Games and Museum-based Learning

Jan 9, 2017 · 40 min read

The Authors

James is the Liaison at the Office of Educational Technology in the Office of the Secretary at the U.S. Department of Education. He works across a broad range of ed tech policy, from early learning to higher education, and also leads the office’s work on game-based learning and assessment as well as VR/AR/MR and maker education. He previously worked at the Smithsonian’s Center for Learning and Digital Access.

Barry is the Associate Director for Digital Learning at the American Museum of Natural History where, in the past four years, we has been involved with the development of 4 card/board games, two mobile games, and the use of Minecraft and other commercial games for learning.

As professionals with long experience in game-based learning in museums, we are interested in exploring and unpacking all the complexities that hide within the seemingly straightforward idea of using games for museums-based learning. As with any intersectional issue, there turns out to be a ton of translation problems and misunderstandings among the domains of museum knowledge, game play, and game design. We (James and Barry) decided to use this Slack channel for our conversation. We were interested in exploring how Slack could provide us with a private real-time space to hold a chat. We also wanted to explore the possibility of transitioning this space into a public medium where you can, right now, come and join us. We’ll add the correspondence in a few chunks below. However, if you can’t wait to read it all, or want to join in the conversation, please come join us here.

Students at Museum teaching parents how to play after visiting exhibit on microbiomes.

James, Just a short missive to thank you for hosting me today at your offices at the DOE. It was great to see your new offices, now that you’ve left the Smithsonian, and talk with you about Games-based learning. (Btw, I named this Slack GBLinMuseums, which, when turned lower case, as Slack is wont to, scans as “museum goblins”).

After I left your office I walked through the Air and Space Museum across the street, down and around the Mall towards Congress, then back up Massachusetts avenue to the Conference Center for the AAM (American Alliance of Museums) Conference. It was 85 degrees. What was I thinking!

In any case, I hope you get a chance to download the MicroRangers app and use the augmented reality coin I left with you. The experience won’t be the same — it’s designed to work within the museum itself, of course- but I look forward to hearing how you respond to the characters who talk to you from within your hand. (I’m going to present on it later today at AAM).

I was also interested to hear the shift in your directions from supporting educators to DEVELOP games to helping educators to USE games. It’s not a new idea but it is an important one — helping educators use COST or indie games or toolbox games (now, what IS it you don’t like about Minecraft — you never said?) and adapting them for educational purposes. We DO need more of that. I think it might be less about giving people resources they need — e.g. curriculum for using Civilization to teach history — as I suspect educators who WANT to use games know how to adapt them; I think the strength might be in helping to open the possibility spaces to remove some of the institutional barriers that are in the way, with principals, education directors, etc.

On my side, I am interested in where we can further scale youth learning by MAKING games. Tools like Game Star Mechanic, ARIS, Minecraft, and more coding oriented opportunities (Scratch on the low end, for example) are allowing these efforts to expand. But, as we discussed, educators are not game designers — they CAN be but playing a game doesn’t mean you know how to make one (no more than reading Shakespeare means you know how to write a play). So how to provide educators with the resources they need to develop these literacies (and not reproduce the same errors in their curriculum that result due to a lack of it). That of course brings us back to your idea — rather than pair game designers with educators, just provide educators with existing games (the game design comes in a box!) and support them to do what they do best — use the resources in the world around them to educate and inspire.

In any case, I loved your collection of games by your desk. Tell me about some of them, and why those are the ones you choose to show. Are they for you, for others, ??? Inquiring minds want to know.

Barry — It was great to have you come by and visit us at the US Department of Education! Transitioning from museums to schools has been interesting. There are unique aspects and challenges to both learning environments. I still firmly believe that the intersection of the two spaces is an underdeveloped area for learning. I see games as a potential bridge.That’s why I want to say that museum goblins should definitely be a thing. (I think that would translate to twitter-speak as #museGBLin?)

“Now goblins are cruel, wicked, and bad-hearted. They make no beautiful things, but they make many clever ones.” — Tolkien

I think that gets to the heart of some of the most pernicious varieties of game-based learning (GBL). Games for learning in museums and elsewhere are at their worst when they emerge from the muck as clever but joyless experiences. It is too easy — at any museum — to settle for a matching game or a quiz or any flavor of chocolate-covered broccoli… We like to convince ourselves that these experiences are adding the fun of games to the power of learning all wrapped up in powerful analytics. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I’ll have to be careful about describing this shift in my thinking. Let’s first disentangle supporting educators in developing games vs. supporting educators in making games.

(1) Re: supporting educators in developing games.

I certainly think that more developers could and should hear from educators that use their games. The question is when to involve the educator in the development lifecycle. For learning games, the answer is early and often. For COTS (commercial off-the-shelf) games (i.e. games designed for entertainment, not explicitly for learning), I would argue that publishing companies could benefit from educator perspectives near the end of the development cycle.

(2) Re: educators making games that teach.

I think that this is a really hard thing to do. Educators can make for wonderful game designers, but they need to work to get there. They need to play games, learn some of the basics of game design, learn some of the basics of game development, test their game, and really do all of the hard things that other content creators do. That is too high of a burden for many educators who are already busy dedicating themselves to their profession.

