Game Mechanics and the Museum: Designing simple gameplay around complex content

David Schaller, eduweb, USA


Since the cabinets of curiosity of yore, museums have collected widely and deeply, building collections that they now draw upon to interpret the diversity of the natural world and the heights of human achievement and expression. A game, in contrast, maintains a singular focus on a system of rules that ties together game objects and player actions. How, then, can a game maintain that strict focus while doing justice to the rich, heterogenous collections and content of a museum? This paper explores the nature of this challenge and examines how a handful of museum games respond to it, using either extrinsic or intrinsic gameplay. Extrinsic games adopt existing game mechanics as generic containers for content. Intrinsic games devise novel gameplay that integrates content into the game choices and consequences. Museum game developers must understand the benefits and risks of these contrasting approaches, as well as the implications for development effort, playtesting, and learning outcomes, so they can make the best design choices for their project.

Keywords: games, museum, learning, collections, simulation, casual game

What’s Important about a Sword?

Descend into any museum’s collection storage and you’ll find endless rows of objects. Whether birds or bones, paintings or pistols, models or memorabilia, every aisle is brimming with artifacts from the natural or cultural world. In the collections storage of the USS Constitution Museum, for example, some aisles are devoted to handheld armaments from two centuries ago. There you’ll find swords and cutlasses used by the crew of “Old Ironsides.” A few aisles over, you’ll find the everyday tools used at sea, from sextants to telescopes. Yet another area contains crew uniforms and clothing, and in another, the spoils of war that the crew claimed after their battles during the War of 1812. Altogether, the collection is an encyclopedia of artifacts about the historical world of the USS Constitution: the ship, her crew, and their adventures together.

Now open the strategy guide for the videogame Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. In this game, players explore the Caribbean during the golden age of piracy, fighting naval battles, attacking forts by land and sea, looting warehouses, and generally causing mayhem for profit. In the strategy guide, along with gameplay and mission descriptions, you’ll find a rich reference section with detailed information about locations, weaponry, tools, outfits, and collectibles, among others (Piggyback, 2013). And like the museum’s collections, this book is also encyclopedic about its domain: the quasi-historical world of the ship The Jackdaw, her crew, and their adventures.

But there is, of course, an essential difference. Every artifact in the museum’s collection was acquired because it helped serve the institutional mission: “collecting, preserving, and interpreting the stories of ‘Old Ironsidesand the people associated with her.” Every object the videogame guide was included because it served the gameplay. Underlying the diversity of weaponry, clothing, etc. is a unifying set of game mechanics—the constructs of rules designed to produce gameplay, which are carefully crafted to be easy to learn, challenging to master, and endlessly fun to do—over and over and over again. Each and every object in the strategy guide (and the game) is tailored to support those mechanics. The various guns and swords and ships may have widely ranging appearances, but their functional attributes are highly stereotyped to fit into the schemas of the game.

For example, all swords in Black Flag have three functional attributes: speed (how frequently the player can swing the sword), damage (effect of each strike on an enemy), and combo (how many times the player must hit an enemy before finishing him off). While not arbitrary, these attributes are certainly contrived. (In real life, all three obviously depend greatly on the strength and skill of the swordsman.) In contrast, the attributes that the USS Constitution Museum emphasizes are the swords’ history, purpose, aesthetics, and cost. Thus, Black Flag is not merely simplifying the historical content; it is choosing to emphasize entirely different types of attributes. Games require quantitative attributes that can be processed by the algorithms which operationalize the game’s rules. As enlightening and enjoyable as it is, the museum’s story about Nathan Starr, the Connecticut artisan who crafted 2,000 cutlasses in 76 days, does not provide the functional attributes necessary for any type of gameplay. (

In short, what’s important about a sword in Black Flag is completely different than what’s important about a sword in the USS Constitution Museum’s collection. Of course, the designers of Black Flag were not trying to tell stories about the origin of in-game weaponry. While they put enormous effort into creating a believable world of 1715, their focus was on addictive gameplay, compelling scenarios, and gorgeous environments. Those concerns drove the way they chose to present swords and other objects. They had no qualms about compromising historical accuracy as necessary, not to mention ignoring the types of information that museums emphasize in their object interpretations. Different goals, different outcomes.

