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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.

SFMOMA’s Art Game Laboratory: Real-Life Mad Science Experiments in Visitor Engagement

Erica Gangsei, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, USA


ArtGameLab is an interactive exhibition of crowd-sourced game prototypes that opened at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art on January 15, 2012. The exhibition engages the museum’s community to invent games that test out new ways of experiencing the museum, and is populated by five responses to an open call for game designs. The exhibition also provides ongoing opportunities for continued community dialogue about games—through online channels, onsite visitor feedback mechanisms, and live programming focused on games. The project structure was inspired in part by the Museums and the Web 2011 unconference session “Setting Ourselves Up to Fail: Low Cost, Low Stakes Strategies for Visitor Engagement.” This paper will summarize the process and the games themselves, and employ key principles from that session as measures of this project: How can we use games to engage visitors, and how might we measure their success? What does it mean to be “low cost”? And “low stakes”? How does the project succeed (and/or fail) in overcoming institutional barriers to experimentation?

The mini-workshop connected with this paper will provide hands-on opportunities to play the five games that are part of ArtGameLab.

Keywords: games, community, crowdsourcing, analog/digital, audience interaction, prototyping

An open call

ArtGameLab is an interactive exhibition of crowd-sourced game prototypes, displayed and distributed in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s (SFMOMA) Koret Visitor Education Center. The project invites SFMOMA’s community to employ vocabularies of game play to test out strategies for visitor engagement. Our approach towards this aim is twofold: 1) populate the exhibition with content sourced through an open call for game designs, and 2) once the exhibition opens, connect with SFMOMA visitors to a critical dialogue about gaming in museums through a variety of fora in the exhibition, online, and in live events.

Figure 1: An installation view of ArtGameLab 

Over the summer of 2011, we sent an open call out to Bay Area game designers, experience designers, conceptual artists, and performers. The call for submissions was designed to take advantage of the talent, creativity, and enthusiasm already rampant in the Bay Area, including hybrid analog/online gamer communities. We asked for inventive but low-cost ideas for games that SFMOMA’s visitors can play in the galleries and other public spaces of the museum. We received about fifty proposals from community members from a multitude of disciplines and with wide-ranging levels of experience. The proposals varied from the highly technological to the determinedly analog, from the absolutely feasible to the absurdly farfetched.

In the end, we narrowed the field to focus on paper-based, or “analog,” games, only one of which contains a digital report-back element. Non-digital, non-electronic games provided a few production advantages. First of all, one can produce more paper-based games for less budget—in this case, five games for $14,000 (less than any single app project that SFMOMA has undertaken). Secondly, it often seemed that the artists who proposed non-electronic games were thinking further outside of the box—their ideas, simply put, were more inventive, more engaging, and generally quirkier than their digital counterparts. Furthermore, analog games are unexpected in the field, as most of the popular discussions about gaming trends focus on digital games. Online and video games are powerful tools in many respects, and the rise of gaming trends is due in large part to the pervasiveness of these digital tools. A return to analog games seemed like a good way to experiment further toward the margins of the field of game design.

There were also user-experience advantages to selecting paper-based games. Presenting the results of the project in simple formats removes some of the producer/consumer barrier by showing how little other than imagination is required to make a game. By boiling games down to their basic mechanics, we hoped to inspire critical thought about games in general, and about games in museums specifically. Paper-based games also trade on a certain nostalgia for evenings spent playing games at home with family and friends, which we hoped would nurture a deeper level of visitor participation.

There is already some activity at SFMOMA in the arena of experimental games for visitor engagement—mostly paper-based, low-profile, kid-oriented, do-it-yourself efforts by docents and Family Programs staff. These usually take place within the bounds of a facilitated experience, such as a docent tour or a Family Sunday. The games in these cases are developed with specific pedagogical goals, target age ranges, and desired experiences. ArtGameLab was not only a larger-scale, public-facing initiative focused on games, but an initiative focused on games for their “casual” uses (as opposed to “serious” games, which are designed to solve a real-world problem). There was no specific pedagogical goal, and no educational mission that the game designers were required to incorporate.

Producing games

The games we produced were selected for feasibility and strength of idea, but also for variety: the final five represent different game types, approaches, and activities to be completed. In every case, the development of the game required significant collaboration between the designers and the author to ensure seamless functionality within the museum, relevance to the concerns of the visitor, relevance to modern and contemporary art, and quality of the overall experience.

