Museums and Gaming

30 Jan

As I searched for a website or a GIS project that challenged the way I thought about public history, I came across a lot of websites that did very similar things. Most museum websites gave an overview of their exhibits and touted upcoming events. Some websites featured blogs and others offered a searchable database of their collections. As I was having no luck revolutionizing my thoughts about public history, I decided to look at institutions from other countries. During this quest, I came across the McCord Museum in Montreal. Like many museums, its mission is to interpret local history. What was different about this website was the gaming options it offered. There were a wide variety of role-playing games, matching games, and quizzes. This was not something I had come across before. I soon realized these games are quite common in Canada and the UK, and this form of interaction promises a new level of engagement with the past.

We have all encountered games set in the past. I grew up during the Oregon Trail craze. I agonized over whether to caulk and float the wagon or ford the river numerous times, but I have never thought about video games as being a legitimate way to teach history. However, many museums in Canada and the UK have begun creating games based on their collections and exhibits. In the article “Towards a Theory of Good History through Gaming,” published in the Canadian Historical Review, a number of professionals debated the usefulness of historical games. This article noted that a lot of professionals have dismissed mass produced games because they are inaccurate. However, the authors urge the field “to take this new form of historical engagement seriously and seize the opportunity to participate in its development.”[1]  Canada has been leading the way in game studies and even started an association in 2006 to further research the possibilities of linking gaming and history. [2]

We talk about GIS and various forms of mapping to recreate a landscape or cityscape, but with video games a virtual reality could be created from a micro-history. Immersive museum experiences would no longer be limited to living history sites. This could be wildly successful or terribly dangerous for the field. For example, the McCord Museum markets their history online section as the “keys to history.”  Seemingly, with gaming, museums are ceding some of their authority and allowing users to feel as if they are driving their exploration of the past. A role-playing game could certainly offer an excellent educational experience, but an astronomical amount of research would be needed to accurately portray a historical scene. However, even a well-researched 3-D representation can create issues with interpretation and perception. I think it is completely awkward, and ahistorical, to be “walking” down a digital street in Quebec during the 1890s and encountering freaky cartoon people.[3] Nevertheless, I saw a lot of value in the matching games the McCord Museum offers. Those games put each object into context and actually gave the user a better experience with material culture than visitors would have gotten in the museum. In order to be successful, users have to read little blurbs about each object and think of how they connect with another person/artifact. I hope that other institutions soon offer similar games based on their collections.

Professionals are just starting to standardize this new world of gaming and evaluate its effectiveness.[4] The games museums create cannot just be fun. These games must focus on education and fit an institution’s mission. Although there are issues with using certain game formats to teach history, I think experiments with gaming and history should continue. I am sure there is a large segment of the population that is better served through this medium. A well-developed game could exponentially expand the reach of a museum and bring in a new audience. Therefore, I anxiously await the results from the ongoing evaluations, and I stand ready to re-analyze my thoughts on virtual representations of the past.

[1] Kevin Kee, Shawn Graham, Pat Dunae, and John Lutz, “Towards a Theory of Good History through Gaming,” The Canadian Historical Review 90 no. 2 (June 2009): 305,

[2] Ibid., 306.

[3] Perhaps, this is my knee-jerk reaction. I have only spent a few days with the idea of linking history and video games. At the current time, I see more perils than promises in virtual realities of the past. Nevertheless, it appears this game is well-researched and the creators should be applauded for experimenting with this medium.

[4] Kee, et al., “Towards a Theory of Good History through Gaming,” 324-326; Danny Birchall, Martha Henson, Alexandra Burch, Daniel Evans, and Kate Haley Goldman, “Leveling Up: Towards Best Practice in Evaluating Museum Games,” Museums and the Web 2012, (accessed January 29, 2013).


8 Responses to “Museums and Gaming”

  1. ngoodlin January 30, 2013 at 9:40 pm #

    You may be interested in this article, about a popular game that was released several months ago:

    Obviously, this game still takes liberties with the past, presenting an alternate-history storyline to fit their own master narrative, but I think it’s an interesting attempt at historical pedagogy. It’s also interesting, to me, that the video game company felt such a need to present an accurate depiction of the past, that they felt their audience would demand a feasible storyline. This article doesn’t mention all of the specifics, but the historical team at Ubisoft actually did things like going through period census records of soldiers to make sure that even background characters in the game had the names of people that fought in the Revolutionary War, and were at the battles that are portrayed. There was also a focused effort to make sure that the uniforms, buildings, clothing styles, ships, and other material culture items were depicted accurately for the time period. So, if you can get past the obvious inaccuracy of ninja assassins taking part in the Revolution, there is actually a very interesting model of instruction that has the power to engage young people who might not otherwise care about American history.

