March 22-25, 2006
Albuquerque, New Mexico

Papers: Discover Babylon: Creating A Vivid User Experience By Exploiting Features Of Video Games And Uniting Museum And Library Collections

Michelle Lucey-Roper, Federation of American Scientists, USA

Discover Babylon is a research and development project involving UCLA’s Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative (CDLI), the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) and the Walters Art Museum (WAM). It focuses on how new information technologies (and game technology in particular) can enable key recommendations of modern learning science and bring new life, meaning, and excitement to museum and library collections. Synthetic learning environments allow visitors to see the objects used in context, manipulate them, and ask questions about them from characters in the game. Games offer an exploratory environment in which learners can engage in experiential, active, problem-based learning, receive immediate feedback, and create their own pathways to knowledge. Collections can be virtually reassembled to create a richer appreciation of a single artifact or a deeper understanding of a whole culture.

The project emphasizes technology-enhanced learning experiences that encourage intergenerational dialogues by groups of museum audiences and that reach non-traditional museum visitors. It does this with a process that carefully integrates development and evaluation of new leaning system. The project is creating an immersive learning game that is designed to teach players about the cultural legacy of ancient Mesopotamia. The game features historically accurate virtual worlds; digital representations of museum and library objects, challenges to keep learners motivated and engaged, a question and answer tool that allows players to receive timely and relevant answers, and immediate assessments that let learners know they have mastered skills and content. The project’s long term research goal is to develop a scalable, replicable tool useful for other types of collections and museums. This paper will outline the process and challenges of undertaking such a project and touch on some of the more promising directions for future research in the area of learning games for museums and library resources.

Keywords: learning science, video games, informal learning, museum education, Discover Babylon, cultural heritage, collaboration


As this conference and its proceedings attest, museums are continuing to use a rich variety of information technologies to increase visitor numbers, reach the elusive non-traditional visitor, and achieve or extend their missions (Hall, Ciolfi, Hickey, Bannon 2002). Emerging technologies such as simulations, exploration environments and video games can allow museums to display their holdings in dramatically new ways, offering the potential to appeal to multiple learning styles and engage audiences. They can weave together different repositories of data, encourage museum and library collaboration, and create a vivid and meaningful user experience. With institutional cooperation, collections can be virtually reassembled to create a richer appreciation of a single artifact or a deeper understanding of a whole culture. New technologies can allow the visitor either to peel away or to add layers of restoration, to see the objects used in context, to manipulate them and ask questions about them from characters in the game. Games (including PC, video and console platforms) offer an exploratory environment in which learners can engage in active problem solving. Games present authentic problems in context, offering a way to bridge the gap between theoretical or complex knowledge and practical skills. They ensure the learning is relevant and the learner is motivated to continue. Games teach higher-order skills, practical competencies and social skills. They allow players to participate in new roles and contain intrinsic motivation through fantasy, challenge, curiosity and competition (Malone, 1981; Lepper and Cordova, 1996; Squire, 2005). Good game design allows learners to create their own pathways to knowledge, stimulates them to ask questions and provides immediate assessment. As with informal learning in general, games provide a voluntary, self-directed, entertaining experience. (Bitgood, Serrell and Thompson, 1994) This type of learning experience embodies some of the key recommendations drawn from the field of cognitive research to make learning more productive, compelling, personal and accessible. (Bransford, Brown & Cocking, 2000)

Games hold a special fascination for today’s youth. Before the age of 21, the average person born today will have spent 10,000 hours playing video games. Whereas on-line courses struggle to reach 50% completion rates, gamers will devote hundreds of hours of time on task mastering the rules to win (Prensky, 2000). Responding to this generation of digital natives, with their unprecedented appetite for and access to information, a trilateral partnership from UCLA’s Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative (CDLI), the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) and the Walters Art Museum (WAM) set out to design an immersive video game that met the expectations of commercial gamers. This paper chronicles the ongoing development and evaluation of this game:Discover Babylon.


