Like a Kamikaze Worm: throw yourself into using games for learning

In this enthusiastic and informative post Laura Southall, the Learning Project Manager at the IWM and former Head of Learning at the RIBA, encourages us to dive in the deep end with gamification.  shocked-emoji

Imagine my surprise this weekend when a curator friend of mine text me using an emoji for the first time! I replied immediately to congratulate him on this new-found coolness, only to then be reassured dryly that as a curator, he’ll “never be down with the kids”.

Urban dictionary, that reliable fount all knowledge, defines being ‘down with the kids’ as “To be cool, clued-up and enlightened as a result of one’s knowledge and/or pursuit of the interests, pastimes and trends commonly associated with people younger than oneself.” For most of us who work in museum learning, we spend our days encouraging the public to do the complete opposite – “Hey public”, say we enthusiastically, “Come and be cool, clued-up and enlightened as a result of your knowledge and pursuit of the interests, pastimes and trends commonly associated with people older, and mostly more dead, than yourself.” It’s essentially the constant challenge of how to get our audiences to be ‘down with the dead people’.

It’s this that makes games – in particular digital games – the perfect medium for museums to exploit. Unlike Urban Dictionary, museums are designed to be a fount of reliable facts, stories and knowledge. It’s our job to disseminate this knowledge to the public, and in the same way that emojis, snapchat and Minecraft can mystify us and our colleagues, the subject matter that we feel so passionate about can mystify our audience. By using a medium that people already feel comfortable with, feel ownership of, and associate with fun, we start to break down the museum’s authoritarian role and this is the crux of how gaming can help us to enable meaningful and exciting engagement.

My first encounter with this was when I worked with the Victoria & Albert Museum’s first ever Games Designer in Residence, Sophia George. I’d just started managing the Museum’s Residency Programme and I remember panicking about how I’d cope when I knew nothing about gaming other than those few months where I got pretty good at Worms the computer game when I should have been revising for my GSCEs. Like a Kamikaze Worm, I threw myself into it and soon realised I had nothing to worry about. We started to test Sophia’s game on the public in the galleries – as soon as children and adults saw the iPad they would come straight up to us without provocation and start playing, asking questions about how it was made and also about the objects the game was inspired by. I think you might call this #winning in museum learning world.girl-on-ipad Of course many museums do not have the funding or capacity available to be able to create a game from scratch, but this shouldn’t been seen as limiting. I’ve seen some great simple examples of using existing platforms and games to engage audiences, with one of my favourites being the Horniman Museum’s Youth Panel’s Take Over Day. The public sent emojis via Twitter and the young people had to trawl through the Museum to find the collection-equivalent.

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I also loved this sign at Doncaster Museum as a perfect example of how a medium that people feel comfortable with (in this case, Pokemon GO!) can be a great and really simple vehicle for not only engagement, but also a warm welcome.doncaster-tweet

There are lots of examples, most recently the Museum of London’s incredible Great Fire of London project, of using Minecraft to this end too. Minecraft is a computer game that anyone can download from the internet and takes place in a 3D world where players are essentially digital architects building their own creations – for my next role at the Royal Institute of British Architects, this was a no brainer, right? I was inspired by the Tate Worlds project where Tate worked closely with a Minecraft expert to turn some of their paintings into Minecraft worlds that could be explored by players all over the world.

At RIBA we started with a competition where we asked Minecraft players to create their own Brutalist building, inspired by our exhibition at the time, The Brutalist Playground. The competition was open for a few weeks and we had entries from all over the world with people referencing classic Brutalist buildings in their designs, and discussing with each other what they’d been researching independently.brutalist

We took this further with our next project, which I often described as ‘trying to make Palladianism sexy’ (much to my colleagues’ dismay). We created a downloadable Palladian Minecraft tool that would help Minecraft players include Palladian architecture parts in their buildings.minecraft

I’ll be talking more about these projects – the challenges and successes – at London Museums Group’s conference Pinball Wizard: Games for Museums on Thursday. I will emphasise both there and here that my personal gaming experience still only stretches to my few months of playing Worms, and herein lies the beauty of using games for learning. By engaging with people on their own terms we level the playing field and suddenly #winning becomes so much easier.

To join the London Museums Group all-day conference on gaming in museums at The Jewish Museum on Thursday 27th October please register here.

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