The Curious Scholarship of Dr Bedcannon 

An alternate reality game (ARG) by a group of independent ARG enthusiasts called the Elsewhere Philatelic Society, this game draws on the visual vocabulary of stamp collecting in a nod to the covert world in Thomas Pynchon’s 1966 novella, The Crying of Lot 49. Players explore select works from the perspective of a conspiracy-theorist curator who has surreptitiously provided a map and key to the visitor in an effort to reveal his theories about hidden secrets in SFMOMA’s collection. Players are led through clues embedded in the artworks until they complete a key, which in turn leads them to the location of a talisman (or “prize”) that they may collect.

Figure 2: A player picks up a map and key from a mailbox on display


 Figures 3 and 4: Players parse out the “Xenoterric Secrets” hidden in SFMOMA’s permanent collection galleries

Super Going

A multiplayer online game designed by Situate, a Game/UX design company also heavily involved in the Come Out and Play festival ( and other “city as playground” initiatives. Super Going is a mission-based game that Situate adapted for in-house use at SFMOMA. The game assigns tasks that players sign up to complete, and has a social-media report-back function in which players are encouraged to log on to the website ( to post documentation of their missions, see what other players have done, and receive additional missions. A preexisting (and very enthusiastic!) group of gamers is already involved in Super Going, so adapting the game to SFMOMA was more about crafting missions that visitors could play, with or without the social media component. In the SFMOMA onsite version, players pick up a card to receive one of six missions, or suggest a new mission for others to complete at the museum. We have received a number of whimsical and thoughtful visitor responses from the Super Going station, which show that our visitors are eager to participate not just on site but online as well.

 Figure 5: Super Going creators Ian Kizu-Blair and Sam Lavigne demo two favorite missions



 Figures 6 and 7: Super Going Mission No. 228—Create your own version of a work of art you find at SFMOMA. It can be an exact copy or an interpretation. 


Figure 8: Super Going Mission No. 237—Bring a strange object to SFMOMA. Check it in the coat check. Document! 

I Know What I Like 

A role-playing game created by Tom Russotti’s Institute for Aesthletics (, which is dedicated to “playing sports as artistic practice” and works on the boundaries between sports, social sculpture, and performance. In I Know What I Like, players roll dice or simply select a card to become one of six characters. They must then don a mask representing that character and explore the museum with that character’s wishes, desires, and agenda in mind instead of their own. Each character has three levels of tasks that may be completed—Stealth, Hands-On, and Bold. The Bold tasks generally push the boundaries of “museum behavior” quite far.

Figures 9 and 10: I Know What I Like instruction panel and character cards


Figure 11: All six characters from I Know What I Like plot a revolution (the Bold task for one character) inside the SFMOMA Family Programs “Art Basics” castle 

Dialogues in Motion

A performance or parlor game that functions as a sort of reverse charades. In the galleries, players listen and read closely for the use of twelve select vocabulary words in other visitors’ conversations, didactic texts, and their own thoughts relating to the artwork on view. Each time a word is used, the player makes a corresponding physical gesture. The aim is to attend to the discourse used around different works of art, and to become a performer or spectacle for others through one’s movements. Each time a gesture is performed, the player marks a box on the scorecard. A fully marked scorecard is the “win state” of the game.

Figure 12: The Dialogues in Motion instruction panel


Figure 13: A Dialogues in Motion player demonstrates what to do upon discovering the word “Representative”


Figures 14 and 15: Dialogues in Motion players respond to two different instances of the word “Line”

Didactic Mad Libs

A word game in which the popular activity of mad libs is employed as a surrealist exercise designed to question institutional authority around the construction of meaning. Didactic Mad Libs is derived from actual wall texts and extended object labels around the museum. In most cases, visitors seem to be filling these out “blind”—with humorous results—and occasionally going back into the galleries afterwards to find the original text for comparison.

 Figures 16: The Surrealism-inspired Didactic Mad Libs display

An open forum

In keeping with the spirit of the open call, we are continuing to include community voices in the project. The exhibition incorporates a number of engagement opportunities, where visitors can respond directly to the experiment, contribute their own thoughts to an ongoing dialogue about gaming in museums, and connect with scholars on the topic.