But these choices about information and accuracy are much more difficult for developers of museum games. Indeed, this is a central challenge (if not the central challenge) of museum games: to accurately represent —or at very least not misrepresent—the fascinating qualities and awesome heterogeneity of real-world content within the strict confines of the game’s rules and actions. Those rules and actions are the heart of the game. When designed well, they create exciting, iterative challenges that always lie at the edge of the player’s abilities (or as Vygotsky (1978) called it, the zone of proximal development). If the content populating the game is too complex, varied, or idiosyncratic for the player to understand within the established rules, the game becomes too difficult, confusing, and unsatisfying.

So what’s the solution to this design quandary? Drawing on Malone and Lepper’s (1987) work on game skills and context, I believe there are two approaches, broadly speaking:

Extrinsic gameplay separates gameplay and content. Essentially, it side-steps the problem by establishing game rules that operate on a different plane than the content. The game is populated with museum content and collections according to general attributes, and the player never delves deep into the details.

Intrinsic gameplay marries gameplay and content. Inherent attributes of the game objects (e.g. the content) are integrated into the gameplay, requiring the player to pay attention to those attributes in order to make thoughtful choices throughout the game. As with any marriage, designing such a game requires patience, endurance, and the good sense to know which attributes matter and which do not.

(Note that these terms should not be confused with intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. All games, by their nature, initially engage extrinsic motivation. A good game persuades the player to adopt the game’s goals and make them their own. Or, as game design guru Jesse Schell says, “A game’s success hinges on the player’s willingness to pretend it is important” [Schell, 2014].)

Extrinsic Gameplay: The Genre’s the Thing

The J. Paul Getty Museum’s GettyGames ( is a fine example of extrinsic gameplay. This suite of games uses familiar casual games as generic containers for images from the collection. In one, a Concentration clone, players examine each artwork closely, using observation, pattern matching and memory skills, “which serves The Getty’s goal to develop children’s visual skills and familiarize them with specific artworks” (Edwards & Schaller, 2007). The museum wants you to notice details about each artwork—subject, style, colors—and so does the game. Thus, the game is successful, not to mention exceedingly cost-effective. Minimal game design was required; the real work came first, in identifying game genres that provoked the desired types of thinking and learning. Even better, it doesn’t really matter what artworks the museum drops into the game. The game structure is agnostic, and thus extrinsic to the content.

More ambitiously, the British Museum’s Time Explorer (, developed with the agency GR/DD, sets players loose in a platformer game. Assuming the role of a museum curator, armed with a ”Time Bracelet,” players travel back to four places in ancient history to “rescue treasured objects and return them safely to the local people” (ibid.) before an historically-accurate natural disaster (fire, earthquake, etc.) destroys it. Each of those locales is represented with charming isometric illustrations. The game features standard adventure gameplay: explore, collect, solve puzzles, answer quizzes, and find a mystery object. For example, in the Ancient Aztec level, while trying to rescue a mosaic mask, players must first find a weighty object to trigger an elevator that will take them from the top of a pyramid to the base. Along the way, players collect historical objects and factoids. These “help the player climb the scoreboard and rise through the curatorial ranks: the more knowledge you get, the higher up the promotional ladder you’ll go – to curator, keeper and ultimately director” (Prudames, 2011). These factoids also provide information that in-game quiz questions draw upon.

By employing such familiar game mechanics, Time Explorer has minimal instructions and a very short learning curve, thus allowing players to focus on the gameplay and the history content. Like any good adventure game, Time Explorer requires patient exploration, careful observation, quick responses, and canny problem solving. There are many satisfying “aha!” moments as players solve puzzles and make progress toward the goal. However, because most of the historical objects and content are peripheral to the gameplay, players are also free to ignore them. This was by design. The museum wanted to produce “a game and not a thinly-veiled online tour of ancient cultures – we wanted [children] to informally pick up information about objects and cultures along the way, or be given the opportunity to find it” (Prudames, 2011).

Both GettyGames and Time Explorer employ extrinsic gameplay, and both are enjoyable and effective. Both require players to practice cognitive skills like observation, comparison, memorization, analysis, and inference, while exposing them to museum content and collections. They’re rather like a museum exhibit wrapped inside a game. And because they treat content and collections objects as static elements in the game, they never need to simplify or misrepresent inherent attributes of those objects and content. Those objects and content are presented in general categories with broadly-defined attributes: artwork, artifact, factoid.