Discover Babylon is a bespoke computer game designed to facilitate through fully immersive environments public understanding of the significance of Mesopotamia and its legacy to world civilization. One of our aims is to deliver an educational title that rivals commercial games in the quality of its graphics, storyline, pacing and character animations.

When we began this research work, our goals were to explore how effective games were at engaging non-traditional audiences and enlivening unfamiliar but intriguing material. In addition we were to research how the development of such a video game could be used to encourage libraries and museums to work together and to test the usefulness of the game for organizing information and making it accessible in a way that invites discovery and engages museum audiences.

Project History

Each partner’s participation was critical for the project’s success. CDLI has been developing and implementing a state-of-the-art digital library for Mesopotamian documents, an international initiative that is now in its 6th year. The WAM had both a Near Eastern Art collection and a strong public education program. FAS contributed expertise in learning technologies and developing prototypes for simulation and game-based learning.

Conceptualization, planning and evaluation have all been critical to the design process. We began by asking what each participant wanted to achieve: scholars wanted to increase interest in the material, while the museum community not only wanted to increase foot traffic but also to encourage intergenerational dialogues, and to engage with younger audiences. The learning science team was interested in using advanced information technologies (specifically those that could be incorporated into a game) to implement recommendations for improving learning outcomes that have previously been impractical to achieve.

To explore how best to achieve these goals, an initial informal front-end evaluation was conducted with the team as well as with middle school teachers and young players to see what was possible within the material constraints and affordances.

Project Director Dr. Robert Englund was able to secure institutional cooperation from the Library of Congress and as a result, a number of cuneiform tablets from the WAM collection as well as the Library of Congress’s collection were scanned and added to CDLI’s repository and will feature in the game under development. Both the British Museum and the Ashmolean signaled their willingness to have their objects appear in the game.

Subject matter experts began generating research on objects from the WAM collection and creating wish lists of objects that would illustrate salient points. Work began on identifying and selecting objects for inclusion in the game, accumulating images and compiling research for the game designers to develop historically accurate virtual environments.

Two Version Approach

The Discover Babylon game is being simultaneously developed in two versions: a shorter ‘kiosk’ game and an extended game for use outside the museum. The kiosk game contextualizes objects from the WAM’s collection and one library object (from the Library of Congress). It was designed to offer an enhancement to the museum experience and is to be played at kiosks in the museum. The long game is intended to extend the museum experience for visitors. Having two versions of the game offers the possibility for collective and individual play in both the public and the private spheres.

The Kiosk Game

The kiosk game was designed to enhance visitors’ appreciation of the WAM’s Near Eastern Art Collection. It allows the player to travel back in time armed with a camera to explore a Neo-Assyrian palace. The camera has a limited battery life which limits the length of playtime. The object of the game is to discover the artifacts that have been placed in context and to ‘capture’ them digitally before time runs out.

Fig 1: Screenshot of the Assyrian palace of ancient Kalhu, c. 860 BC from the Kiosk Game

Fig 1: Screenshot of the Assyrian palace of ancient Kalhu, c. 860 BC from the Kiosk Game

The player can interact with several of the characters who can provide more information about the objects, the amount depending on the player’s level of interest. When an artifact is captured, a congratulatory screen pops up with more information on the object and an image of how the object looks in the collection today.

Fig 2: Information Screen from the Kiosk Game

Fig 2: Information Screen from the Kiosk Game

The game resembles an arcade game since museum visitors quickly need to learn both a story line and the goal of the game without getting frustrated with too many rules (Gay, 2001). It can be played for either a few seconds or up to about five minutes.

By being located in the museum, the player is able to make the immediate connection with the virtual object, contextualized in an immersive environment, a digital image of how it looks today, and the real artifact by visiting the gallery behind the kiosks.

The Long Game

The second phase (now in production) aims to extend the museum experience at home through a longer and more involved game that continues audience interaction with museum objects and library content. In this version of the game, the player is challenged to learn about the workings of the present day museum where the game opens, before navigating through three different historical periods. The game will enable the player to develop a deeper understanding of the museum artifacts themselves and the civilization that created them.

