GDC Presentation


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Presentation on gaming initiatives at the Smithsonian American Art Museum for the 2010 Game Developer's Conference. This presentation was followed by guest curator Chris Melissinos discussing our upcoming exhibition, The Art of Video Games. [notes embedded]

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  • A Day at the Museum: How the Smithsonian is embracing games []
  • Overview of Smithsonian The Smithsonian was founded in 1846 as an institution for the “increase and diffusion of knowledge.” Since then, it has grown to include 19 museums and the National Zoo. Since the appointment of our current Secretary, Wayne Clough, in 2008, we have been focusing on exactly what this mission means for the 21 st century. Twenty-four million visitors come through the Smithsonian’s doors each year to view our collections and to learn about science, technology, history, art and culture. We host 175 million through the Web. We’re looking for new ways to generate and support research, and to engage, educate, and inspire our visitors.
  • Overview of American Art Museum The Smithsonian American Art Museum shares a building with the National Portrait Gallery in downtown DC. Our collection actually dates back to the mid-nineteenth century, but we have been in this building since 1968. Currently, we get around 1 million visitors to this building every year. Mission : The Smithsonian American Art Museum is the nation’s art collection, dedicated to the understanding, appreciation, and enjoyment of American art. The Museum celebrates the extraordinary creativity of our country’s artists, whose works reflect the history of America and connect us to the experiences of its people.
  • Overview of American Art Museum – Highlights More than seven thousand artists are represented in the collection, including masters such as John Singer Sargent, Georgia O’Keeffe, Edward Hopper, Christo, David Hockney, Jenny Holzer, Nam June Paik, and Robert Rauschenberg. We pride ourselves on identifying significant aspects of American visual culture and actively collecting and exhibiting works of art before many other major public collections. In the past this has included New Deal art, contemporary craft, folk art, photography, and video art. This is why we are very excited to be working on the exhibition on the Art of Video Games, which will be the first of its kind in a major museum. Before we talk about that, however, I’m going to highlight some of our recent projects that show how we became interested in games and gaming.
  • Luce Foundation Center – Overview One of the relatively new spaces in the museum is the Luce Foundation Center for American Art, which is a visible storage facility. The Luce Center displays more than 3,300 works from the permanent collection in 64 glass cases and 56 pneumatic drawers.
  • The Luce Center is treated as a testing ground by the museum, where we are allowed to try things out that would not necessarily be approved for a regular gallery space. Over the last few years experiments have included interactive touchscreen kiosks with content on every single one of the 3,300 objects; An LCD screen showing video interviews with artists as well as promotional material; staff-created audio content on MP3 players and cell phones; a citizen curator project on Flickr, in which we invite the public to select artworks for display; and free coffee.
  • In 2008, the game designers CityMystery approached us about using the Luce Center as the platform for an Alternate Reality Game. They had visited the Luce Web site and thought that with all of the stories we already have, it would be the perfect venue for a game. They developed a narrative inspired by our collections that would be guided by player activity. We launched the game “Ghosts of a Chance” in July 2008. For a museum, and particularly for a federal museum, this was a major breakthrough. Typically, all content in our museum goes through at least 10 levels of review and approval before it can be seen by visitors. The idea that we would introduce fictional content into the museum space was incredible, the idea that we would allow the game play to be dictated by the puppetmasters and the players was unbelievable. Fortunately for us, however, the museum was willing to take a gamble. After several months of contract negotiation, during which time we tried to establish who would own the intellectual property that we couldn’t define because it hadn’t been created yet, we were ready to begin.
  • We wanted to let players know about our upcoming game and the game designers told us that the best place to do this would be at the ARGFest-o-Con event in Boston. They also told us that we needed to do something unusual in order to catch the attention of the attendees. They hired national-level body Craig Torres and tattooed his chest and back with henna tattoos. Within the design was an artwork from our collection and the word’s “Luce’s Lover’s Eye.” When you googled that phrase, the first result that appeared was the object page on our web site. Within 4 hours, photos of Craig were on Flickr, and players had started a discussion thread on Unfiction.
  • “ You know, in thinking about it, this doesn't make any sense... Why would the Smithsonian send a stripper to a place like ARGFest to get this going? I mean, think about it, a borderline government agency sending a stripper to a convention in a hotel? That would be front page news on The Drudge Report!”
  • A clue hidden within the object page led players to the game Web site, which in turn asked them to e-mail an image of an eye and to call a phone number. The site also included a countdown, which told the players that the game would begin in September. (We received 150 images of eyes, and over 250 phonecalls)
  • Early press also helped with the game, as we were able to conceal clues in an article and the Smithsonian Magazine. The Museum also issued a formal press release, which was almost entirely fictional.
  • The story of the game focused around two young curators, Daisy and Daniel, who were being haunted by restless ghosts. They shared elements of the story on the game web site, as well as through videos and comments posted on YouTube, mySpace, and Facebook.