Extrinsic gameplay has many merits. It can be relatively cheap and easy to design, since the gameplay derives from established genres. It’s comparatively easy to produce the necessary content, due to its modest functional requirements. And perhaps most importantly, it entails modest risk. Familiar game genres are the product of decades of design, iteration, and improvement. Choose one of them and you’ll start your project with a tried and true game design in hand, avoiding the time, expense, headache, and risk of designing and iterating on novel gameplay. The result is quite likely to be a fun, playable game.

Intrinsic Gameplay: The Lure of a Happy Marriage

With so many advantages to extrinsic gameplay, why should anyone tackle intrinsic gameplay? For me, it’s because the goal is so alluring: a game which challenges the player to understand the content, not just the gameplay, in order to succeed. A game which makes the content into an active element in the game, with functional attributes that must be considered both by players and by the game itself. If game objects factor into the consequences of the player’s actions, then it behooves players to exert some effort to understand those objects better.

Intrinsic gameplay introduces two major design challenges:

Step 1: Designing a system of game rules that represents the content with accuracy and integrity. This system might be based on one in the real world or contrived for the purposes of the game, or something in between.

Step 2: Selecting objects that represent the content, then quantifying and simplifying the functional attributes of those objects to fit into the game rules.

Designing Rules That Fit the Content

Occasionally the first step, designing the rules, comes easily. WolfQuest, developed by my firm Eduweb and the Minnesota Zoo with funding by the National Science Foundation, is built around the ecological system of wolf biology and behavior. ( The game mechanics are simplified versions of actual biological systems: predator-prey relationships and wolf social interactions. Indeed, we came up with the game concept originally because those systems were ripe for gameplay. With them, we achieved a reasonably tight and effective marriage of content and gameplay (Schaller et al., 2009).

More typically, designing the system of game rules involves intensive brainstorming between educators, subject matter experts, and game designers. For example, my firm worked with Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine on Hold the Fort!, a game about the Battle of Baltimore during the War of 1812. ( We started with a terrific story—how the fort withstood the British bombardment and inspired the Star Spangled Banner—but no obvious system of rules. This was a bombardment, not a battle; the 1,000 troops at the fort hunkered down and withstood the bombardment for 24 hours, unable to engage with the British Navy, which hung back just out of reach of the American guns.

After extensive discussion, and perhaps growing despair, the project team latched onto the idea of troop morale as the central game challenge. If morale fell, troops would desert and the fort would fall. As commander of the fort, players use material resources as well as leadership skills to keep the troops’ spirits up through the rain, the fatigue, and the duress of the bombardment. One appeal of this game design lay in the functional value of common historical objects. What’s important about a barrel of gunpowder, a pound of beef, or a gallon of whisky in the game? Exactly the same thing that was important to Major Amistead, the commander of the fort during the bombardment. They were tools to manage troop morale and thus keep the British at bay.

While this close alignment gave the game a satisfying coherence and historical resonance, it created unexpected issues during playtesting. From the start, we hoped that many girls would find the management nature of the gameplay appealing in spite of the wartime setting. And they did. Hold the Fort looks like a wargame and quacks like a wargame, but it does not play like a wargame. For girls in our playtesting sessions, this came as a welcome surprise. They adapted quickly, embracing the game’s goals and mastering the mechanics. But the boys in our sessions, led astray by their expectations and desires, found the gameplay less intuitive and, for some, less satisfying. This was an important lesson. Even when the game mechanics organically represent the content, gameplay can suffer if the gameplay confounds players’ expectations. The best museum games should represent their real-world content with accuracy and integrity without misleading prospective players about the gameplay.

With other topics, finding the right game system requires a bit of latitude. For example, working with the Detroit Historical Society on what became Building Detroit (, we had to find a system that knitted together a broad swath of Detroit history from 1750 to 1800. In those 150 years, the city’s identity changed from French to British to American to British and back to American. Work, culture, technology, and daily life—all changed dramatically over that time span. The design team scoured third and fourth grade history standards, searching in vain for some kernel of a system that would give the game the necessary consistency through these changing eras.