Fig 3: Screenshot from Level One (based on the Walters Art Museum) from the Long Game

Fig 3: Screenshot from Level One (based on the Walters Art Museum) from the Long Game

The player will visit the cities of Uruk in 3100 BC, Ur in 2100 BC and Kalhu/ Nimrud in 870 BC. In each of these levels, the player will assume a historically attested identity and must live a day in the life of that character while trying to gather clues to solve the overarching mystery of the game. Along the way, characters can impart information through dialogues and demonstrations, or the learner can be challenged to uncover information through observation, reading or completing challenges.

Three separate time periods and settings were featured in the game to convey the diversity and richness of Mesopotamian cultures that existed during millennia of alliances, conflict and contact throughout the region. The exploration environments, dialogues and challenges each contribute to the experience and help the player construct meaning out of the objects on display in museums or located in the digital library’s collection.

Fig 4: Screenshot of the Ancient City of Uruk from the Long Game

Fig 4: Screenshot of the Ancient City of Uruk from the Long Game

Weaving Together Different Repositories Of Data

Another of the key challenges and opportunities in designing the game was to break down the barriers that separate different types of documentary evidence. Over the past decade, major efforts and technological advances have made possible the broad dissemination of electronic resources for, and from, cultural institutions. For example, the electronic access and search capabilities of library holdings have improved dramatically. For the most part such efforts can convey information clearly, but have a limited capacity to adapt to the audience’s learning ability or specific interests.

Game technology supports a rich array of digital resources and interpretive materials: text, image, sound, video and simulations can all be captured and seamlessly integrated in a highly interactive environment. Gee (2003) notes that games provide an additional dimension by capturing gesture. Visual and sound resources are of course the essence of game environments, while text is often kept to a minimum. Simulations or animations can augment or replace text by demonstrating complex processes.

The cuneiform tablets that form a large share of the documentary evidence from this culture function to some degree as both texts and objects, and could have been treated simply as decorative objects in the game. However we needed to address incorporating text in visual environments head on, since the team felt strongly about incorporating other textual resources including secondary scholarship developed for each object featured in the game. The storyline, character dialogues and game challenges became outlets for some of this material. Additional learning resources such as links to CDLI Web pages are also being used, but using the player’s personal learning assistant has become another method to integrate textual scholarship and encourage its use within the game.

My Learning Assistant: An In-Game Question & Answer Tool

Research conducted for both formal and informal learning has shown that stimulating questions prompt further investigation and active learning (Hirschi & Screven, 1988). With this and a raft of other research on question asking in mind (Learning Federation, 2003), the team designed a question and answer tool for the game. The tool takes the form of a PDA and is called My Learning Assistant. It travels with the player as he journeys back in time but remains concealed from the historical characters the player encounters. My Learning Assistant contains pre-scripted questions and answers about key objects and features in the landscape, and is part of every Discover Babylon player’s inventory. The device (pictured below) can deliver answers in both text and multimedia formats, depending on what is appropriate for the question asked. The device also enables the player to control the depth of information presented. Entries also address what is known versus what is based on scholarly speculation. The information is contextualized to the game play and contains clues players may find helpful when solving the game’s learning challenges. It also provides details and humor to explain the unfamiliar surroundings.

Fig 5: Mockup of the Learning Assistant

Fig 5: Mockup of the Learning Assistant


The evaluation for this project has centered around the question of whether this learning tool has an impact on the audience’s engagement with museum and library collections. Games are uniquely suited for evaluation (Champion, 2003). With a player’s permission, we can log the results of a session to show where the player has gone, what was found to be interesting, challenging or boring, and what questions were asked. The long version of the game will collect some of this data. In-game questionnaires have also been added to both the kiosk game and the long game.

Fig 6: Screenshot of In-game questionnaire

Fig 6: Screenshot of In-game questionnaire

More traditional evaluation instruments have been designed for this project. Random interviews with visitors, focus group testing, and observations at the museum will be conducted.