  • When the game officially launched in September, Daisy and Daniel announced that they needed to hold an exhibition in the museum in order to put the ghosts to rest and save the museum. So they invited players to create a series of artifacts. There were six challenges in total, with one being announced each week. The challenges related to objects in our collection as well as the story of the ghosts. Players had just a couple of days to answer the challenge, make the artifact, and mail it into the museum. (We received 33 artifacts from 14 players).
  • The artifacts were temporarily catalogued into the collection. Participants wrote their own labels, which were also included on-line. That the museum would allow essentially fake artifacts to be included in the master database, even temporarily, really demonstrated their willingness to support the game’s narrative. This element really inspired players to participate.
  • While all of this was going on, we held two mini-events to further support the story.   National Museum of Natural History – Players enjoyed an extensive tour of the anthropology department with Dr. David Hunt. At the end of the your, we came to the forensic lab, where we saw 7 skeletons. 5 of the skeletons were identified, 2 were not. Dr. Hunt led us through the 5 identified bodies and explained how to determine race, gender, age, and cause of death. He then challenged us to do the same for the 2 unidentified bodies. Turns out, they were the remains of two of the ghosts! The Natural History Museum also created fake police forensic reports for these two bodies, so we could post them on-line to share with players that were unable to attend. Congressional Cemetery – Players took a tour of the Congressional Cemetery with Patrick Crowley, Chair of the Board of Directors. Partway through the tour, players saw two ghostly figures in the distance who were flashing lights towards the group. Later, they found a flashlight and Morse-code key in a tomb and realized that they could now communicate with the ghosts to find out what they wanted. For each of these events, we posted photos and descriptions on-line.
  • On October 25, we held the final event in the museum. This included an exhibition of all the player-created artifacts and a five-hour multimedia scavenger hunt around the museum. The scavenger hunt involved 6 quests, each of which was tied to a character in the story. As we knew many players did not live in DC and so couldn’t attend, we invited them to create one of the codes in the game from a 19 th century quilt.
  • The final event was so successful and received such great feedback that we decided to create a module version that we could run on a recurring basis. Feedback included: “ It turned an already interesting museum into a place of wonder” “ I never would have spent the time staring into a painting and trying to understand it if it weren’t part of a task.” “ This is the first time that it felt like the museum was meant to be fun and interactive rather than somber and pensive.” “ A fantastic way to examine the collections and pay specific attention to the various works on art on display.” This version has just 3 quests, can be run by just one or two staff members, and takes around 90 minutes to complete. After a few months, we had so many people demanding a sequel that we created one, Return of the Spirits. Game tasks include…
  • Text messaging the answer to questions in order to get the next clue
  • Creating sculptures out of foil
  • Using sculpture to decipher complex code
  • Following treasure maps
  • And finding and watching video clips on the computer kiosks. We run this game once a month as a public program and by appointment for groups. Since December 2008, over 2,000 people have played (which is huge for us).
  • The popularity of these games and the ease of creating content for cell phones has led us to develop a variety of other experimental programs in the Luce Center. These include A choose-your-own-adventure style game titled “The Case of the Missing Artwork,” in which players text their way around the Luce Center to solve the crime; A couple of text-message tours: mad genius, which takes you around the work of eccentric artists, and 6 degrees, which connects artists together in unexpected ways; And “I like…” audio tours, in which visitors can select from different themes, including I like the color red, I like Ex-Pats, and I like shiny things. Response has been great so far!
  • In development We are working with the Rochester Institute of Technology to create a Facebook game that is based around the concepts of collecting and exhibiting art. This game is still in the early stages, but players will receive points for caring for their collections correctly and for designing thoughtful exhibitions. We’ve given RIT permission to use 196 collection images in the game so far. We hope that the game will expand to include objects from other museums and cultural institutions. We’re also working with the game designers from Ghosts of a Chance in partnership with Maker Media to create a new alternate reality game, PHEON. This is in the very early stages at the moment, but it will be a mission-based game and we hope to launch sometime this summer.
  • The Smithsonian is finally realizing the importance and social significance of games, and how we can use them to attract new audiences as well as engage with our existing ones. When we started thinking about a new exhibition, doing something on the relationship between art and video games seemed like a great idea. It’s a brand new subject area for us, though, and we knew we needed outside help from an expert... [hand over to Chris!]
  • GDC Presentation

    1. 1. A Day at the Museum How the Smithsonian is embracing games Chris Melissinos , Founder, Past Pixels Georgina Goodlander , Interpretive Programs Manager, Smithsonian American Art Museum Larry Fuente Game Fish 1988 mixed media Smithsonian American Art Museum
    2. 2. The Castle Electronic Superhighway Nam June Paik Lorton Meteorite Apollo 11 Command Module Columbia Clouded Leopard Cub
    3. 13. <ul><li>Necklace of the Subaltern Betrayer </li></ul><ul><li>Predictor of Imminent Doom </li></ul><ul><li>Con Artists’ Replica </li></ul><ul><li>Diorama of a Travesty </li></ul><ul><li>Memory Vessel </li></ul><ul><li>Escape Quilt </li></ul>
    4. 18. Reply with “goac” and then the name of the Tin Man’s daughter. Find her in the Folk Art section on the 1st floor.
    5. 19. To complete this quest and save Daisy, create a sculpture of a spirit and take it to the Luce Center.
    6. 20. Take a clue sheet from under the stool nearby. The key is a stone sculpture downstairs in the Luce Center…
    7. 22. Find the Root Monster on a computer kiosk and select MEDIA.
    8. 23. Luce staffers Tierney & Mary