Interactive Art Through Gamification: A New Hope for Museums in Uncertain Times?

2020 has been a tough year for many cultural institutions across the globe, not least museums. The financial wellbeing of many museums today is at such grave risk in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic that, for many, their very survival is now at stake.
7 min read
7/09/20
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By Doron Fagelson
Vice President, Media & Entertainment
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Interactive Art Through Gamification: A New Hope for Museums in Uncertain Times?

According to a recent survey conducted among museum directors across the United States by American Alliance of Museums in June 2020, a third of the respondents said either there was a «significant risk» that their museums would close permanently in the next 16 months or they «didn’t know» if they would survive the pandemic. Almost 90% have 18 months or less of financial reserves remaining, but 56% have just 6 months or less remaining.

Month of Operating Reserve Remaining per National Survey of COVID-19 Impact on United States Museums

Source: American Alliance of Museums

«The UK as a result of Covid-19 is looking at an absolute cultural bonfire,» predicted Helen Bonser Wilton, chief executive of the Mary Rose collection in London. In a similar vein, Tristram Hunt, director of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, warned there is a real possibility «we will see the closure of smaller independent museums, for whom this is an existential threat to their financial viability.» Surviving this threat is further compounded by the structural problem of museums having adopted a business model long ago that was in no way designed for a social distancing world.

A Struggling Business Model

Museums typically receive less than a quarter of their funding from government sources, with the rest coming from admission fees and public and private donors. Since tourism is a key driver of admission fees at the largest and most prestigious museums, much depends on how quickly people return to vacationing overseas, and how many will opt to do so. However, even if tourist numbers gradually do pick up, museums are reopening at reduced capacity owing to virus-induced safety protocols, which are raising their operating costs. Plus, the pandemic has evidently deterred many from visiting museums for some time. A survey earlier this year from the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions found 29% of the public do not intend to return to museums «for a long time after reopening,» and a further 54% saying they «will put off visiting for a while» after reopening.

Amount of Operating Income to Lose per National Survey of COVID-19 Impact on United States Museums

Source: American Alliance of Museums

The bleak reality is that it is likely to be months, if not years, before admissions return to pre-pandemic levels. It is entirely plausible that admissions may never fully recover to pre-pandemic levels, or may take the better part of a decade to do so. As this reality becomes more firmly rooted in our collective psyches, some museums are coming to terms with the frightening possibility that they may not survive long enough to ever know. Expectations that the dramatic drop-off in museum attendance numbers will persist for the foreseeable future means the traditional museum business model of funding operations from admission fees and donor generosity is being strained to breaking point.

The Case for Interactive Art Through Gamification

In order to compensate for the loss of admission-based revenues without selling off their most prized cultural assets, many museums are having to think creatively about possible new revenue streams. A potential avenue here is for museums to better cater to a digital-first audience, and look for ways to monetize that audience. To be successful in this approach, digital offerings and digital distribution must be compelling and attractive to these audiences. One way to achieve this end is to explore ways to increase the social interactivity of those digital offerings, thereby also increasing audience participation. More interactivity also creates feedback loops, giving crucial insight into how well these offerings are engaging their audiences and facilitating their ongoing evaluation, iteration, and improvement over time.

Gamifying museum collections can be a powerful way to make digital offerings more socially interactive and engaging because today’s most popular and successful video games thrive on their socializing elements as much as their visual and technical sophistication. Minecraft and Fortnite, which have both been widely successful in recent years, double as both immersive gaming experiences and social platforms that inject a live communal sense into the gameplay.

Efforts to gamify museum collections to attract audiences and increase audience engagement are not entirely new, and past examples of such efforts have attempted to leverage the best elements of the most successful video games. Tate Worlds, for example, launched by the Tate Museum in 2015, used the Minecraft gaming platform to create a series of 3D maps inspired by artworks in their collection for audiences to explore, offering a novel, fun and exciting way for audiences to learn about works and artists represented in their collection.

Minecraft map based on André Derain’s The Pool of London painting

Minecraft map based on André Derain’s The Pool of London painting. Source: Tate

The project was careful to combine education goals with the conventional gameplay elements of Minecraft like adventure maps, search challenges, and roller-coaster rides (being a common feature in Minecraft referred to as minecarts). The beauty of this approach is that as players, audiences are more engaged and inspired to learn about artworks because Minecraft’s gameplay elements stimulate their imagination and curiosity: «Tate Worlds is different because it is not trying to teach. Instead, it is engaging with the creativity and curiosity of the player, inspiring the imagination and allowing the player to discover, for themselves, things about the artwork, the artist and the cultural context surrounding its creation,» mused Lead Artist and Project Manager for Tate Worlds, Adam Clarke.

Another intriguing example of gamifying art is the 2017 live Reddit event «Place» which allowed users to color in a single pixel every 5-20 minutes from a blank 1000×1000 pixel digital canvas. The event had a time limit of 72 hours, after which «Place» would be forever locked in its current state. Over a million users participated. The final finished canvas was breathtaking and demonstrated the power of a live, collaborative, communal effort to produce real art, and the power of social, shared experiences to attract large audiences and drive user engagement.

The final canvas of the Reddit live experiment “Place”

The final canvas of the Reddit live experiment «Place.» Source: Reddit

As a potential new source of revenue for museums, gamification could be monetized in several ways: through paid subscriptions to access gaming platforms like Minecraft, by licensing cultural assets and works to those platforms for use in various gaming formats or for in-game purchases, or through payments to access live-streamed, interactive events like «Place» that are inspired by and built around famous paintings or artifacts in a museum collection.

A counterpoint to the gamification argument is that interactive experiences in the museum context are not always better, do not carry universal appeal, and in some cases of traditional interactive experiences, have proven to be confusing for participants. Ultimately museums still need to preserve their physical spaces and authentic artifacts to facilitate the quiet, contemplative, or theatrical experiences that they are traditionally known and loved for by audiences everywhere.

Conclusion

Leveraging gamification to revitalize museums is not only about staving off the immediate economic crisis facing many museums today. It is also important for museums to remain relevant and attractive to younger audiences who already spend a great deal of their leisure time playing video games. As the Met’s Chief Digital Officer observed even five years ago, their competition in a digital age comes from Netflix and Candy Crush rather than other museums. In this regard, museums are competing for peoples’ leisure time against popular activities like watching streaming video or video gaming. Gamifying art and cultural artifacts to broaden the appeal of museums for younger and wider audiences makes a lot of sense in a competitive leisure market and at a time when so many of us are forced to spend our leisure hours stuck at home. Building game-like, interactive experiences around museum treasures and artworks will require investment, imagination and will take time, but it can be done. Whether museums will use the current crisis to explore gamification as a potential monetization opportunity and a smart strategic play for the future remains to be seen.

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