There is a risk to throwing educators in to create games without that underlying knowledge. I have had museum educators come up to me and ask me how to code a game. These are people who have never played a digital game before! If games are a form of media — and as you know from last year’s Serious Play conference, I argue that quite strongly — then it’s near impossible to go from beginner to expert on your first game. Think about when we ask educators to create other forms of media (ex. videos). We need to keep reasonable content creation expectations in mind.

(3) Re: educators and students making games as a way to teach

None of that applies if the goal is not to create a game that teaches but to use the method of creating as a way to learn. There are so many lessons to be learned from computer science-based curriculum and even from analog/tabletop game design practices. Just the process of paper-based systems modeling can shine new light on a complex topic.

I love Minecraft for younger ages. Tech that can scale up from WYSIWYG to coding (Game Maker for example as opposed to Game Star Mechanic) are even better. The best is to put learners in a place where they can both gain an understanding of computer science fundamentals and develop skills in an industry standard application. Unity and Unreal have been doing great work in that area.

1, 2, and 3 are still probably different from what would could be labeled as educators ‘using’/‘adapting’ COTS games for learning.

Some people talk about games tricking people into learning things. Some people talk about games replacing teachers. That’s got things around a little bit backwards.

I think that games have a place in education in museums, in the classroom, at home… It starts with the educator and it ends with a love for learning.

About those games on my desk… They’re there to remind me about what I do. It’s easy to get lost when you’re talking about GBL and its cousin game-based assessment. Games can quickly lose their spark. It’s good to have a reminder of what you’re striving for. Games should be joyous experiences. I tend to rotate games in and out as events come up. 1960: Making of the President came out during the election hullabaloo. Timeline and Innovation came out back at the Smithsonian when we talked about object-based learning and innovation.

It’s amazing how few games most people have played. I really believe that there is a game (more than one!) out there for everyone. I can still remember how my former law professor’s eyes lit up when discussing Die Macher — a game about the German election system. You need to watch a lot of movies to find your favorite film. You need to read a lot of books to find your favorite book. And it changes over time as your tastes mature. You need to play a lot of games…

What games are on your desk now? What should be there that isn’t? Have you had a GBL experience that you would categorize as joyous? I am looking forward to coming up to New York for Games for Change soon! I can’t do as many late nights at The Uncommons as I did last year (so our 1960: Making of the President match will have to wait), but hopefully my family and I can swing by AMNH and try out MicroRangers in person!

MicroRangers had a lot of love put into it. Is that the same path for smaller museums in incorporating games? How does audience factor in? Are these questions too formal? I’ll try to talk more about GBLins and other mystical creatures in the next letter.

James, This is fun! Let’s see — where to jump in? It might be interesting to explore what an educator brings to a game vs. a game designer. Both aim to design an engaging experience with lasting impact. But their tool set is quite different.

The educator has expertise in such things as scaffolding knowledge (the right order for introducing increasingly sophisticated content), non-didactic methods for exploring information (such as developing processing questions that support a learner to develop a new understanding of a scientific principal), and how to address and build upon prior knowledge, or unpack it when faulty. And so much more.

A game designer holds a vast history of game mechanics (e.g. understanding that SushiGo is a family-friendly version of 7 Wonders, and both are card drafting games), understands how to put theories of emergence into practice, and know how to write game rules. And so much more.

These two communities almost NEVER intersect (outside of the Games, Learning and Society conference in Madison, WI, and the Games For Change Festival in NYC). Each have a challenging task — educators to design/deliver curriculum/lesson plans and game designers to create powerful and popular games. Combining them into one task — to design a game that is both fun to play and imparts content is not an additive process; that is, it’s not as hard as designing a curriculum plus as hard as designing a game. Rather, the difficulty level increases geometrically when you combine the two — it’s more like multiplying the difficulty level.

So, yeah, when you talk about an educator (or an educational institution, like a museum) trying to design a game with learning objectives, its hard enough for a non-game designer to JUST design a good game, and probably out of scope. Adding the additional goal of needing to also teach something at the same time blows the project out of the water (sorry, I just played the blended mobile/board game The World of Yo-Ho, which is pirate-themed, and launched a lot of canon balls).

So this is the context in which I read the three directions you explore. I want to explore them in reverse order.

#3: “educators and students making games as a way to teach” — Absolutely. This lowers the bar. The youth learn a tremendous amount — about both game design and content knowledge — and have a great way to share it with others. I’ve always argued that making a game about any system forces its designers to understand that system from the inside out and how its constituent elements related to one another. And while I’ve spent over a decade pairing youth learners with both educators and game designers to make games for the public (starting with Ayiti: The Cost of Life in 2005), I understand most institutions don’t have the resources to bring such a team together. However, not having the resources is no excuse to shoot beyond a realistic scope. I ran into one school that was boldly taking on developing not one but upwards of a half-dozen games, in one season, for the first time, all by students, all at the same time, with the intent to sell them commercially — all with no support from a game designer in either the development of the curriculum nor the final games. (Long story short, I convinced them to hire one).