Evaluation of the kiosk game in the WAM is just beginning, and the sample size is too small for meaningful results. However, prior to installation, the game was tested on public audiences in Pittsburgh and Washington, DC. Informal observation of the group revealed that despite the game’s being controlled by one player, this design did not prohibit groups from participating in the experience as observers. A generational gap has rapidly become apparent, and while younger players were comfortable with the technology and began playing immediately, parents and guardians seemed happiest to play the role of observers. An incidental benefit of this arrangement has been shared experience and discussion. When groups of students gathered, they suggested strategies for winning to the player who was operating the game pad. We anticipate that the social nature of the museum setting (Bell, 2002) will ensure that the game continues to act as a catalyst for dialogue. It would be interesting to compare this with how the game would be used in a library.


With a few exceptions, video games generally have a short shelf life due to rapid upgrades in software and hardware. Archiving games presents certain challenges, not least because of their interactive nature and the need for associated hardware. Games are rarely, if ever, separated into the components that go into their creation, and licensing generally prohibits the open circulation of either the games or their components. Because this is a research project, efforts are underway to archive the art assets separately, enabling them to meet other user requirements.

In producing the game, the project will also create:

  • synthetic environments that can be decoupled from the game challenges;
  • scans of museum objects and tablets;
  • historically attested character models (avatars);
  • learning challenges suitable for use in a classroom;
  • a script;
  • a question and answer database;
  • photographs of objects taken by the project staff;
  • cinematic clips that appear within the game; and
  • two versions of the game.

The game assets are being created using 3ds Max, and the art will be saved in the .max file format. Supplementary files that may be included are .jpg, .tga, .png, .psd, .tif, .avi, .mov, etc. (2d texture maps), .bip (bipedal animation files), .mpg (for movies) and .wav (for sound files). The .max file format can be exported to a number of different formats, but with some loss of attributes.

The model we are creating is intended for replication, and to the greatest extent possible, all protocols, data and research findings will be posted on the project Web site, while the WAM and CDLI will host the digitized Near Eastern objects.

In addition, CDLI has assumed the tasks of archiving the game and its associated multimedia assets and creating metadata for each. Libraries are not primarily concerned with the kinds of interpretive source material that museums create (Hamma, 2003). Few models could be found for metadata standards associated with the game and its associated interactive media and other assets, yet the management of these digital assets is essential to maximize their use and longevity.

Providing access to these files not only will benefit the research community, students, teachers and armchair tourists, but also may increase interest in the game and extend interaction with the subject material by attracting the community of gamers who mod (modify) existing games to personalize their experience. CDLI is therefore seeking to create something flexible enough to meet the needs of users in the future.

Results: The Good, The (Not-All-That-) Bad And The Ugly

The Good

The development of the game and the engagement of our audience was only one goal of the project. Just as important was the fostering of cross disciplinary and cross institutional collaboration between museums and libraries. CDLI provided transliterations, translations, and an extensive bibliography for the museum's holdings. Incorporating the museum’s artifacts into the CDLI database increased the collection's accessibility and contextualized the museum’s pieces within a broader corpus of ancient Near Eastern texts. This collaboration thus provided opportunities for building a community of practice between the WAM and CDLI and for obtaining agreements from other institutions to participate in the project.

Another unexpectedly good result of the project has come from the school community. In the short amount of time the kiosk game has been complete, we have been surprised by requests from teachers asking to use this game in their classrooms. Although it was designed for use in a museum, teachers have indicated that it would serve as a pre-museum visit tool. We have adjusted our dissemination plans and begun work on a teacher resource book to accompany this version of the game.

The (Not-All-That-) Bad

Perhaps the greatest challenge was trying to balance the competing demands of entertainment and education; specifically, the creation of a playable game that would please our audience while meeting a certain level of historical accuracy, especially when it came to settings and characters. The team did not want to create or compete with another game such as the Civilization series or Rise of Nations that allow the player to test out counterfactual historical outcomes.