Game design station

Visitors are invited to invent their own games at a game design station, which functions as both a feedback mechanism and an opportunity to imagine new ways that games might be applied to a museum context. Responses to the call for proposals revealed that the open call in itself captured the imaginations of many community members beyond the fifty who formally applied. The game design station is designed to do the same.

A game design template card asks visitors to design their own game. A game glossary is posted on the wall for inspiration. The game glossary was created by brainstorming games that might be fun to play inside the museum, and adapting definitions from Wikipedia’s store of game definitions. The game types include the five presented in ArtGameLab and others that seemed applicable to museums, such as: Alternate Reality Game, Monster Battle, Parlor Game, Role-playing Game, Scavenger Hunt, and Surrealist Game.

Figures 17: A detail of the game design station

The back of the double-sided game design card functions as a visitor survey, asking them what games they played at SFMOMA (multiple choice, including “a game designed by another SFMOMA visitor”), and what they learned and saw during the course of gameplay. It also asks what they get out of games in general, in an attempt to inspire further reflection on the topic.

Ongoing discussion

Programs around the exhibition include a panel discussion and forum Museum as Game Board, to be held on April 19, 2012. The program will be an open forum on game design, gaming culture, gamification (the application of a game interface to a real-world task such as scientific research), and the widespread rise of “serious games.” Topics will include the purposes and benefits of games, components that make a successful game, and a debate about serious versus casual gaming. These issues are widely discussed at present, and the panel will consider them specifically in the museum context—looking at them through the lens of the educational, social, and experiential functions that museums can serve. In addition to a panel of speakers, Katy Beale, editor of Museums at Play, will be live-tweeting the event and available on a “backchannel” to respond to audience queries throughout the evening.

Continued onsite and online engagement

We are bringing the local gamer community into the exhibition through periodic gaming meet-ups, focusing on a different game each time. In collaboration with SFMOMA’s Digital Engagement Associate, we have promoted the project and related activities using social media. SFMOMA’s community can also post results of games played, and ideas for games for other SFMOMA visitors to play, directly to our Tumblr. To call attention to these efforts, we have added ArtGameLab to the top-level navigation of our Tumblr (


The structure of the ArtGameLab exhibition project was partially inspired by the author’s MW2011 unconference session “Setting Ourselves Up to Fail: Low Cost, Low Stakes Strategies for Visitor Engagement.” This next section will apply the key principles from that unconference session as measures of the project:

1)            Was it “low cost”?

2)            Was it “low stakes”?

3)            How can we use games to engage visitors, and how might we measure their success?

4)            How does the project succeed (and/or fail) in overcoming institutional barriers to experimentation? 

So was it low cost?

How can cost be measured? It’s a mix of actual money, elbow grease, and internal political capital.


Moneywise, this was bigger than a small initiative, but smaller than a big initiative. The project budget was $14,000, about on par with a reasonably sized media initiative, such as a suite of twenty artist videos or a thirty-stop comprehensive audio tour. However, it cost less than most apps.





Display and wall graphics


Instruction cards


Artist honoraria




Table 1: A summary of expenses for producing and displaying five games

However, it bears mentioning that where museums are concerned, paper-based does not mean inexpensive—in fact, quite the opposite over time, as reprinting costs add up.


The author spearheaded this initiative in addition to a full roster of other projects and responsibilities, and in so doing gave over many evenings and weekends. Many in our field refer to Google’s “20% rule” or the ideal that museum staff should be permitted to spend one day per week on passion projects—however, such passion projects usually add up to at least 20 percent on top of an already overfull schedule.

Internal capital

We do not operate in a vacuum. Success of a project like this depends on support of supervisors and collaboration with colleagues. This project took not just the author’s time spent as curator, but that of the graphic designers and an in-house editor who shared responsibility for quality control. It was a learning curve for all, as this kind of project—incorporating outside voices into a physical display onsite at the museum—had never been done before. There are parallels in the SFMOMA blog, which frequently provides a platform for unadulterated outside voices, but as that is a digital space, it can be retooled in ways that a physical exhibition simply cannot.

All told, it didn’t break any banks, but it wasn’t cheap.

And was it low stakes?

Stakes can be measured internally and externally.

