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The Name of the Game

by Susan Edwards, J. Paul Getty Museum
and David T. Schaller, eduweb

In The Digital Museum: A Think Guide, edited by Herminia Din and Phyllis Hecht (Washington, D.C.: American Association of Museums 2007).
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Chapter Excerpt:

Fortunately, museums have a long track record with these attributes [of learning games: challenge, curiosity, control and fantasy]. Since the days of the cabinet of curiosity, these qualities have loomed large in the museum visitor's experience. Schaller recalls the elaborate games he played as a child in the exhibits of Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry. These museum visits meant entering the "magic circle"—a place where "a new reality is created, defined by the rules of the game and inhabited by its players."1 In the same way, games are magic circles where players assume new identities, follow a specific set of rules and assign new meanings to familiar actions. Each activity depends on a suspension of disbelief and an element of fantasy, making the magic circle a valuable arena for exploring a subject in an exciting and meaningful way.

The magic circle does not require expensive and immersive game worlds, of course. It exists in simple playground games. But digital technology allows museums to populate their games with rich content from their collections and programs, enticing the player into the magic circle and perhaps immersing him/her in the subject matter. Malone and Lepper call this immersion "intrinsic fantasy," in which "the skill being learned and the fantasy depend on each other." For example, the role-play game Oregon Trail uses intrinsic fantasy in that the player's ability to navigate the trail depends on the individual's knowledge of the game's historical context. The game of Hangman, on the other hand, uses extrinsic fantasy, as the gallows context is not connected to the player's ability to guess words correctly. Malone and Lepper believe that intrinsic fantasy is more motivating and pedagogically effective than extrinsic fantasy.

For museums, intrinsic fantasy is an attractive approach for some subjects and learning goals. Role-play games like the Minnesota Zoo's WolfQuest require the player to learn about the life of a wolf and its wilderness environment in order to accomplish the goals set out by the game. Simulations like SimCity let players experiment with a virtual world or system and teach basic concepts and relationships about the system. But designing such a game is no trivial undertaking, as it requires synchronizing the subject matter, in-game goals and learning goals to ensure that players learn the intended content. Every game proffers a simplified model of some aspect of the real world, which raises the risk that some players will create their own meaning from the game's underlying assumptions. Sherry Turkle has made famous one child's misconception generated by SimCity: "Raising taxes always leads to riots."2

1 Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2004).
2 Sherry Turkle, "Seeing Through Computers: Education in a Culture of Simulation," The American Prospect 8, no. 31 (1997): 76-82.