It’s still unclear what the full impact COVID has had on museum attendance and what the long-term implications are. What is known, however, was that even before COVID, museum attendance was declining. As early as 2017, according to numbers released by the Department for Culture, Media, and Sport in the UK, museums including the British Museum, Tate galleries, the National Gallery, and the V&A museum visitors significantly fell from previous years. A BBC analysis found that both the national Gallery and Tate have lost about 20% of their audience over a 5-year period.
It's not that people are now less interested in history or the arts; it's more of the institution's lack of enthusiasm in embracing the changing times that is seeing a decline in numbers. This means that museum engagement must improve to adapt to how people play and consume content today.
Adaptation doesn't need to be drastic. After all, museums are already doing much to improve their engagement with visitors. They need to go further by adding technological innovation to the mix. And by far, the most intriguing prospect is "gamification."
What is Gamification?
The term describes the use of game design elements in non-game contexts. In other words, it's the application of gaming mechanics to real-world situations. One can roughly put it as a handful of activities that solve issues and predicaments while employing game elements. When we talk about game elements, it could be in the form of rankings, points, hierarchy systems, rewards, and badges, just to name a few.
How Does Gamification Attract Visitors?
Gamification employs a sense of competition and community involvement that urges people to participate. It also has an element of excitement that encourages word-of-mouth sharing. This concept particularly enamours the younger generation because it's the way they grew up playing. Everything was a competition, and there were always rewards to strive for.
Since young people are less interested in studying the arts and history, it makes the most sense to use gamification to attract them. Engaging them in their niche will pique their curiosity about other aspects of life. In a way, it will open up a whole new world for them while satisfying their need for competition.
How Can Museums Use Gamification?
We can think of countless ways, but these five are likely to be at the forefront of change:
1 - Virtual Reality/Augmented Reality
While we've only been scratching the surface of these technologies, two giants in their respective industries already put the prospect into action a decade ago. The Louvre in Paris and Nintendo partnered in 2012 to create the "Nintendo DS Louvre Guide." It's described as an "educational and informative" guide where museum visitors can look at art pieces through GPS and 3D imaging. Aside from high-resolution images, the guide features audio and video commentaries.
This right here is an example of how technology can enhance the museum experience by giving visitors a more in-depth look at the exhibits through virtual tours. VR and AR are ideal for improving engagement in museums since they're readily available. The fact that museums have no shortage of stuff to feature in these guides is also a plus.
2 - Customization and Individual Learning
An audio tour experience is nothing new for museums, but it still needs work in terms of engagement. The problem with most audio tours is that they're generally the same for everyone. With gamification, museums can introduce customization and individual learning into the mix.
Giving visitors the power to create their own tour makes them more likely to be engaged since the content caters to their specific interests. This way, they can learn at their own pace and go through the museum however they want.
By far, the best representation of customization and individual learning via an audio tour is "Meet Vincent Van Gogh," an exhibition by Amsterdam's The Van Gogh Museum. The exhibit allows visitors to learn about Van Gogh's life and work through audio recordings. The best part is that a voice actor playing Van Gogh himself reads the stories. Hence, there's some element of personal connection that's missing from regular audio tours. It's a more interesting take on the concept, and it's one that other museums should look into.
3 - Online Interactive Experience
New York City's Great Gotham Challenge (GGC) best exemplifies how museums can up the ante using an online interactive experience. Teams work together to decode interactive clues that engage with rich culture and history to complete missions. The most exciting challenge is code deciphering, but visitors are also treated with tasks related to arts, puzzles, history, language, and music.
Online interactive experiences bring about active engagement, requiring participants to work together as a team. It also takes the focus away from individual learning, making it more about social interaction. The GGC is designed for people of all ages, so museums can use this concept to target different demographics.
4 - Role Playing in Exhibitions
While the first three ways are technology-centric, this next one is about old-fashioned human interaction. An open-air museum in Sweden called "Jamtli" features a reconstructed wooden historical building complex combined with an indoor museum filled with Viking relics. Visitors interested in learning Swedish history are encouraged to participate in role-playing games through a "time-travelling passport."
The idea is for people to experience first-hand how the Vikings lived centuries ago, with all the appropriate costumes and setting to match. It's a great way to immerse yourself in the culture, and it's also an excellent method for teaching history in a fun and interactive way.
5 - Customized Experience Through Social Media
More and more museums are turning to social media to engage with visitors. And why not? It's a great way to connect with people from all over the world, and it doesn't require them to be physically present in the museum.
While many big names already have a presence on platforms like Twitter and Facebook, some museums go above and beyond to create a customized experience for their followers. For example, the American Museum of Natural History has an entire social media team that curates content based on specific topics.
An intriguing prospect is that of offering online educational games through social media. The National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh has many mini-games that let users learn about ancient Egypt, the Picts or microbiology.
The games are designed to be quick and educational, teaching players about the museum through fun quests and challenges. They can be played online or in person, inside or outside the museum walls.
So, here's a rundown of the steps that museums can take to gamify their exhibitions:
Step 1 - Invest in virtual or augmented reality technology, if possible.
Step 2 - Make customized and individual learning a focal point.
Step 3 - Create an online interactive experience that encourages teamwork and active engagement.
Step 4 - Encourage role-playing scenarios in museum exhibitions.
Step 5 - Use social media to customize the experience for followers and offer educational mini-games.
As of 2021, there were 2.7 billion gamers worldwide and on Twitch, a popular streaming platform, 2 billion hours of video gameplay were streamed on the platform alone. With gaming so popular, the lessons learned can be transferred over to other events and institutions like galleries and museums.
The important thing is to find what works best for one museum and its visitors. It's also worth noting that these concepts can be applied to any exhibition, not just art or history museums.