by editor Phillippa Pitts

Games have been on my mind a lot this week. I know a lot of people who spend their incredible brainpower building games for museums, like Kellian Adams Pletcher with Murder at the Met, or Susan Edward with the Getty’s Switch (which I admire for its incredible simplicity!). I’ve even built a few games myself with SCVNGR. Nevertheless, I tend to approach gamification from a skeptical starting point.

This week, two new games crossed my desk that couldn’t be more different from each other: History Hero and Papers, Please.

History Heros, Courtesy of

History Heros, Courtesy of

“Papers Please,” courtesy of Slate

The two could not be more different. History Hero is lauded as the App which saves kids from boredom. Aliens called “the Erasers” are coming to weaken earth by depriving us of our shared history. Grab one of several very stereotypical (but kudos for not too gender-normative) characters to play as and begin battling aliens throughout museums, churches, and historic sites around the world.

Granted, I haven’t played the game yet, but there are things I love from what I’ve heard:

  • Standard museum rules (no running, don’t touch) are now part of the “Defenders of the Arts” oaths to fight the Erasers
  •  The production value appears to be really high. It’s hard for museums to match big-budget video game companies, but little things like attractive character selection screens or “victory dances” by the avatars when things go well… those go a long way?
  • It has multiple levels: if you’re done with one, you can download another for the next visit. There are different age tracks.
  • It involves comprehensive reading. I can’t tell you how excited I am about that. Not only is there the standard scavenger hunt, find the object and answer multiple choice questions, but there’s another section where the App shoots them an additional text and they answer a bonus question based upon it. What a great way to deliver age-appropriate content!

It’s fun, games, and a narrative laid over your standard museum visit. It gets kids walking around the museum, takes the onus off the parents to prep, and lowers the barriers to entry for those with a smartphone.

However, I’m still skeptical of this genre of games. Injecting robots, astronauts, and Indiana Jones look-alikes into the museum is great to make a connection… I just want to make sure the kids are connecting to the objects, not only an avatar and the fictional quest against the Erasers. That said, that’s my skeptical predisposition talking. Speaking of, does anyone believe that this kid (at 2:00) actually said “this App revolutionized the experience at museums…”?

Papers, Please could not be more different. It’s a “dystopian document thriller.” You’re an immigration officer at a border crossing of the fictional communist state Arstotzka. Your job is to separate out the immigrants looking for work and the visitors hoping to rejoin their families from the smugglers, spies, and terrorists. You do this with… documents.

As one journalist put it:

It sounds incredibly boring and tedious, and on the surface, it is. I like to give the characters over-the-top Russian accents in my head to alleviate that. But this oppressively low-tech game gets under your skin once you have to decide whether to separate a husband and wife, detain citizens who make honest mistakes to make a little cash to feed your kids, or risk your family’s safety by looking the other way to admit terrorists fighting the oppressive regime.

In short, it’s an exercise in moral ambiguity.

There isn’t really a “clean” way to get through the game. You are definitely going to feel major regret about a decision you made several in-game days before. Someone is going to suffer—you, the citizens, the government, or your family. These are the choices Papers, Please forces you to make. It’s a brilliantly executed morality dance that is another piece of proof of what video games are capable of, a gray and uncomfortable entry in the “games as art” debate.

One of the things I love most about museums is our opportunity to teach outside of the K-12 curriculum, outside of newspapers and textbooks. We get to be the liminal moment that reminds people to question, doubt, and think about the construction of history. (Can you tell I’ve worked with school tours for 3 years?)

In short, do museums owe kids something more like Papers, Please? A moment away from the high-gloss aliens and edu-tainment?

Fortunately, it’s not the either/or dichotomy that I have just created. Both of these games present interesting ideas for good gaming directions.


PS: Many thanks to Science in Museums blogger, Catherine Sigmond, for the heads-up on History Hero!