#2: “educators making games that teach” — Educators who try to design games so often turn to interactive quizzes and such because that’s the extent of the general literacy one learns through playing games. And that’s fine, as long as one keeps one’s limitations in mind. But to access the full spectrum of skills required to design a game necessitates a much broader and deeper range of skills. Teachers can learn these skills, and increasingly there are opportunities to do so. So if that’s where your heart is, go for it, but otherwise most educators need to look for analog or digital tools that EMBED that game design knowledge, so it can be accessed (at scale). You mention Gamestar Mechanic — tha’ts a great example of a game design tool developed to offer that resource — either directly to the learner or through an educator/facilitator.

#1: “supporting educators in developing games” — This is essentially creating opportunities within game design companies to bring the two skills together. A great example of this is Filament Games — they have strong connections with educators and it shows in their games.

But what I’d like to see more of is the opposite — not just bringing educators into game design institutions but bringing game designers into learning spaces. That’s what we’re doing at the Museum (which is the American Museum of Natural History which, as a New Yorker, is akin to saying “the City” to mean NYC). When we have money we pay great game designers; when we don’t, we create fantastic internship opportunities for area grad students (isn’t it amazing that there are now not only game design programs but competing ones in the same city?).

So in the next ten years I’d like to see Museums leading the development of games for learning, not just the game designers. We know our content best. We know how to teach it best. We generally don’t have the game design expertise, but that’s no excuse for proceeding like we do without it.

Today, our MicroRangers game ( might be an exception, but I hope not for long. It was developed over two years with one lead professional game designer, one lead game design intern, and two game design intern evaluators. MicroRangers is a game that challenges our visitors to shrink to the microscopic level to address science-based problems within our permanent exhibits. We had to teach the game designers about the science content and how want to teach it; they had to to teach us relevant game mechanics and how to put the game play first. There are other games that have been developed with and at other museums (“Ghosts of a Chance” at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the Field Museum’s Specimania, just to name two). But I feel like these one-off experiments over the last decade have been just that — experiment. It’s time for Museums to take the lessons learned from these important efforts and take our use of games-based learning into the next phase, one I hope MicroRangers can help usher in.

Thanks for telling me about the games on your desk. I have a giant pile of games by my desk — some I need to play, some I’ve recently played and some I am showing off. Killer Snails and Gutsy are the last two card games we produced at the Museum — so that’s just a conversation starter (so thanks for asking). I also have hung on the wall an uncut sheet of our Pterosaurs card game, the first we ever made (and uncut sheets have high game geek cred, so I’m waving that flag high). Games we’ve recently played are Cuba Cube (an awful game) and a fan-produced Cuba map for Ticket to Ride (which was a blast); our next special exhibit is about Cuban culture and natural history, so I’m exploring what game mechanics have been laid across Cuban content to learn if any might be in use within our upcoming programs. Alchemists we also played recently — which is themed around wizards but, surprisingly, is actually about scientists as academic researchers going into the field, doing research, publishing their findings, and defending their ideas at conferences (wizard conferences?); it’s also a wonderful game about deductive logic that integrates a mobile app into a worker-placement board game. Waiting in the pile to be played includes The New Science, about the 17th century scientific revolution in Europe, and Tesla vs. Edison (which is about just that).

Great question you ask — have I had a GBL experience I would categorize as joyous. Nothing brings me more joy that working with youth learners to develop a game and then, at the end, watch them take ownership over that game when sharing the final product with others, whether its friends and family at the end of the program or press at an exhibit opening. (From a play perspective, playing the mobile game Spaceteam gives me endless joy, and giggles). How about you?

I’m sorry I couldn’t visit the game store you recommended in D.C. It sounded great. The Uncommons is awesome — I once took my whole family there (including my two children, 6 and 8 at the time, my sister, and my dad, in his 80s). It was amazing to see how we could all find games to play with each other, to meet all of our interests and game play levels.

When you come to Games For Change this month, I hope your family can come visit — we have all sorts of games you might play (MicroRangers being just one). And please look among the sessions for the one in which I will interview some of the MicroRangers youth about what it was like to develop it for the public. You wrote that “MicroRangers had a lot of love put into it.” Indeed! I’m glad it show. You then ask “Is that the same path for smaller museums in incorporating games?” I would say we put not just love into it, but we filled it with our passion. I think everything we do should be full of our passion — for the content we’re sharing, for the learning we’re supporting, for the memories we’re creating. So whether your museum is big or small, I just say, “Do it with passion!”

I’ll try and write less next time!

Starting with Dungeons and Dragons, I have been playing role-playing games since high school. I am assuming you are familiar with the model: several players create characters using pencil and paper and one “game master” or “dungeon master” creates a world, an adventure, and all of the people and monsters that live in it. The players get together to adventure and the GM acts as a storyteller, guide, antagonizer, and moderator.

My first GM experience back in high school went terribly! I was prescriptive, obscure, overbearing, and repetitive. It took me a long time to figure out that a good GM is pretty much the opposite of all of those things. It’s about responding to the players (finding why they are passionate about the game) and being flexible.