Then we turned the page and discovered that those curriculum standards also cover economics—and economics is a system of rules, with inputs and outputs, choices and consequences. Very quickly, then, the game design fell into place: over five generations of a single family, players try to make a living. Times change, but the types of decisions do not. Who will you marry? What job will you choose? How will you conduct your job or business? How will you educate or train your children? Almost every decision offers an “interesting choice,” as legendary game designer Sid Meier defines it, where “no single option is clearly better than the other options, the options are not equally attractive, and the player must be able to make an informed choice” (Rollings and Morris, 2000). Throughout the game, players must decide whether to take a risk (rent a store in the center of town, buy a large quantity of goods at a discount, set prices higher than the competition) in hopes of a big payoff, or play it safe with a cheaper and safer alternative. Populating those decisions is an enormous variety of objects: farm produce, tradesman’s tools, hotel furnishings, industrial raw materials, workers, and more. With each choice, the player considers certain attributes of those objects, in the context of their situation. For example, playing as a tradesman or shopkeeper, you must choose whether to boost quality and prices, or aim for the low end of the market with cheap coal and tools, or some combination of the two.

Certainly, building the game atop an economics system does narrow the interpretive focus. What’s important about a milk cow (or a bushel of apples or a downtown location or, frankly, a spouse) is its economic value rather than its aesthetics or cultural or personal meaning. Of course, historically, most of these (including, at times, spouses) were primarily valued in economic terms. By activating this functional role, all those objects matter in a way that they may not to children viewing them in a museum exhibit. Nevertheless, the game’s strict focus on economics of daily life not only ignored other aspects of these objects, it also ignored other aspects of life in general. The design team deliberated on this issue for months. While a full-blown life simulation would address our learning goals, we finally concluded that game scope and budget simply could not accommodate such a thing.

The only deviation from the economics focus comes at the end of the game, when at last players have an opportunity to make a cultural contribution to the city. Upon completing the final level, set in 1900, each player decides whether to donate their accumulated savings found a museum, build a skyscraper or start a charity. (Players who end the game without any savings can donate their family papers to the historical society.) Coming at the end of the game, this is the only decision without functional considerations or in-game consequences, hinging purely on the player’s own preferences.

Fitting the Content into the Rules

The other half of the challenge of intrinsic game design is to massage the content, whether it consists of heterogenous collections objects or a complex body of knowledge, so it fits in the system of rules. Biomedical knowledge, for example, is a complex as content can get, but that’s the focus of Doctor Know (, a game that my firm is developing with Arizona Science Center, funded by a Science and Education Partnership Award from the National Institutes of Health. The game explores the ways that medicine is in the midst of transformation due to supercomputing and bioinformatics, new understandings about the interconnectedness of body systems at all levels of complexity, and the emerging ability to engineer molecular- and cellular-level interventions. Here, the “objects” that populate the game are diseases and medical tests and treatments with unique molecular and cellular characteristics. In the museum, these are not found in the collections, of course, but are represented by costumes, models, and laboratory simulations featured in onsite and outreach programs.

The game scenario came easily: players assume the role of a physician who treats patients with a wide variety of ailments. With each patient, the player chooses the best tests and treatments to resolve their condition. Over the course of the game, the player can acquire innovative new tools that target diseases more narrowly, with fewer side effects and complications. Thus, although patients arrive in the waiting room with increasingly dire afflictions, the player has more powerful tools to treat them with.

This concept fits the topic perfectly—deceptively so. Most of our content experts (and some players) intuited that the game was a diagnosis simulation, intended to teach players how to interpret symptoms, analyze test results, and prescribe treatments. Our goal, however, was not to train teachers how to be doctors, but rather to reveal how new knowledge and innovations are transforming medicine. Loosely outlined, the gameplay could support either goal, since the critical difference lay in what attributes the game objects—the ailments, tests, and treatments—present to the player. To both the game and a physician, those functional attributes include quantifiable data like efficacy, risks, and costs. But of course, more important to physicians is a staggeringly large body of medical knowledge. An abnormally large abdomen, for example, calls for spleen samples and bloodwork, not an x-ray. Greasy bowel movements prompt chemical and genetic tests, not an EKG. And depending on the results of those tests, certain treatments are indicated while others are not. These are details that matter greatly to physicians, but not to our game. We crafted short descriptions of each ailment, test, and treatment, but primarily for flavor, not for gameplay. Players can ignore them and still be successful. In short, what’s important about a particular medical test in Doctor Know differs from what’s important about it to a physician—but it is what’s important to Arizona Science Center and the NIH.