  2. xtinexby January 31, 2013 at 1:31 am #


    What a great find. I think this is something that we do not think about enough as public historians. If we do consider using games, we tack them on to something as hasty afterthoughts and often they are not digital. I am curious as to why the U.S. is behind the trends in this aspect of Public History. I have recently been challenged to recenter my goal of doing public history on making history fun for my audience. It would seem like some topics should not be “fun” because of the seriousness of the topic. However, I would argue that you can convey a topic with seriousness and still present an interpretation that is “fun” for your audience. I feel like I get stuck on this need for “interaction”, but what I think we really need is fun interpretations (which may include interactive components, but that’s not the goal). I think this focus on gaming could be one way that would help others discover the fun that can be had in practicing history.

    Recently I tweeted this article, , but failed to hashtag it correctly so you may have missed it. This is another specific example of how the world of gaming and history can come together.

    You mentioned that the article you read said that some historians have “dismissed mass produced games because they are inaccurate”. To me, this is all the more reason for historians to be involved. If you are not happy with how something is being done, you should get involved with it to make it better, not ignore it. I see the potential here for a new avenue of Digital History that could have wide audience.

    • xtinexby January 31, 2013 at 2:35 am #

      In looking for my own site/project to blog about I came across this website, , which seems very relevant and fun. I am wondering you how could incorporate this into a museum exhibit?

  3. jkalvait January 31, 2013 at 3:08 am #

    Noah and Christine,
    Thank you for your comments. Noah, the research that facilitated the creation of the Assassin’s Creed game is incredible. I had no idea that kind of research was taking place! Maybe there is future employment opportunities as a researcher for video game designers (or perhaps it is already a position).

    And Christine, I did miss that article. It is fascinating that it still fit with what I uncovered, that the UK is ahead of our efforts in the United States. The only public institution I could find based in the United States with historical content and a gaming section was PBS. Granted, I didn’t look at every museum, but I did look at quite a few websites. Perhaps the “Playing History” site explains why that is. In the “about” section, it is noted that “[f]oundations and universities have invested millions of dollars into developing these games, yet many are built, tested, and promptly shelved, played by only a handful of students during the pilot testing phase.” Apparently, the United States is not as good at grounding this use of technology in a specific place to be enjoyed by the general public. Although, that website- based in the US- is trying to change that. Thank you for that link!! Perhaps it would be useful for some museums to just link to that site.

    Did you notice they have Oregon Trail? I know what I will be doing later.

    • Tim Rainesalo February 4, 2013 at 7:25 pm #

      This article struck a very strong cord with me. Since enrolling in digital history, I’ve struggled to find the right way to visualize how different the experience of encountering history in a virtual setting must be. In my first blog post, I compared the process of creating and engaging audiences in history on the digital plane to the experience of creating and maintaining an MMORPG. As your article (and Noah and Christine’s comments) have shown us, there is real merit to this approach.

      This also gets to the heart of the “power of the video game” as an educational tool. As the first truly interactive piece of mass media, I think video games have a unique potential to reach out and touch audiences. A term I often hear bandied about when discussing the educational potential of modern gaming is tangential learning. Simply put, learning might not be the primary goal of the media you’re engaging in, but you come away hungry for knowledge. An easy example is feeling compelled to research the actual events of D-Day after vicariously experiencing the terror and excitement of landing on Gold Beach while playing the WWII first-person-shooter Call of Duty: World at War. In this respect, Ubisoft’s dedication to historical accuracy is very encouraging, especially given the popularity of the franchise. Even though the endeavor still has a Native American ninja using par-core to waylay invading Redcoats, it shows us people outside of our profession care about historical authenticity.

      If exploring this museum has in any way peaked your interest in gaming’s educational potential, I’d suggest taking a look at a few videos by Extra Credits, a series put together by a trio of artists and developers to explore many of the ideas you’ve brought up here. I’ve drawn a lot of what I’ve said here from particular videos on “Gamifying Education.”

      • jkalvait February 4, 2013 at 7:47 pm #

        Thank you for the additional information and suggestions! I am fascinated by this topic. While conversing with a Public Policy grad student today, I learned that in the civics world is a pretty new and awesome website used to educate children (and it is promoted by Sandra Day O’Connor). If you are interested, you should check it out!

        I read your first post about MMORPG (which I specifically remember because I had to google what that even meant). Therefore, I was partially aware of what you were saying, but I definitely didn’t realize the extent of this technology and its usage in education. I look forward to watching those youtube videos!

  4. angelabpotter February 1, 2013 at 2:45 am #

    What neat games, and I am not an online game person.

    The playing History link sent me to the Virtual Museum of Canada — what a neat site. Maybe I’ll move to Canada.


    • jkalvait February 1, 2013 at 9:31 pm #

      Thank you Angela! I am not really an online game person either. Who among us has the time?

      NCPH’s Annual Meeting is in Canada this year. I will be exploring their museum culture more thoroughly then.

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