Gaming and Museums, a worth it combo?

I just read one of the recent summary publications of Museum Hack.  For those of you who may not know, Museum Hack is a relatively new organization that aims to add color to museum experiences.  When I say “color” I mean that they give tours which promise to be attention grabbing, mind blowing, totally cool, and selfie-encouraging.  They work with individuals, and corporations looking to plan team building events to bachelorette parties looking for a different way to celebrate.  In a sense they are an events planning team, one that uses only innovative arts education/education techniques and museum spaces for their get togethers.  I like the idea.  Sometimes the execution is a little populist for my taste.  Art shouldn’t need to be filtered through selfies or made to utterly shock in order to be paid attention to.  But hey, if people get closer to art that way, who am I to judge?

That being said, I would like to raise some points to the recent article that they summarized and published on their e-newsletter “Fiero! Museums as Happiness Engineers.”  The title grabbed my attention immediately.  I thought, “Art causes happiness?!  Of COURSE it does.”   I was curious to see how they built their argument according to this debate line.  Maybe I could snag a few lines for any future defenses of art I would face.  To my surprise I opened up the article to realize it was about gaming.  The entire piece was based on Jane McGonigal’s, a leading game developer and researcher, idea that “museum experiences should be like games: happiness-generating experiences that give visitors a meaningful way to contribute to society.”  This sounds like an approachable thesis statement.  Let’s see some of the details. 

The first argument looked at how the same amount of time spent on videogaming could instead be used towards a creative endeavor.  Specifically, it is thought that with the 10 million gamers that play World of Warcraft 20 hours a week, Wikipedia could have been built in 5 days.  Crazy potential productivity!  However, gaming and building Wikipedia are very different, and productivity happens not just with time and people, but with engagement.  Being engaged in a video game is different in being engaged in the building of a completely global online archive of any fact anyone would ever want to know.  In building Wikipedia one would have to consider how to write clear ideas, how to organize multiple layers of information, what kinds of images would most clearly demonstrate an idea, how to tag articles to make them usefully searchable, how to translate between languages, how to ensure information credibility, and a whole host of other questions that include qualitative and quantitative discernment and intelligence.  This is a different kind of manpower than can be found by summing up hours and numbers of players in a videogame.

The second argument states that:  “Games make us happy and help us do things that are more amazing than we think we are capable of doing in our real lives.”  While this is an inspiring thought, is it a healthy one?  A video game is just that, a game on a video.  What one accomplishes on the video game is potentially a confidence boost, but is it a fake one given that video games exist in a world that is not the one where we live, where we confront challenges, where we want to make positive change?  I do see video games as engaging ones mind, and involving motor skills.  However, what is the real quality of this engagement?  As mentioned above, is it really helping us to learn to discern and decide, not just do?  Deep creativity, which is one of many things that museums showcase, requires problem solving and thoughtful analysis.

A third statement connects inspiring people into action and their happiness.  Is happiness the result of an action?  Yes, it is.  Can’t it also be a result from truly appreciating something?  What about a result from learning?  When one deeply appreciates, they are happy to have felt that moment of wonder.  When one learns something new, they are happy because they are inspired.  Action, then, hopefully follows this.  However, to connect so directly action and happiness, and museums ability to cause an action that would make someone happy is too broad to be a meaningful statement highlighting of the value of a museum. 

A fourth statement: “Games work because they give us clear instructions, a world-saving mission, collaboration, and constant feedback.”  This is quite problematic.  Clear instructions provide just as much positive structure as they do tunnel vision.  A world-saving mission in a virtual game is exciting, but unrelated to the lived world.    Collaboration is positive.  But, what kind of collaboration does one have in a video game?  Is any human connection involved?  And finally constant feedback.  This sounds  a lot like instant gratification, which is a dangerous phenomenon.  Anything instant and constant provides stimulation which seems progressive, but can very easily be just noise.  What kind of constant feedback one is helpful?  The greatest artists of our times have been put on record stating their deep love of nature, solitutde and quite to access their greatest fonts of creativity, to uncover and nurture their biggest contribution they have inside themselves to make. 

And finally, the article states the following as a good “in-the-mind-of-the-visitor” question museums should use to guide their programming: “What did I do at the museum that I will now be bragging about to everyone I know and own as a life story?”  Why should bragging rights, and self promotion be the goal of a museum?  Since when is a house of culture supposed to work to make the visitor feel “cool”?  I understand that promoting this kind of feeling will get a visitor to talk about his or her experience with art to their friends, which may in turn inspire their peers to attend the museum.  However, the motive for attending a museum will soon become one about maintaining social rank instead of education, exploration, or curiosity.  Some I imagine one could immediately jump on this and say “Well, museums first started as a place for only the aristocracy, high ranking socialites, anyway so I guess it is just full circle now.  And, added bonus, in today’s age anyone can be this ‘socialite’ if they play their social media cards right.”  The loop hole in this.  Even when museums were more “elite oriented” they never lost their place for self-led learning and looking.  Museums can provide guidance, but they cannot becomes speakerboxes, mission drivers, and places of immediate gratification.  Real learning happens through a blend of struggle, inspiration, confusion, and research.  This can happen with ones own thoughts and ones own eyes, and can be pushed forward with a docent, a wiki page, a quick text to a friend.  But, wrapping the entire experience with dictated learning such that personal mental wanderings get completely stunted, would be the death of museums.  They would have lost their most powerful value. 

The article ends with the statement that posits museums as the key to saving the future of humanity.  “Museums can invent a better future by making us happier today and helping us collaborate to save the real world tomorrow.” I have to disagree.  Museums are the foundation of saving the future of humanity because they tell us what humanity is.  Museums cannot invent a better future.  Museums can cultivate minds which then facilitate the actions that shape a hopefully better future.  Museums do not necessarily make us happy.  They can make us frustrated, sad, and quizzical and often times they are experienced in a very solitary way.  But they cause questions, and as long as museums provide engagement options to compliment the answer seeking process to these questions, they will in fact save the tomorrow.  However, one must not use such big words as “save.”  That is a large responsibility and something that should not be taken lightly.  Museums do, though, build tomorrows because they shape perceptions, knowledge, and empathy.  These are the very things that create our lived reality.  


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