Which Came First: the Content or the Gameplay?

After drafting the core game mechanics, the next step should be prototyping and playtesting. Is it interesting? Is it challenging? Is it fun? It’s impossible to answer those questions until you have something to play, however crude it might be. In a typical game, where mechanics are independent of content, or content is contrived to suit the mechanics, this simply requires paper mockups or a crude digital prototype. Game design then proceeds in iterative fashion: playtest, revise, and playtest again, until the game mechanics work well.

But intrinsic gameplay, where the game mechanics hinge on particular attributes of game objects, can thwart this iterative process. Substantial research must often be done to develop game content before we can finalize the game mechanics. With Doctor Know, for example, we created a detailed game design document, but could not prototype it without any medical content. Any prototype we built without actual medical content would be of limited use, since we would be speculating about the attributes of the various ailments, tests, and treatments. So we paused development while the project team conducted months of background research. We then made the inevitable revisions to the attributes for each content category, adjusted the game design accordingly, and built a prototype.

Fortunately, the prototype played well, but this outcome was by no means guaranteed. Nor is the alternate approach a safe bet. With another science game, we did build a prototype based on preliminary scientific content, only to face major revisions when the actual content turned out to be quite different than anticipated. Given limited budgets, both paths present a risk: proceed with prototyping based on preliminary or placeholder content, or invest time and resources in content development based on an untested game mechanic. This is undoubtedly a fundamental reason why educational games so often fail to impress players. With insufficient time and budget for extensive iteration on content-based gameplay, a learning game is much likelier than other types of games to fall short of its potential.

What’s Important aboard “Old Ironsides”

What’s important about a sword isn’t the only thing that Assasin’s Creed IV: Black Flag and the USS Constitution Museum differ about. When museum decided to use IMLS funding to create a game about the ship, their focus was not on the captain of the ship (much less a pirate captain as in Black Flag). Nor was it the ship itself—a rather significant collections object (albeit owned by the U.S. Navy and parked across the pier from the museum.) For A Sailor’s Life for Me! (, the game “objects” were the sailors who manned the ship. Who where they? What did their jobs entail? What were their off-duty lives like? The museum had recently completed a major research program to answer those very questions, and that body of content became the foundation for the game.

The sailors were a diverse lot, and so were their jobs. From the gruntwork assigned to new enlistees to the skilled tasks of the higher ranks, work onboard “Old Ironsides” touched every part of the ship. In their off-hours, sailors played games, told stories, and tended to their gear. This presented our central design challenge, for a single game mechanic could not capture such a variety of activities and experiences. Nor, given the project budget, could we design novel game mechanics for each individual task in a sailor’s day. So instead we tried to thread the needle. By adopting existing game mechanics that intrinsically represented the content, we hoped to produce a game with the best of both worlds: intrinsic gameplay without the difficulties of original game mechanics, nor the generic qualities of extrinsic gameplay.

A sailor enlisting aboard “Old Ironsides” began their Navy career with the rank of “Boy,” and over time and according to their skills and accomplishments, might rise through the ranks to Ordinary and then Able Seaman. A typical role-play game provides a familiar structure for such a progression, so we drew on those genre conventions for the central arc of the game. Players engage in a variety of tasks and activities to earn points toward promotions, shipboard popularity, and personal health and happiness. Periodically, risk/reward decisions appear; for example, an officer may confront you with a transgression (e.g., cursing, dirty clothes on the deck, sugar missing from the store) and the player must decide whether to confess, tattle on a shipmate, or stay silent—and each decision carries  contrasting point impacts.