Fast forward to when I was teaching game design at the university. I found that when I was preparing lessons for our three hour night classes, I was doing the same things that I did as GM. I would look at the university’s course requirements (the module, if you will), fill in gaps and adapt it to my teaching style, and then personalize based on the students’ needs. That work would form a core that I would bring in each evening, but when the class actually started it became less about following a set road and more about improvising based on how that night went. Stuck on a problem? Adapt. Lecture portion running long? Get a discussion going instead. Etc.

It’s unfortunate then that the educator and game communities don’t overlap more. I am not saying that it is a perfect parallel, but I think that certain skills like managing engagement and the push and pull of the zone of proximal development affect both groups.

It’s an interesting question that you posit: what can an educator bring to the design of the game?

Going back even further in my life, I had a phenomenal teacher back in middle school that would run semester-long games of her own making each year for our entire class. There was the Mesoamerican one that had us digging for artifacts in boxes of sand. The Greek one where I sued for peace with the Persians in the agora and then was exiled by my peers. The Japanese one where proficiency in Japanese language and culture would unlock resources that we could use to provide for our citizens on a giant Risk-like map of feudal Japan.

As a public school teacher working with middle schoolers, I am sure that she had a million and one things to do. Somehow she found time to create these multi-faceted games each year. As you say, she did it with passion.

So I know first hand that teachers can make engaging games. Teachers like Peggy Sheehy and Paul Darvasi have shown the great work that can be done when adapting COTS games as well. It is apparent to anyone who has seen it done well that game-based learning can be a transformative experience.

The question though, and this isn’t specific to teachers but rather educators as a whole, is how to make it accessible? Equitable? When the teachers in Detroit have to go on strike because their buildings are falling down around them, they don’t have time or resources to learn and make games. Is there a way to level that playing field? It’s one of the reasons why I am looking at GBL models around existing games.

More on joyous games later!

I SO want to start by talking about Dungeons and Dragons, as it touches on so many topics (both personal and conceptual) for me, but I feel duty calls me to begin with your main point — what can educators bring to the design of a game, and how can their game literacies be enhanced so they can be even more effective educators?

Your choice. You DID name this goblin museums though… I think you have support either way.

Just yesterday I was asked by a group of our staff educators to do just that — to develop a professional development training for them, to support their creating of games AS educational tools. They are designing exciting and innovative ways to engage their students (in this case 4th and 5th graders coming to the museum for science learning after school one day a week) and, as with your middle school teacher you just mentioned, they often find themselves creating games. And they want to do it better. And when I suggested I help them by creating a PD for them, they asked if I thought other dept’s educators would be interested (yes, we have a number of different youth-serving education programs here) and I realized, as soon as I asked, For sure! I’ve seen in the last few years how COST games have been introduced into different programs by their instructors — Code Monkey Island into our middle school programming course, NorthStarGames’ Evolution game for a course on the same topic, Bone Wars into a paleontology program, etc. — and this offers opportunities to help those same educators become more proficient at developing the exact game they need for the experience and content they desire for their youth program.

So I was excited by getting to ask myself the very question you just posed: How can I teach them? And what would I teach? And what literacies would be the key ones to focus on, in a short series of sessions, to help them bring game design into their curricular develop toolkit? So, James, what would you recommend? What are both the most important game design literacies educators need to know, which amongst those are the most accessible, and is there an order or scaffolding required in regards to when one would learn them?

I see that you only ask easy questions…!

I’m just trying to keep up with yours! :sunglasses:

So, while you resolve that simple matter I’ll prepare myself to slay some goblins. When I think back on my teenage years it’s hard for me to shake my strong personal identification as a D&D player. It wasn’t just a hobby I had or an activity I did. It was an identity I wore, wherever I went. I was usually the dungeon master like you, leading my friends on fantasy campaigns, pretending to have consulted the Talmudic texts of the game. So when I think about my time in D&D what I recall most is being a leader in places youth were not usually permitted to lead — starting the D&D club in middle school, or leading the activity at my summer camp among my peers. That was extremely empowering. Sure, I was having fun with my friends, and that’s what motivated me, but I certainly appreciate now how the marginalization of youth culture provided me with the opportunity to operate outside the purview of adult authority and take back some control over where I put both my mind and body, at a time in my life when there were significant counter-veiling social forces trying to control who and what I was. In that context, of games as tools of liberation, I look to how games today might play a similar — e.g. within commercial Minecraft server, or in YouTube Minecraft culture — and how we as educators, and educational institutions like museums, can tap into that educational potential without co-opting (and corrupting) it. For example, I met an 8th grader who has been in our programs for three years — called Science Alliance — within a course that was focused on how digital scanning is transforming how scientists do what they do — and he told me he personally runs three different commercial Minecraft servers, that other teens pay to join, where he loves the challenge of creating game maps that can challenge up to 50 players at a time; he’s been making money, but not enough to cover the server costs, so his parents forced him to shut them down.

