Seema Rao Department Director, Intergenerational Learning
On a late spring morning, light streams into the museum’s atrium as teens from area high schools gather, whispering to their friends and looking a bit nervous. These young people seem anxious for good reason—they are hoping to escape becoming zombies. This is not a scene from a movie. This is the culminating session of Museum Ambassadors, a two-year program where each month teens learn about the museum through daylong challenge-based learning experiences. In the last session of each year, teens celebrate finishing the year’s hard work by playing art-related games in the galleries. Last year, they participated in a live action role-playing game in which the only way to inoculate themselves from an onslaught of undead art historian zombies was by successfully answering questions about the museum’s collection. Rather than getting the right answer for a grade, the Museum Ambassadors sought information in order to have fun with their team and win the game. Such gaming experiences have become an important form of interpretation in museum education. Educators in our department of Intergenerational Learning develop games to engage visitors, including students and families, in meaningful, enjoyable experiences with the collection.
“It is a happy talent to know how to play.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson
Research suggests that lifelong museum visitors recall seminal childhood experiences in museums with their families. Game-based family programming seeks to catalyze powerful family experiences, which can reap benefits for the museum community for years to come. Developing games that excite families requires understanding the audience’s needs, desires, and time frames. Many families come to the museum seeking engaging activities that can occur on their schedule. Drop-by game experiences offer this type of flexibility. This past December, a program called Winter Break Fun in Gallery One engaged families seeking drop-by educational entertainment during the long, cold holiday season. In one such game, players explored trade and commodities exchange in a fast-paced bartering game. A Mad Libs–style game invited visitors to play with language.
Playful interpretation is also at the heart of Family Game Night, hosted each year in February, July, and October. These events, targeted at families with school-age children, turn learning into a competitive sport. For example, families may take part in minute-to-win-it challenges that test their observational skills, help build a large-scale mousetrap game in the atrium, and play art-themed Twister. Each event features a major gallery challenge, such as trying to figure out the message that a time-traveler left in the galleries, which can only be solved by looking closely at art. These in-depth games focus on creating a positive, collaborative experience for families. Rather than being a foreboding place, the galleries are transformed into an inviting space for collaborative inquiry.
“Play is the highest form of research.” –Albert Einstein
Elizabeth Merritt, head of the Center for the Future of Museums, an initiative of the American Alliance of Museums, suggests that games are essential to museum education because they offer “the most effective way to learn and push our buttons to get information into our heads.” Gamification, a term often heard in education circles, uses game constructs, such as rules-based performance and collaboration, to build a learning outcome. Games require players to learn the rules quickly through a process of exploration and feedback. A child playing Monopoly who attempts to evade Jail or sneak past Boardwalk will quickly receive an admonition from the banker or another player. Game play supports systems-thinking, an essential skill for the future workforce. The social and collaborative nature of games also supports 21st-century skills, qualities highlighted in the educational Common Core for K–12 students. Social games offer a healthy dose of positive peer pressure; learning together feels like fun. Educators also highlight the power of victory. Competition often brings out the desire to succeed in students, even those who are not necessarily interested in grades.
In the case of the zombie game, working in teams the Museum Ambassadors used tools in the galleries—the artwork labels and explanatory wall texts—to learn about the art. Information access was thus incentivized. By answering a certain number of questions correctly, a team received a dose of anti-zombie treatment. The time limit required team members to work together efficiently to garner information. While the same information could have been disseminated through a lecture, this format motivated teens to actively acquire knowledge—and they reported that it was an enjoyable and successful way to learn about the art. While not a replacement for formal assessment tools, games offer additional means of allowing students to acquire information and demonstrate understanding.
Game development offers students another powerful learning challenge. Developers need to understand the content thoroughly before creating a game. Recently, interns working in the Intergenerational Learning department were asked to create a game to help Advanced Placement Art History students explore foundational concepts in the field. The interns began by understanding the students’ needs before developing a game that supports learning in a competitive and interesting way. In other words, the interns had to know the material better than any of the game players so that they could create a game that was worth winning.
“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” –George Bernard Shaw
Some research indicates that museum attendance over the past decade has declined, with one in five Americans making an annual visit. At the same time, games are becoming an even larger part of the American leisure landscape. At least 50 percent of parents play games with their children at least once a month. In 2013 game revenues in the United States were more than twice that of movies. With leisure time at a premium, Americans seek compelling experiences. When developed thoughtfully, games offer museum visitors a powerful way to explore the collection in a playful and impactful manner. Games enrich museum experiences by engaging visitors in active ways. In museum education, creative, surprising, and playful experiences are the name of the game.
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Cleveland Art, January/February 2015