This role-play structure had three advantages: it was easy to design, it represented the historical content with some fidelity, and it provided the connecting tissue for most of the actual gameplay, which consisted of 16 mini-games that focused on particular jobs and recreational activities. For these, we searched for existing game mechanics involving skills similar in some way to those employed by sailors. Of course, we could not replicate the hard physical labor of shipboard life with computer mouse and keyboard, so we sought analogs to those real skills, like dexterity, timing, coordination, and memory. Often that took a whimsical angle. For example:

  • “Rats in the Hold” is simply “Whack a Mole,” complicated by the rolling motion of the ship.
  • “Powder Monkey” is a platformer game in which players run through a cross-section of the ship, avoiding officers and other obstacles to deliver powder to a gun crew.
  • “Hauling the Lines” and “Gun Drill” are Simon-type games in which players practiced increasingly complex sequences of sail-rigging and cannon-loading commands.
  • In “Gun Captain,” players aim and fire a cannon, first at targets, then during battle at enemy ships.

This approach was viable only because the project goals focused on activities rather than objects. Had our mandate been to tell stories about ships and swords, this game design would not have been appropriate. (Schaller, 2011a) We also had some latitude with the particular tasks we chose to include in the game. We excluded a few key shipboard tasks like knot-tying simply because we found no good game mechanic for them.

Did we succeed in threading this needle? Is what’s important about an object in each mini-game the same as what’s important to the museum? It varied, of course, and so did the fun factor. The “Scrubbing the Deck” mini-game, for instance, was true to history—simple and monotonous—and yet surprisingly addictive. On the other hand, “Powder Monkey” and “Gun Captain” presented reasonably accurate challenges, but that accuracy impeded the fun. And in the Simon-type memory games, the intricate verbal commands represented one aspect of the task well, but they also slowed the pace, making players impatient. This, then, became a new design problem, different than those presented by pure extrinsic or intrinsic gameplay. We had to identify a suitable game mechanic for each shipboard activity, then populate it with our content without damaging that mechanic. And we had to do this for all 16 mini-games as well as the role-play game framework.

This volume of work nearly overwhelmed us during production, but in the end, it was the key to success. For whether or not each mini-game maximizes its potential, it does serve its purpose in the larger structure, giving players a taste of many aspects of life aboard “Old Ironsides.” Summative evaluation bore this out: the more time players spent in the game, the more they liked it (Schaller, 2011b) —presumably because the importance of each individual mini-game faded against the context of the broader experience. Ultimately, the game, perhaps like the life of a sailor, was greater than the sum of its parts.

Risk and Reward

Good games are all about trade-offs. In Monopoly, should you purchase a new property or build hotels on a property that you already own? In Angry Birds, should you risk a shot at the foundation of the pigs’ structure, or knock off easy superstructure blocks? The answer always depends on the player’s judgment of their circumstances at the moment.

Game design involves trade-offs too. Should you choose an existing, content-agnostic genre and pour your extrinsic content into it, or design novel gameplay that will tax your development resources and possibly lengthen players’ learning curves? Should you invest in preliminary prototypes or wait for content development? What about putting all your effort into a single core game mechanic versus a suite of mini-games to explore the topic more thoroughly, at risk of an undercooked final game? With all of these, the answer depends on judgment and circumstances.

Even so, these design decisions are a calculated risk. Of course, the decision to design a game, rather than some other type of educational interactive, is also a risk. Unlike other interactives, a successful game truly is greater than the sum of its parts. Every element must merge seamlessly into the whole, enticing players into the “magic circle”—an imaginary arena where normal rules of life can be ignored in favor of the arbitrary rules of the game (Zimmerman & Salen, 2004)—and persuading them to embrace its goals and values. Clunky game mechanics will intrude on the player’s suspension of disbelief, if not destroy it completely. A bad game appeals to no one, while a bad reference website retains some utilitarian value. But when designed well, game mechanics can achieve that age-old goal of museums: to bring the content to life.


Many thanks to Susan Edwards, Barbara Flagg, Carole Flores, Laura Martin, Susan Nagel, and Tobi Voigt for insightful comments on drafts of this paper, and to my collaborators at Arizona Science Center, Detroit Historical Society, Fort McHenry, the USS Constitution Museum, and many other museums who have dove into intrinsic game design with curiosity, patience, and humor.


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Cite as:
. "Game Mechanics and the Museum: Designing simple gameplay around complex content." MW2014: Museums and the Web 2014. Published January 31, 2014. Consulted .

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