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Museums and the Web

An annual conference exploring the social, cultural, design, technological, economic, and organizational issues of culture, science and heritage on-line.

Gaming the museum

Martha Henson and Danny Birchall, Wellcome Collection, United Kingdom


What makes a good museum game? Credible learning outcomes, compelling gameplay, or sympathy between the two? During 2010 and 2011, Wellcome Collection have been developing a series of games. In this paper and the workshop, we present four games of very different types as examples of our work so far and attempt to outline some of the underlying principles that have guided it. In the workshop itself, we will brainstorm the ways in which a variety of game platforms and formats might, or might not, work with the themes and content of museums and archives.

Keywords: games, strategy, education, archives, history, syndication


During 2010, Wellcome Collection has been investing in, and developing, online games based around our collections and exhibitions. By April 2011, we will have launched four new games:

We have attempted to move on from a legacy of museum educational games being synonymous with 'interactives' or limited-option, highly didactic walk-through experiences. We don't think that games are simply for young people, either: online games have a nearly universal demographic base, from workplace to home. We think that gameplay is important in its own right, and moreover that good gameplay will attract people who like playing games to Wellcome Collection's content and themes. Below, we describe how we developed the games, why we developed them the way we did, and what we've learned. This brief overview will form the basis for discussion and exercises in the workshop.

Our games

Our multimedia quiz engine allows us to create customisable quizzes with images, audio and video on the subject of our exhibitions and collections. Working with exhibition curators, keepers and librarians to compile the quizzes, we can keep the question topics close to exhibition themes and collections material. At the end of the quiz, in the question review section, we provide further information about the answers and link to both internal and external (e.g. Wikipedia, internet archive) media resources for further investigation.

'Memory' is based on the traditional game of Pelmanism, or 'pairs', in which successions of two cards in a matrix are turned over to see whether they match. In ten levels of increasing difficulty, the game uses more than a thousand images from our image library collection, mostly of historical object and iconographic collections, with a small amount of contemporary biomedical imagery. At the end of each round, players can find out more about the cards that they have matched by clicking through to the image library records. On a more subtle level, 'Memory' also reinforces the idea of multiplicity and repetition in Henry Wellcome's original medical-ethnographic collection of objects.

Our 'Filth Fair' game is based on the popular 'Ultimate Alphabet' iOS app. A digitised painting of a fairground scene contains hundreds of items related to dirt, the theme of a forthcoming Wellcome Collection exhibition and Wellcome Trust season. Correct identification of the items, using hints and cryptic clues, wins in-game medals and rewards. Developed to support a UK-wide 'dirt season' that extends well beyond the Wellcome Collection's reach, the game is also available in a desktop Web version.

Our most ambitious project so far, however, is 'High Tea', a strategy game in which the player takes on the role of a 19th-century British opium smuggler in the Chinese Pearl Delta in the ten years before the outbreak of the First Opium War. The aim of the game is to trade enough opium at a profit to buy tea to satisfy Victorian Britain's thirst. Tackling a controversial episode in British imperial history though an online game might seem like a risky approach. We took our lead from the 'High Society' exhibition on the culture and history of recreational drugs, where the subject of the opium trade was explored through both historical evidence and contemporary art. One of the exhibition's curators, Mike Jay, agreed to be involved in the production of the game, from discussing the basic concept to ensuring the historical accuracy of characters included in the game, such as Commissioner Lín Zéxú.

Development and working methods

Our interest in games stems partly from a strong investment in Web content for our temporary exhibitions: we try to create legacy content stronger and more engaging than image galleries alone. We have discovered, however, that unlike some forms of Web content, one size doesn't fit all when it comes to working with agencies, content or modes of gameplay.

In our discussions with games production agencies, we found that some were used to creating games for consumer brands, where the brand holder delivers the brand property and guidelines and the agency independently creates a game to drive engagement. Though initially promising in terms of ideas, we ultimately found that agencies steeped in this approach produced ideas for games that were too sterile and were unprepared for detailed work with Wellcome Collection staff. By contrast, the agency that we chose to develop 'High Tea', Preloaded, have a record of working closely with museum and educational providers to produce games with rich cultural and learning outcomes.