What should I do faced with an opportunity like that? Consider developing a science-based AMNH Minecraft server and offer a program where youth like him can combine their interests in both science and games to both develop it and administer it for other youth? Or is the learning potential locked within a youth domain and, as result, our use of Minecraft should focus more on bringing our expertise as science educators into custom maps we produced and offer?

Oh, and I just came up with a new hash for all this: #goblinsFTW.

So it’s been over a month and a half since you posed those questions. It’s about time I responded, I suppose…

Let me restate some of the core questions here:
(1) How does the involvement of educators impact the design of games?
(2) What PD opportunities are needed to empower educators to use more game-based learning methods?
(3) What game literacies could/should educators develop to increase their abilities to use game-based learning and to create games themselves?
(4) How are the opportunities different regarding the use of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) games for learning vs. games designed specifically and exclusively for learning?
(5) How can games create opportunities for student empowerment?
(6) And is it better for informal learning institutions to focus more on (a) encouraging that sort of empowerment even if it goes off-topic or (b) bringing expertise and focus to these unstructured learning environments?

If I write a wall of text responding to each of these, I feel like our conversation may hiccup again. Would you like to pick one or two and narrow in on it for a few cycles? Or are these not the most important questions for us to be discussing?

Tell me a story.

I grew up with a girl back in Ohio. We saw each other from time to time. We talked about things. We hung around malls. We thought about the future.

I’ve always been academically inclined, so to speak, but haven’t always run with that sort of crowd. She was wicked clever, but school didn’t really click for her.

She had family problems. She had personal problems. Studying wasn’t high on the priority list. I couldn’t blame her. I found it hard enough to find my own motivation to pay attention in class instead of just reading through the textbooks on my own.

Eventually we parted ways, and I didn’t hear much else from her. Years later I was able to catch up with her. How was she? What was she up to? What about all of those things we had talked about? What about the future?

Drug abuse is an expensive habit. It might start small but it can just creep up and grow and grow and grow. And it’s not just the money. It’s the people. It’s the lifestyle. When you talk to someone who is trying to kick heroin, you feel like you’re watching your friend drown through a pair of binoculars. You don’t know what to do. You hope they’re a strong swimmer.

I wish I was just talking about one girl here, but I’m not. She’s a stand-in for all of the people that I have known and grown up with in similar situations. Drugs. Poverty. Abuse. Homelessness. All realities for too many children in America.

That’s what we were at the time, really, still just children.

These are the children who need good libraries. Museums. Schools. They need local role models, free access to education, flexible hours, flexible transportation…

These are the children that the ed tech community should be building for. Not for the kids like myself who spent weekends reading history and science books. Not for the schools that are already graduating plenty of future MBAs and JDs.

Game-based learning is just a facet of an incomplete answer to this culture. It’s one way to reach children who don’t thrive in traditional learning environments. It’s one way to build socio-emotional skills and support networks. It’s one way to give children a safe space to play, have fun, and have access to a childhood that they may not have back at home.

Just look at the reports from the Nordic LARP community’s work in refugee camps. Games can be so much more to children than a faster way to learn math.

That’s why I’m passionate about this field. And it’s why I am often critical of worksheets and quizzes disguised as games. Of meaningless point systems and dull, rote memorization tools.

Games can be amazing vistas into new worlds, perspectives, and identities. They can be transformative, hyper-social experiences. If anyone should be leading that charge, it’s museums — with schools supporting them along the way.

That’s my story, at least.

Thank you James. Your story is one of inequality and asks if games-based learning could be one facet of a response. That makes me want to continue the story and talk about what I’ve seen when youth like the one’s you describe experience just such an intervention. In 2002 (or perhaps the year after) I started running socially-conscious game design programs in NYC public schools, when I worked at Global Kids. These programs have flourished and remain as a key park of their programs, nearly four years after I left. I am very proud of them.

Not one of the schools I worked in during my time at Global Kids exists today. Each was a large, failing school at the time that NYC was breaking such schools into smaller units within the same building. The students in these failing schools already were stuck in the worst schools — and each year they watched as the resources drained away to these new schools, and each year their class was the youngest class, until, finally they were the last and the school closed. When we offered game development programs in these schools we were often a rare lifeline.

At the time, I saw many examples of how youth grabbed onto these lifelines and used them to pull themselves out of deep ruts that held on tight. At the end of the first year, when the youth developed a game about poverty in Haiti (Ayiti: The Cost of Life), and presented it to friends and families, I asked one girl how she felt. “Like you,” she said, meaning she now felt like an educational leader. That was one of the first times I saw how helping youth switch from media consumers to producers created a shift in their identity that told them they could do things in the world, they could make things happen.

Another story took place at a new school — The School of the Future — and yes, that was it’s actual name — a public school in Philadelphia supported financially by Microsoft. MS funded Ayiti and invited us to an event they had organized using the gym’s high tech auditorium for education officials from around the world. I brought a student with me who was bored to tears and jumped at the chance, when asked, to leave the rarefied space of the MS event and just speak to the new student body.

He followed another speaker — a thoughtful young man who ran a youth-centered online community who, none the less, knew little about how to speak to inner-city youth of color (I seem to recall he tried to have them connect with his suburban experience of having a paper route). So when my student, now a senior, got up to speak he barked at them, “You were not listening. Now listen to me!” And they did.

