The Games Art Historians Play: Online Game-based Learning in Art History and Museum Contexts


[Anne McClanan is a Professor of Art History at Portland State University. Her work in the digital space engages with both online pedagogy and several digital humanities projects, overviewed here.--JBJ]

I recently posted a query on the CAAH listserv (Consortium of Art and Architectural Historians) to research online game-based and gamified learning in art history and museums. Alongside leads on some of the projects I’ll share here, the post garnered some rather animated comments hinting that it was nothing short of appalling that the subject had even been raised. That listserv discussion suggested there exists considerable confusion about what game-based learning is, so my goal here is to address that practical need. Considering a few models within my own discipline of art history will orient colleagues curious about venturing down this pedagogical path, but, as with any learning tool, game-based learning will have to fit the specific context of a given course or program.

To begin with some definitions, game-based learning differs from gamification in several important ways. Sometimes the latter is reduced to bells and whistles such as gold stars and progress bars, but gamification is potentially a much more subtle and powerful teaching strategy. Think about some of the elements that make games appealing—social interaction, competition, a sense of accomplishment and engagement. How might these vital elements structure elements of the learning in your classes? These underlying aspects of various games then can be tapped into to gamify a course and I’ll focus on gamification in an upcoming post; here though we’ll hone in on examples of specially online game-based learning within the discipline of art history.

This quick overview will show some of the ways that art history faculty are calling upon the intrinsically visual nature of the field to develop engaging games for their teaching. Elizabeth Goins (Rochester Institute of Technology) describes several recent projects including a 3D game based on Hieronymous Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights in her blog, and details as well assignments in which the students create games. Keri Watson (University of Central Florida), teaches with both a RPG (role-playing game) and an ARG (alternative reality game). The RPG is Gretchen Kreahling McKay’s “Modernism versus Traditionalism: Art in Paris, 1888-89,” a Reacting to the Past (see earlier PH coverage) game, targeted for use in first year seminars at small liberal arts colleges. She taught with the game several times while at Ithaca College and reflects on her experience here. Watson’s ARG, “Secret Societies of the Avant-garde,” was createdwith a colleague in digital media as a Unity-based game, and is still in development. (Anastasia Salter wrote about this game in February.) Their prototype was deployed this past spring in an upper level modern art course, the game poses for the students a series of the challenges to research and create online exhibitions. (Those interested in developing an ARG might also want to peruse this interesting recent piece from TechCrunch on historical accuracy in games.)

With colleagues at Portland State University, I created a game-based structure, Medieval Marketplace, for the research projects in my online medieval art history classes earlier in the year. Fine-tuning the game mechanics was challenging in order to make the Medieval Marketplace a tool for motivating students rather than a distraction from core pedagogical goals. Another approach is seen in Duke University’s open source, online game from 2012, Fantasy Collecting, which simulates the dynamics of the art market.

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There are also several art history games based on crowdsourcing. Hubertus Kohle, University of Munich, created Artigo in the “games with a purpose” model, as a crowdsourced image annotation game. Likewise, this summer Artstor launched Arcades, which is like a cross between projects like Artigo and collaborative digital humanities works like NYPL’s What’s on the Menu ? Arcades ingeniously uses crowdsourcing as a tactic to gather metadata for a cohort of recently acquired photographs of New York’s contemporary art world. By contributing metadata tags to the images, the player ascends from the rank of flaneur to that eventually of master, whereby contributing information that correlates most with that of other players giving the biggest boost to one’s ranking.


Art museums have likewise produced games as part of their outreach efforts. Susan Edwards (Hammer Museum) in her Serious Games 2013 Conference presentation, What Museums Learn By Building Games offers a thoughtful overview encompassing important early work in the field, such as Ghosts of a Chance. This ground-breaking ARG ran by the Smithsonian Art Museum in 2008–2010 engaged over 3,000 people with materials now archived. The active role of game invention can shift to the target audience, strategically tapping into maker culture. For example, while at theGetty, Edwards hosted a game jam for University of Southern California’s Game Design students, who created games to encourage closer visual analysis. Her blog post describes some the games originating this way. The Portland Art Museum’s Mythos Challenge contest for middle and high school students gives a model suitable for university aged students, too. Students created video games and digital storytelling projects connected with the visiting exhibition, Gods and Heroes: Masterpieces of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paris, which were then assessed by peers in a Youth Council.

The visual nature of our discipline lends itself to the utilization of tools such as Unity, and moreover we can call upon the work of our colleagues in art museums and nonprofit organizations such as Artstor. The decision, of course, of whether to use these game-based approaches in teaching comes down to making sure as the instructor the game is in sync with your goals, whether it be content mastery or the development of skills such as critical thinking and visual analysis.

Do you have experiences with game-based learning? Please share in comments!

Photo credits: Top image is a “Character Test” from Elizabeth Goins’s post on “Bosch’s Gardens: Art Concepts”; middle image is a screenshot provided by Anne McClanan; bottom image is from Susan Edwards’s article, “#GettyJams Report: 12 Museum Games Created in 30 Hours.”

Edited to correct authorship of “Modernism versus Traditionalism.”–JBJ

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