We also found that curatorial involvement in developing the content of games is fundamental. Wellcome Images picture researchers suggested categories from the collection and researched images for the memory game; curators and keepers wrote the questions for our quizzes; Mike Jay's involvement in 'High Tea' was crucial. We suggest that if you take games seriously as an engagement activity for a museum, they are too important to be left to a new media department or farmed out to an agency by themselves.

Good gameplay is crucial to successful games. If a game isn't fun and rewarding to play, your investment is wasted. The online games market is very crowded and gamers won't seek out or recommend your game based on its learning outcomes. However, it's not necessary to reinvent the wheel by attempting to come up with entirely new modes of gameplay. The basics of platform, strategy and many other games are well-known and well-played, meaning low barriers to entry for even relatively inexperienced players. Developers can also often redevelop existing game engines for a new purpose, reducing the cost of creating a new game. None of our games are innovative in creating new ways to play, but they do attempt to closely marry the type of gameplay to the subject matter. Dirt suggests investigation and elimination; a vast collection suggests the need for memory; historical narratives suggest strategy.

Distribution, learning and evaluation

Games that are limited to museums' own websites run the risk of failing to attract new audiences; we are interested in finding ways for our games to reach the widest possible number of potential players. Our quiz engine creates quizzes that can be deployed to any of our websites. Going beyond this, however, 'High Tea' is built to support distribution via syndication sites like Kongregate and Newgrounds, and even piracy, while retaining branding and continuing to gather playing statistics. Social integration with Twitter and Facebook is also built in, to allow players themselves to spread news about the game with their score. Done well, this can produce gratifying results: 'High Tea' was played 200,000 times in the first two days of its syndicated release.

Concentration on the mechanics of gameplay might suggest that we are uninterested in what are usually described as 'learning outcomes'. In fact, we feel that good gaming offers much more in the way of kinetic, emotional and intellectual engagement than walk-through interactives with pre-determined outcomes ever can. 'Learning' need not be limited to the acquisition of new facts about the world or our collections, but might also include a change of attitude or feeling: an intimation of the scale of a collection, or a critical reflection on British imperial history.

Of course, we can't simply assume that all – or, indeed, any – of this happens. Evaluation of the outcomes is therefore necessary. For 'High Tea', our evaluation process has three strands. First, Google analytics are embedded in the game, measuring not only raw statistics on usage but also players' progress through the game, using event triggers, so that we can measure aggregated achievement and progress. Second, when the game ends, players are invited to take an online survey, in which they are asked not only to rate the game and their experience but also whether their feelings about British behaviour in China have changed. Finally, a group selected from volunteers among those surveyed will be invited to focus groups to discuss their experiences playing the game in greater depth. At the time of writing this paper, the evaluation process is only just beginning, but we hope to be able to present at least preliminary results during the workshop.

The workshop

This will take the form of a short, structured brainstorming session: a laboratory to test ways in which various learning outcomes and stories about museum collections can be delivered through games that are fun and playable in their own right. We want to examine methods that are likely to be successful and ones that are likely to fail.

Although the workshop activity will be designed to allow people to work on new and unfamiliar ideas, we would also like to include the experiences of attendees of working on certain formats and understand how we might bring that experience to bear on the ideas developed in the session.

Before the workshop

We'd like to hear from other people, whether museum staff or independent developers, who are making games for museums, potentially to include some for discussion in the workshop. You can contact us: and

Resources: play and learn

This is far from an exhaustive list of games that occupy the territory that we're interested in, but rather a few starting points for thinking about what's possible.




Fate of the World



The Cat and the Coup (unreleased)

The Curfew

Foresight Engine (previously Signtific Lab)

Cite as:

Birchall, D., and M. Henson, Gaming the museum. In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2011: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2011. Consulted

Program Item Reference: 

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