He told the story about how he dropped out from school, did things he didn’t want to get into, and then returned a few years later to get his diploma. One day he heard on the speaker that there was a program he could go to to play games. At least, that’s what he wanted it to be. But it was actually a program to make games. And the game they made, with professional game designers, was about how hard it was for impoverished Haitian children to get a good education. At first he thought, Why do I care about kids in Haiti? What would they know about his struggles to survive in Brooklyn? But then, as he learned more, he found their struggles were the same as his own. And he began to identify as a global citizen, realizing he might have more in common with poor kids around the world than he did with people who lived in New York City. So responding to the call to join an after school program to make a game turned into his pathway to understand his place in the wider world.

Now, that was all DURING the programs. So you shared about what happens when those without are left on their own. I just shared two stories about what might happen when games are used as an intervention. That makes me want to take this one step further: what happens next?

During my time at Global Kids, I had the privilege of taking many youth, as I did with the young man at the MS school, to speak at conferences — in Michigan, Wisconsin, Redmond, New York City, and more. I often see those as transformative experiences.

One of those youth was a very quiet but bright young man with a wry sense of humor. We thought he was sleeping through the program until one day, when asked to report on what we did, his writing was more on point and sharper than anyone else in the program. When asked where he learned to write like that, he said “Facebook.” In any case, life was hard for him, as a foster kid passed around the system. He eventually graduated and went off to college and, like most, we lost touch. A few years ago I read an article about him in the New York Times, in their annual Christmas season round-up of “the Neediest Cases” as he was now homeless. Through social media we contacted him and offered assistance.

Another girl turned to game design as a teen as a way to get away from a pair of abusive parents, from who she eventually escaped to live with supportive relatives. Her passion for game design led her to create remarkable work while at Global Kids and earn her a full scholarship to do game design in college. She still has her struggles, which she posts regularly about online, but she is about to graduate and is as committed as ever to go into commercial game design work to promote anti-racism, anti-sexist messages.

One girl began her time in our game design programs extremely quiet, clearly sitting on a lot of pent up feelings, often writing poetry in the corner while we designed a game about medical racism in the industrial prison complex. Her poetries were often about suicide. Before long she began a full participant in the program which led to many years in a wide range of Global Kids programs, shining in everything she did. But that was many years ago. Her second child is now on the way, the father out of the picture, and she’s terrified. This is not where she thought she’d find herself. The silver lining here is that she reached back out to the organization and staff members who knew her helped her out financially. So she had us, she knew she had us, and she felt she could ask for help.

Finally, last year one of my first students contacted me last year. It had been almost 15 years. He simply wanted to know what in the heck we’d actually been doing in our programs. It was so long ago he just didn’t know and had never understood at the time. I told him and he was amazed. At the time he was coming late every session, as he had to first pick up his young sister, who then sat in the back of the room, while he approached everything we did with a carefully honed resistance. It turns out he was also teaching himself how to code on his own — none of his we ever knew — and he’s now a successful silicon alley entrepreneur.

And one last one. I received the following through Facebook a few months ago from a student who graduated 6 years ago. He was writing to thank me for writing him a recommendation for a tech training program. “Back then you gave me a recommendation. At that time I honestly had no one I could ask and if I didn’t get one, I would’ve not registered in the first place. Today I can say that I’m doing a job that I enjoy, in a field the I also enjoy, which is I.T. I just wanted to say thank you for the recommendation, the multiple internships you gave me, and the support you provided in my life.”

I don’t share these five stories because they are illustrative of five different directions — they are each unique to each individual united by a few common threads: we have no way to know what will make a difference in the end, game design spoke to each of them in their own unique way, and through their life struggles they still understood they had us as a resource they could draw upon years later.

Thank you for sharing. It really is amazing work that you and Global Kids have done.

The stories that you share have a few common threads: struggles at home, new learning opportunities, role modeling, support networks, and sometimes travel (which maybe speaks to opportunities that broaden perspectives).

These stories revolve around the Global Kids game design program as a form of intervention. Participation in the program tapped into preexisting interests in some/most cases, but you do not mention anything (edit: anything is too strong of a word here) specific to the curriculum (i.e. game design) or the media (i.e. games) that triggers the transformative experience.

Am I correct in saying that, as you describe this, it could have just as easily been a sports camp or an art program or a science camp that triggered similar effects? (Maybe the sports camp and the science camp do not get to the point about active use that you make.)

More succinctly, what I am asking is: is the use of games/game design central to these stories or are these stories really about providing a support network? If the latter, why focus on games at all?

I am sorry to tug this back away from personal stories, but there is an important practical and policy question here. Does it matter what the content of the intervention program is and, if so, are we investing our national resources in the right areas?

I feel like this is a separate conversation from the broader impact of professionally made games on affecting change (which is really a proxy for a conversation on how interaction with art can impact life) but it is equally important to address.

James, Very important question. Global Kids offers a great context for exploring this question because it offers so many programs in the same location, so we can compare.