The Ugly

We have been constrained by existing intellectual property issues and have also created new barriers to open access. For the creation of the game, copyrighted photos were needed as source material for the visualization artist creating the game assets. Because of the shifting landscape of legal interpretations regarding copyright law and fair use, and the international scope of the project, we decided that it would be less risky, although certainly not more economical, to re-photograph the objects in situ at their respective collections with the appropriate permissions granted. In other cases a war-torn country and museums with challenging IP issues prevented us from obtaining our dream list of objects for the learning challenges in the game.

In seeking to keep all aspects of the project in the public domain, the designers initially used an open source game engine, Panda, for the first phase of the game. However, we encountered technical difficulties and limitations working with this engine and so made a decision to move to a commercially available tool.

The second phase was therefore developed using a commercial engine produced by Vicious Cycle. Migrating to a commercial product necessitates monitoring certain licensing issues and aspects of the product; furthermore, since we have used proprietary software, some of the source code for the long version of the game will not be released. However, the benefits outweighed the negatives as this provides faster production time, more stable results, and a state-of-the-art end product.


The creation of this full-scale video game using library and museum resources has been a challenging project. It is still too early to report on the results of our evaluation testing, but initial responses from young learners and teachers in informal user studies have been overwhelmingly enthusiastic. In addition, the process has increased contact and communication between two centers of cultural heritage as ideas and resources were shared and transferred.

Future Directions

Immediate next steps for the project include the release of the long version of the game and a period of rigorous evaluation. We chose the Ancient Near East, specifically Mesopotamia as the focal point of our study, and Mesopotamia has left a rich cultural legacy that could be used to teach other subjects ranging from literature to astronomy, architecture to law. However, we are striving to create a generalizable model, applicable for a variety of different collections. The project partners would like to extend this prototype game and investigate its potential for supporting other subject areas (such as math content) and other institutions (such as science museums). We welcome opportunities to collaborate with other museums and cultural institutions to test the compatibility of our design with other collections and look forward to seeing mods of Discover Babylon and the creation of other full-scale games for museum collections.

While statistics on gaming point to this medium’s staggering popularity and research on gaming shows its potential for teaching and engagement, some words of caution must be voiced. Today’s gamers arrive at their screens with high expectations, yet developing an educational title to a commercial level is both costly and risky. Educational video games need to meet a certain level of fun and production-level to engage audiences (Elliott, 2002).

Discover Babylon is only a prototype game. Even with open source game engines, the real costs of creating a game that meets commercial gamers’ expectations are significant. Commercial video games typically cost between $5- $20 million to create, while federal grants to cultural institutions rarely reach beyond the $1 million level. New sources of funding will have to be identified before projects of this scope are routinely undertaken by cultural institutions and become available to the public. A larger and more systematic investment in learning technologies R&D (particularly for the humanities) would help to identify which aspects of games are most successful in motivating interest and learning to guide the development of future projects. To make better use of existing funds, a concerted effort should be made to link ongoing research projects to advance our understanding of how learning games can engage and delight audiences and how they can contribute to the mission of cultural institutions.


The work reported herein was supported under IMLS support. Innumerable people have generously contributed ideas and time to this project, but the key project team members include Henry Kelly, Kay Howell and Michelle Lucey-Roper at FAS; Robert Englund, Madeleine Fitzgerald and Jeff Szuchman at UCLA; Alice Petty, Regine Schulz, Jackie Copeland, Amanda Kodeck, Nancy Pinn at the Walters Art Museum; Garry Gaber of Escape Hatch Entertainment; Rudy McDaniel at the University of Central Florida; and Paige Teergarden of Managance Consulting. Students from the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University also contributed to the initial design and creation of the kiosk game.


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Cite as:

Lucey-Roper M., Discover Babylon: Creating A Vivid User Experience By Exploiting Features Of Video Games And Uniting Museum And Library Collections, in J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds.). Museums and the Web 2006: Proceedings, Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics, published March 1, 2006 at