Playing with Art: The gamification of non-game spaces

“Tempt someone out of SFMOMA and eat them,” urges one activity in ArtGameLab, an exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art that uses games to encourage visitors to break the mores of traditional museum conduct. While it’s doubtful that SFMOMA actually promotes cannibalism among its visitors—museums struggle enough as it is—this tongue-in-cheek game shows a willingness on the part of the museum to forgo tradition in an attempt to reach new audiences.

Gamification, the increasing prevalence of games and game thinking to enhance non-game environments, is becoming ever more prominent in fields like education and product marketing. Games are used to encourage us to happily perform tasks we might otherwise view as boring. They engage our minds and put us in a state of blissful productivity, where we may actually prefer working hard to relaxing. They trick us into learning, even teaching us new ways to learn.

The current discussion around gamification is largely focused on games as facilitated by technology. As we become increasingly attached to our devices, game designers are called upon in the battle to win our fractured attentions.

But games in a museum? Aren’t we supposed to keep our hands to ourselves, shut up, and enjoy the art? Erica Gangsei, manager of interpretive media at SFMOMA and curator of ArtGameLab doesn’t think so. “There are a lot of examples of games and game play throughout art history,” she says, explaining the nascence of the gamification of art spaces. “Interactive works of art, performance, and instruction based works of art are examples of things that are, if not full games, they are at least gameful.”

Gamification has reached maturity in the age of smartphones and tablet computers. The Tate Modern gallery has released several iPhone apps including the recent Race Against Time, a platform game designed to expose players to art history as they travel through modern art movements. SFMOMA has its own app called SFMOMA Families that leads families through the museum and encourages conversation and interaction.

ArtGameLab encourages patrons to play in the museum.

What ArtGameLab does that your device’s apps don’t is remove the screen from your hands and turn the museum into the game board. It acknowledges that stumbling through a museum with your eyes glued to your phone isn’t the best way to appreciate some of the greatest collected works modern art has to offer.

The games of ArtGameLab were originally crowd-sourced from the SFMOMA community. The selected winners are simple, no-tech games that range from scavenger hunts to role-playing games to an entire alternate reality in which SFMOMA is at the core of an alien art conspiracy. The unifying factor in all of these games is that they provide a framework for visitors to break the rules. They give us permission to act in a way in which we might otherwise feel uncomfortable.

Super Going combines real-world play and online sharing.

Super Going, the ArtGameLab submission by local social game developer Situate, provides visitors with missions to be completed in or around SFMOMA, then invites players to share their documented journey with an online community. “Players can get lots of interesting missions to do at SFMOMA, which I think really enhances the museum-going experience,” explains Situate co-founder Ian Kizu-Blair. “Many of the missions are based on artworks in the exhibitions, but some are just about enjoying the museum space in new ways.”

The missions of ArtGameLab’s Super Going are only a sample of those available at the Super Going website. With supergoing.com, Situate has created a hybrid game space where online interactions encourage and reward real-world play. Players can log in and complete missions provided by the community to gain points and climb the leaderboard. It creates a framework in which the participants are encouraged to interact with real people and objects in original ways, all for the sake of play.

SFMOMA and Tate Modern aren’t the only museums using games to engage their visitors. “I helped design a game with City Mystery for the Smithsonian American Art Museum called ‘Ghosts of a Chance,’ which was an alternate reality game and scavenger hunt,” says Kizu-Blair. “Our mission was to engage younger audiences and make the museum feel like a place full of mystery and excitement, and I think we succeeded.”

Creating games for a traditionally non-game space, such as a museum, provides designers with a unique dilemma. “I think the biggest challenge making a game for a museum comes from the players’ personal reservations about playing in one,” says Kizu-Blair. “No one wants to do something loud, or weird, or crazy in a modern art museum.”

But SFMOMA's Gangsei doesn’t want that to dissuade anyone. She encourages visitors to step out of the norm. “There are always these unintended results of doing a divergent activity inside a space like this where you notice things that you wouldn’t have noticed before,” Gangsei explains. “You start to think of things in imaginative terms that are separate from the ways that are within the conventional perspective.”

How can you not want to play The Peculiar Scholarship of Dr. Bedcannon?

With games becoming an increasingly important part of our everyday lives and the gamification of museums and art galleries, it raises the question, are we ready for games as fine art? Situate’s Kizu-Blair thinks so. “I definitely think that games will be recognized as fine art. The Smithsonian’s exhibition on video games already recognizes this,” he says. “The best games take us out of our comfort zones and challenge us to see the world in new ways. If that’s not art, I don’t know what is.”

Electronic devices are the primary medium through which games are entering our lives, and their value for such purposes as education, self-improvement, and of course entertainment cannot be undervalued. But projects like ArtGameLab remind us that, no matter how much time we spend in front of a screen, we live in the real world and they strive to make that world a richer, more social, joyous place to play. Visit ArtGameLab in the Korret Visitor Education Center at SFMOMA, on display through August 12. Just try to avoid eating your fellow guests.

[Reed A Raymond is a writer, gamer, and board game designer in San Francisco. He blogs about his adventures at reedaraymond.com.]

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