So the gaming program we’re discussing here is called Playing 4 Keeps. It was first offered in 2005 and is now in locations all over the city (and, I believe, Long Island and perhaps D.C.).

Any school which offered P4K ALSO offered, on a different day, within the same school, the general Global Kids Power of Citizenry program. That program focused more directly on global issues, while P4K offered a more project-based and games-based learning approach. So in this context, P4K attracted kids within a school with an existing interest in games and, once in a GK program, were directed to also join the P.O.C. program. From this perspective, gaming became just one of many entry points within a school to get youth into the core GK programs (other entry points included performance and, separately social activism).

So on one hand, games became a way to get them in the door. But that begs your question — once there, to what extent did the gaming pedagogy drive the learning. I think that’s a harder one to tease out

I think it’s fair to say that, at a broad level, all GK Youth Leaders (as they are called) appear equally empowered at a personal level and engaged with social topics at a global level. So whether it is about learning to create and present interactive workshops, or design games, to lobby the state senate, or sing in a performance. And for that I would focus on the core youth development pedagogy that runs so strong throughout GK.

So then I think we can ask: Is there something the youth in GK learned that participated in P4K but not in the other interest-driven GK entry points? Now, all I can do is be anecdotal. I find a strong percentage of the post-P4K youth with whom I am still in touch over the years have gone into tech related fields — whether going to school to offer professional tech support to running silicon alley-based tech start-ups. Of course, the seed of this interest might have been what led them to come to P4K in the first place, but I’d want to focus on the leadership role it helped develop among the youth that helped them to strategically pursue their tech dreams. Of course, we’d need a study to truly learn if that were actually true but if it is, that still only tells us this: a strong youth development pedagogy can help youth develop the skills to pursue their dreams, and focusing the content on youth’s interests, like games, can be an effective way to draw them in.

Which of course still begs your question, which I will rephrase as: Is there something specific about game-development that we need to be focusing on, or is it more important to simply state “youth like games” and that’s enough to include it within other youth topics within youth development programs.

OK, so it sounds like games can act like an entry point the same as anything else (subject to the interest of the target youth). But that once there the youth may be affected by game development in different ways — stronger alignment with STEM skills, increase in career path choices, role modeling entrepreneurship and interdisciplinary studies (programming + art + music), and team/project management skills. Much of which is transferable to other fields. Much of which also seems to be present in other programs centered on project-based learning.

So is it enough for us to say that museums and other informal learning groups/places should just look at starting project-based learning programs and decide whatever subject they prefer? That games are more or less the same as anything else in that broader category?

Even if the learning process is the same for the student, maybe there is something to be said for the outputs. A sports camp, a robotics camp, etc… They provide similar entry points and similar skill development. But do they produce narrative media that can inspire others? A secondary effect if you will?

Are those ripples in education (and in the self-empowerment of being able to become a storyteller) enough to make game programs worthy of special consideration?


So maybe games-based learning is like the movie, the Matrix — it’s strength comes on how it brings together in a unique and powerful way important but desperate things. The Matrix found a way to combine Kung-fu, anime, comic books, and so much more. Games-based learning brings together youth development, project-based learning, systems thinking, STEM literacies, narrative development, iterative design and design thinking, multimedia design, transmedia literacy… and I can go on.

Sure — at an event at Games for Change this year Paul Darvasi brought up that games are the only type of media that can encompass all other media. It’s an interesting point. That’s part of what transfixes us. Not just the art and the sound but the agency and the story of the experience. The variability.

That reminds me of Dan Spock’s assertion that museum exhibitions are the medium of media:

Fascinating! So, the author (Eugene Dillenburg) is firm in his argument that exhibits are the defining characteristic of museums and that exhibits are physical experiences.

His full definition of an exhibit is: “a physical environment designed for the experience of embedded knowledge”.

But if you replace the word “physical” with “virtual” in that definition, you end up with something remarkably close to a game.

In fact, even if you leave “physical” in, you can end up with a game along the lines of a LARP (Live Action Role-play). Something not lost on Punchdrunk and the Maritime Museum

Truth. I’m hoping to go to a Nordic LARPing conference this Nov in Mälmo, and see how much overlap there is.

Very interesting! It’s radically different than what most people expect when they enter a museum. In ludology, we talk about the Magic Circle, right? This amorphous barrier that separates “normal” behavior and “game” behavior. (i.e. Lying is bad at work but necessary in Poker)

Museums have a notoriously thick Magic Circle membrane. You enter the hallowed doors and feel the “don’t touch”, “be quiet”, “listen to me” culture breathing out of the walls. (some science/kids museums notwithstanding)

But then you see things like Projekt Exodus which transform the historical space into an experience. With narrative. Motion. Time. Social aspects. Instead of a walkthrough of an old battleship, you have something that is alive.

That’s why I think playful experiences in museums are so powerful and important, as they have the potential to shift for the visitor so much nonsense put in the way of their full participation within the space.

100% agree. Curious to talk more about the virtual — can entirely virtual games be considered exhibits in any sense?

Depends. How do you define a museum exhibit? What are the boundaries?

