Games are the answer. But what is the question?

They’re not a new format in arts and cultural engagement, and games certainly aren’t the only answer. But if you’re thinking game, these five questions will move you towards making the best experience possible.

I recently sat down with Rob Cawston, Head of Digital at National Museums Scotland, to unpick what it means to make a great museum game. We agreed that, first and foremost, it’s about asking the right questions so we took to the stage at #CultureGeek and outlined the most important ones.

National Museums Scotland may not have known what format they wanted, but they were perfectly clear on the business case: inviting millennials to enjoy the space, top to bottom. “Capture The Museum” (Thought Den)

1. What are the business, behavioural and communication issues?

This is a question of vision, being realistic about constraints and defining what really matters. Forcing yourself to succinctly express your vision in the early stages will save countless hours during execution.

Ogilvy & Mather’s Guide to Effectiveness describes a great technique. With a single sentence each, summarise:

  • the business issue (problem or opportunity in a nutshell) E.g. single packs of crisps are more profitable than multipacks;
  • the behavioural issue (imagined change in audience behaviour) E.g. people buy single packs with a sandwich lunch;
  • the communication issue (what the messaging or framing needs to achieve, hinting at an appropriate format) E.g. making the crisps + sandwich combo more salient.

Visit Slideshare for the full presentation and some more game-y examples.

A tiny budget, but a razor-sharp campaign message (surprising mammoth facts) and audience use case (quick-play web game for kids). It achieved over 100,000 plays and 44,000 video views. “Mammoths of the Ice Age” (Thought Den)

2. What are our tastiest patterns?

Raph Koster, game designer and academic, says “Games are just exceptionally tasty patterns to eat up.” The 200,000 players of Fold it, who helped solve a molecular puzzle in 15 days that baffled scientists for 15 years, were no doubt motivated by the game’s scientific purpose but the sheer satisfaction of pattern-spotting was a big factor.

Museums and galleries may never rival Nintendo in terms of budgets or gameplay, but they have a wealth of content packed with drama, tension, intrigue and story. In other words, tasty patterns.

These organisations are uniquely placed to provide audiences with the authentic experiences they crave.

A simple, tactile way to engage with cause and effect. Build virtual life-forms with physical blocks of DNA. “Creature Creation Station” (Local Projects)

3. What’s the simplest thing we can do to create an emotional connection?

This is the argument for picking one thing and doing it well; there are only so many learning messages a player can take away. If you throw 16 oranges at someone, how many will they realistically catch? A juggling clown might catch six, but most of us will catch two at best!

Games are not just a bucket to pour content into. At their best they can convey a volume of knowledge, but they’re also a catalyst for profound emotional experiences and lasting memories. Achieving simplicity is incredibly complex and takes courage from the content team but this early period of discomfort will pay dividends.

4. What are the strengths, weaknesses and passions of our team?

Games come in an ever-increasing array of shapes and sizes — from digital toys through to immersive tech — but what really matters are the people making them. The more the project team know about the affordances and constraints of the format, the better the experience will be. Conduct research, play examples, listen to both the passionate and cynical voices so the whole team can start from a level setting.

People don’t want to talk about climate change…or do they? The right tools make all the difference. “Utah Climate Challenge” (Preloaded)

5. What are our audience hungry for?

Ultimately it’s not about what your organisation wants, because if an audience don’t want it, they’ll vote with their feet. If they just don’t know they want it yet, the trick is finding the right format to engage them.

The people of Utah don’t especially want to talk about climate change; it’s complex, political, frightening. However, the Natural History Museum commissioned a social game to animate and simplify the issues, giving players of all ages a fun way to interrogate climate change that fuels face to face discussion. The gaming format helped frame the issue and signal it was open for participation.

A team game of communication and bomb disposal. If they were answering one question, it would be: how do we prove VR’s capacity for great social experiences? “Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes” (Steel Crate Games)

If you can’t find the single killer question that makes everything fall into place, ask yourself the five contained here — and answer them! You’ll be a significant step closer to making a great game. Fire any questions at me over Twitter, email or a cup of tea and I’ll do my best to help.


Full slides — and more examples — from our Culture Geek 2018 talk now on Slideshare.