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.
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.
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.