying to keep these lessons fresh in my mind as I head into a new school year of programming for teachers.  How can I hang onto that spirit of open exploration?  How can I help teachers see the museum in new ways?  What experiences can I create that are playful and fun and build skills in the museum, all at the same time?

I know there’s plenty of debate about digital games in the museum (should museums collect video games as art?  why is gamification such a dirty word?  what advantages do games have to offer museums, anyway?), and I’d love to hear from others who’ve experimented with games in museums (to resounding success or constructive failure).  I don’t know how much game design I’ll be doing in the future, but I do know I appreciate having tried it out and that it offered plenty of valuable things to keep in mind for my museum programming overall.  So, thanks to the clever Brooklyn Museum Ghost Hunters and to the energetic staff of Global Kids, not to mention the Hive Digital Media Learning Fund who believed in the project enough to give us the money for it.

One final note: If you’d like to playtest the prototype of the Brooklyn Museum NYC Haunts game, you can download TaleBlazer for free (Android or iOS).  Open it on your device and enter gvxkfju in the “Game Code” tab at the top.  Helen’s Treasures will download to your device, and then you’re free to play, even without wifi.



13 thoughts on “Press Start to Continue: What Museum Educators Can Learn from Game Design”

  1. Thanks for this piece, Rachel! When I was at The Noguchi Museum we also had the opportunity to work with Global Kids, not on game design but working with 6 teens to produce a digital storytelling piece (see At the end of the project, we presented at a conference with Barry Joseph (now at the American Museum of Natural History) and Sarah Schoemann, focusing on the open-ended nature of the project – some of the same ideas you note. We came up with these “Six qualities of a successful open-ended project”:

    1. Create a non-judgmental space that allows for new ideas and experimentation
    2. Provide engaging activities that build the knowledge capacity of the youth regarding the subject area
    3. Find out what expertise and/or skills youth bring to the table and create opportunities for leveraging them
    4. Youth can play different roles on the project
    5. Support youth to make constrained choices
    6. Make it relevant

    The Noguchi Museum has since applied this to non-digital projects in its teen programs. But somehow a digital project was a great first way to explore this true open-endedness – maybe because the teens brought an expertise that differed from that of the staff’s.

    1. Thanks for the 6 qualities, Rebecca. That does indeed sound pretty close to what we set up (and what seemed to work) for this program.

      I wonder if you ran into any situations in your project where teens slotted themselves into roles that felt comfortable, rather than pushing themselves to try something new, and whether you let them do what they wanted or pushed them to try something outside their comfort zone.

      For example, we wanted these teens to be able to choose their own tasks, but that led to a coding group that was (at first) all boys and a story-writing group that was (at first) all girls. It was important to us that we not repeat these stereotypical gender-roles, but it wasn’t until we pushed the teens a bit to try something new that we got some more blended teams.

      Did you run into anything similar at the Noguchi? and if so, how did you handle it?

  2. Rachel,

    Thanks for sharing your experience. I’ve also been thinking about games. On Sunday, December 7 we’re hosting an event at the Met supporting further investigation of this topic among teachers, museum educators and technologists. Please join us if you’re free. We’re thrilled to have educators from Quest to Learn, a New York City public school that has made game-theory central to their practice, on board for the event.

    Come Play!
    Sunday, December 7, 1:00–4:00 p.m.
    Ruth and Harold D. Uris Center for Education Show location on map
    Join classroom teachers, museum educators, and technologists for gaming, “boss” level challenges (using the Greek and Roman Art galleries as our lab), and reflection on ways games can enhance learning. Please bring a game that you, or your students, love to share. Register online at

    1. Claire, that event sounds fabulous! Thanks for sharing the link.

      (Funnily enough, I recently also ran an event at the Brooklyn Museum with that same title… playtime must be in the air.)

  3. Rachel, The Brooks Teen Program at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art may be interested in taking on a similar project. How many hours did your group spend developing the game from start to finish?

    1. The program was a total of 24 hours spread out over 8 sessions. There were some extra hours of “behind the scenes” file wrangling from the facilitators on top of that, but the bulk of the process was actually accomplished in the 24 hours of program time.

  4. Thanks for this great post. Indeed this kind of projects work really well with teens. I tried a very similar experiment in France a few months ago and I totally agree with all your conclusions.

    I wrote the same kind of piece in english if you’re interested :

    And we even made a “behind the scenes” video : (english subtitles available)

    We worked on the children’s city in medieval times but it can be done in museums. We are currently expanding the experiment with lots of different museums and monuments accross the country. If arts museum in the US want to try this out, drop me a line 😉

    1. Merci, Antoine, pour ces renseignements et liens!

      I love that you did this project with 7-9 year olds! I’m struck by the way both of our programs seem to have been great for the students, both in terms of learning about the content (how to design the game, the information the game’s agents would share with the player, etc), and for building their social skills (working in groups, problem solving, etc).

      That is definitely one of the things that made my program so successful, and it’s great to hear that the same holds true around the world.

      I’ll keep GuidiGO in mind for future projects.

    1. Thanks for the link, Lynda. I have to say that, as an adult, I’m still lured in by the appeal of educational gaming.

      I’m also interested to see how different institutions are employing digital gaming for different but related purposes (linked directly to curriculum, building game design skills, deeper investigation of museum collections, etc). Your game sounds like a great example of that curriculum-linked gaming that you mention in your post.

      It’s really exciting to see the variety of approaches to digital museum games that are going on out there!

  5. This is a great post – thank you! I have also spoken about how game development can teach us about iterative design, testing, purposeful failure, etc… here are my slides:

    Also check out what we’ve been doing at the Getty with mobile game experiments – here’s an old blog post I wrote about that:

    1. Hi Susan.

      Happy to be in such good company. Getty games have been some of the most interesting blog post/conference session/social media conversation fodder I’ve seen on this topic. I’m right there with on the idea that games encourage fun, failure, and collaboration, all of which are great “non content-based” skills for visitors of all ages.

      Thanks for adding these links!

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