James, I am hearing Constance Steinkuehler at the annual Digital Media and Learning conference, right now, giving the keynote asking: “What is the Intellectual Culture of Games?” She just weighed in on our earlier discussion — what are games, like all media, amplifying: “Games are a trojan horse for interest-driven learning”.

Hey guys, you’re officially next in line for launch.

Oh no! Better get in all the thoughts…

So, I think we’re on: can entirely virtual games be considered exhibits?

We can start with: can entirely virtual experiences be considered exhibits? I think practice in the field would imply yes. Then: is there anything that a game provides that would cause it to be excluded from the definition of an exhibit? Which translates to: can virtual exhibits be interactive? Again, I think that’s an obvious yes.

But saying “a game can be a virtual exhibit” still seems radical for some reason. Why is that?

Please let me — in a round about way — reframe your question (which might just be my way to dodge it and throw it back at you). There’s a wonderful comprehensive paper out called “The Learning Affordances of Augmented Reality for Museum Exhibits on Human Health”

As an introduction to museums it opens by contrasting the 19th century object-oriented epistemology (that treated the real object as better able to communicate knowledge about it than any representation of it) with today’s more constructivist approach (which focuses on how a real object is just one part of a complex system learners use to make meaning).

So perhaps, given this shift, in the 19th century, a game could not be a virtual exhibit, since a virtual object couldn’t cut the muster. But now, we understand how creating a learning context around and with an object can be key to engaging a visitor and helping them to access their prior knowledge and compare it against what the museum voice aims to communicate. So today we are more open to the idea of virtual objects and virtual exhibits.

Ooh, this looks really pertinent to something else I’m working on!

That said, can virtual objects offer an experience as enriching and engaging and educational as a physical one? And, if so, can that virtual museum be in the form of a game?

Ed! Get out of our epistolary correspondence. :slightly_smiling_face: (Unless you plan to join it).


Mr. Oz, get back behind your curtain…

Pay no mind to the man behind the curtain! Nothing to see here. Carry on…

So with that frame, I think it might be too far to say a virtual experience can replicate the experience of a physical museum. I can see how one can push the point, but I think doing so might be a detriment to what the virtual affords. It might be more productive to ask: How can virtual interactives draw from the museum experience so they can reproduce and expand what is possible using what the virtual affords? So, could a game generate a sense of awe and wonder about the natural world, generate a love for Degas, provide a space of contemplation, connect you with friends and loved one through a shared experience, help you facilitate a meaningful learning experience for your kids, give you access to experts with esoteric knowledge about Gettysburg, or the space program, or contemporary art?

And, if they do, is it important we connect them back to museums (Look, we get to walk through a virtual building! Look, we get to manipulate and explore a virtual Degas!) or is doing so just a desperate attempt to remain relevant in the digital age?

OK, so maybe this is the heart of it then. Can games only be ancillary to/supportive of museum experiences or can they be at the core of it?

Thought experiment time! This is one that Neal Stimler, Darren Milligan, and I had some fun discussing at a previous Museums and the Web.

Given absolute fidelity, is there an inherent difference between virtual and physical experiences?

My answer would have to be no and, to add to that: technology will eventually be able to create absolute fidelity — on a long enough timeline.

Is there a difference between the Hope Diamond (real version), the Hope Diamond (fake version), and the Hope Diamond (virtual version) if we live in a world where all three could be made in a way that they are indistinguishable? How would the 19th century object-oriented epistemologists respond to that question after having tried out Oculus Rift or Magic Leap?

This isn’t an idle question. It’s the Turing Test as applied to object-based learning.

But I think that you’re right that asking this question TODAY is the wrong question. You use the word “replicate” and that’s exactly what is wrong with how we approach museum games. The fidelity isn’t there, and why would we spend time, effort, and limited funding to replicate something that is better in the physical (for the foreseeable future)?

Please — if anyone takes away anything from this — please don’t create another virtual museum with virtual walls and virtual paintings.

So if I am agreeing with you that museum games should not be used “to replicate” and I am suggesting that they should not only be used “to support”, then what verbs are we left with? Replace? I hope not. I think there is room for both (for the foreseeable future).

Barry, you were there at Serious Play when I gave my talk on narrative in museums. I think the right word here, as I said then, is “to redefine”.

To bring this all back to media… Transmedia exists for a reason. Different forms of media (physical exhibits, games, etc.) allow us to explore ideas in different ways. They don’t replace and they don’t have to be restricted to augmenting or supporting the physical. Just as a book is different from a film, they redefine the experience in a way that the other cannot. They both have value alone. They also have value when used together.

In my opinion, that is the real opportunity when it comes to museum games.

To respond directly to your question, is it important to connect them back to the museums? Not important… essential. And not to the museum (here defined as a building) but to the museum (here defined as a field and a community of practitioners).



A Series of Epistolary Romances

The second experiment by the CODE|WORDS collective

Thanks to J Collins.


Written by

Barry Joseph: Exploring the Intersection of Digital Media & Museum-based Learning. (Views expressed here are my own.)

A Series of Epistolary Romances

The second experiment by the CODE|WORDS collective