ArtGameLab was free of many of the internal pressures that usually weigh on museum exhibitions. There was no fight over precious gallery real estate, as the show was installed into an otherwise empty Koret Visitor Education Center hallway gallery. Additionally, the exhibition was not expected to drive attendance or boost admissions revenue or membership sales. As with many education department programs, it was put forward as a general “value-add” for the institution.

However, there were still internal pressures that compromised the ability to experiment as fully as we might have liked. There was a strong collective desire to adhere to our accustomed high standard regarding institutional production aesthetics and the SFMOMA editorial voice. Museums cannot seem to display something, even something that is qualified as an experiment, without a layer of polish and packaging.

Additionally, games are hot right now, and so is crowd-sourcing—factors that raised the profile of this project. The exhibition was a point of interest for staff and community members, such as donors, trustees, artists, curators, and local intellectual types. Furthermore, there was a lot of passionate interest from the very same gamer community that received and responded to the call for proposals. Simply put, there were many eyes on this project.

Strong community interest, while raising the stakes, can also be counted as a measure of the project’s success. However, this can simply serve to continue the conversations that often occur among such art world insiders—the initiated rehearsing a closed set of concerns peculiar to their hermetic cultural interests. Beyond the internal drive towards experimentation and intellectual investigation, these games were designed for visitors to play them. As such, we must also consider the project through the lens of the general concerns of educational efforts. Are we helping our visitors or burdening them with an “extra layer” of information and activity? Are we engaging them or simply confusing them? Are we fascinating them or overwhelming them? Do visitors enjoy playing these games? And if so, are the games enhancing the museum experience (gamifying the museum world) or just providing another “playground” (museum-ifying the game world)?

Measuring visitor engagement

We have plans to do evaluation, but have nothing conclusive to report thus far. Our indices of evaluation will be quantitative and qualitative. We can track the number of visitors to the Koret Center and keep an eye on the instruction card take-up rates. Several of the games also have built in mechanisms—phone calls received, masks worn, pages clicked, images uploaded—to track both the number of participants and the depth of their participation. We have also been able to track qualitative experience through visitor response postcards, anecdotal feedback, online buzz, traffic to the ArtGameLab Tumblr page, and other online resources. Periodic gaming meet-ups and other activities provide a natural avenue by which reactions to these games can be better understood, and we plan to pair our findings from these events (which by their nature are attended by a self-selecting audience of gamers) with information from general visitor interviews and surveys.


In a sense, this project had two audiences: the visitor and an internal audience. Senior staff and trustees not accustomed to seeing this type of experimentation on this scale may take note. The exhibition was intended as a “proof of concept” project within our museum, designed to beta-test strategies for visibly incorporating diverse experimental voices into the physical space of the institution. Bit by bit, projects like this will in fact break down institutional barriers to experimentation by providing new models for presenting multi-vocal, crowd-sourced content.

However, where high-profile displays inside large institutions are concerned, there is no such thing as a medium-scale, grassroots experiment. A project must either fly mostly under the radar (as the aforementioned facilitated Family and docent activities do) or operate outside of the perceived “institutional umbrella” (as SFMOMA’s efforts on Twitter and Tumblr do). In the end, we chose accessibility, comprehensibility, and feasibility above the really groundbreakingly farfetched responses. As such, several in the local avant-garde art and game worlds, who had the highest hopes for ArtGameLab, have referred to the project as “a modest step in the right direction.” Once we’d applied the institutional safeguards, vetting the projects for usability and a satisfying visitor experience, it seems that the project was not fully given room to fail. Where visitors are concerned, we as museum educators are perhaps too interested in seeing things succeed.

That said, ArtGameLab iterated a model that can be used going forward to present outside voices on an institutional platform. The project self-identified as “crowd-sourced” and established itself as an experiment in a non-formal exhibition space. Qualifying a project as outside the mainstream, as we did, can provide a fair amount of latitude. It’s as if we set up a micro-umbrella for experimentation underneath the larger institutional umbrella. One can imagine multiple applications for such a model, analog and digital, on site and online. Looking forward, we might allow different “broadcasters” or “programs” to present a diversity of concepts within a templatized format, continuing to broaden our editorial voice and push our boundaries in ways that sincerely involve our community.

In the final analysis, then, it appears that failure is not an option, but experimentation is.