Giving Collections An Extra Life – Making Video Games That Promote Collections Engagement (For Free)

Written by Glenn Roadley, NatSCA Committee Member, Curator of Natural Science at The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery.

(Note: this article includes interactive games. If they don’t work, your organisation may have blocked game websites through your network)

You might think that playing video games falls at the opposite end of the hobby-spectrum when compared to getting engaged with nature. But the immersion and creativity allowed often provides many of the same benefits, and nature is used as inspiration for many of the most popular video games. In this way video games can become a gateway to learning about nature in the real world – did you know that the highest grossing media franchise of all time (step aside, Marvel) started as a video game about collecting fictional animals to help a scientist with their biological recording project? You’ve probably heard of it. And the Animal Crossing franchise, a game series where a core activity involves collecting insects and fish to donate to the local museum, has sold over 70 million copies.

Games like Pokémon and Animal Crossing show that natural science collections are already on to a winner when it comes to subject matter and gaming. The collections are full of characters and stories, and games should be considered as another way to provide access to these.

The benefits of games are well-established (stress relief, improvement of memory and development of problem-solving skills are among the benefits often cited) and Learning Through Play is already a central part of how museums engage with their audiences. Many museums have used computer games to bring their interpretation to life (https://www.museumnext.com/article/how-can-games-in-museums-enhance-visitor-experience/).

But I can hear you crying now: “Sounds nice, but I have no time and even less money!”. Yes, more often than not game development in museums seems to be restricted to big projects, with big budgets and teams attached. The budget for developing a mobile app generally runs into the tens of thousands.

Creating content for audiences to access remotely has become easier in recent years as technology becomes more accessible – writing and posting a blog online is trivial in both time and cost when compared to physical publishing, and even creating a video is easy enough with a mobile phone and free software. So, what if you just have a small display planned, with no budget attached, and have an idea for a little game to accompany it that you’d like to knock out in a couple of days, like you might a blog?

As the Covid lock-down first hit The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, we were due to open our Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland themed exhibition, ‘Curiouser and Curiouser’. Like most other museums, we shifted our engagement focus online, and did as much as we could to bring the exhibition to life through web browser-based activities and resources. As part of this drive, I started looking into how we might build our own video games, in-house, for free. I found two platforms suited our needs; Scratch and Godot.

Developed by MIT, Scratch is often used in schools to introduce children to coding, but is used by kids and adults alike to create and share content. Its simplicity comes with restrictions, but the speed with which games can be built makes it perfect for small projects or prototypes.

Scratch uses a simple drag-and-drop code editor

Scratch is a great tool which is really easy to use; I’d recommend it for anyone without coding experience who wants to get involved with developing games. The first game I made in Scratch (below) featured an Asian water monitor specimen (STKMG:1999.MNH.24) playing the part of Bill the Lizard as he attempts to climb down the White Rabbit’s chimney, avoiding Alice’s foot:

Play Bill the Lizard

To give an idea of how easy Scratch is to pick up – I went from zero experience to finishing the above game in the space of a day. Admittedly it’s not going to top any Steam wishlists, but playtesting with museum staff showed the success of a key objective – STKMG:1999.MNH.24 had been brought to life. It was now Bill the Lizard. My four-year old kept asking to play and couldn’t stop giggling at the ‘urk’ noise when Bill got kicked. Even simple creations can have a strong effect. My list of Scratch Pros and Cons:

Pros

  • Free, usage under CC BY-SA 2.0
  • Includes library of image and sound resources
  • Very easy to learn
  • Fast to develop with
  • Lots of help can be found online
  • Web based, no downloads or installations required
  • Creations are hosted on the Scratch website and can easily be embedded into any website with HTML

Cons

  • Only supports 2D games
  • Basic capabilities, not ideal for games with multiple scenes
  • Doesn’t handle text strings very well
  • Small fixed viewing window
  • Creations can only be run on a web browser (though it might be possible to export to a file and convert to another format?)

Scratch is brilliant, but I could see early on where some of the limitations might become restrictive. So I looked into something a bit more complex – Godot.

Godot is a lightweight, opensource game development platform. It has a much steeper learning curve than Scratch, but with it a much more powerful set of capabilities. Making a small game in Godot generally takes me a week or two, working on and off. This one was created for our upcoming ‘Commonwealth Connections’ exhibition, in which our mascot, Ozzy Owl, races a Hartebeest:

Play Hartebeest Dash

Advantages of Godot for this game include the widescreen aspect ratio, high resolution, parallax background scrolling, smoother animations, collision detection, ability to activate full-screen view, etc. Downside is greater processing power is required – some optimisation had to be implemented before it would run smoothly on mobile.

Godot is a bit more intense, but there are some great tutorials on YouTube

Pros

  • Free, with license to creations retained by museum
  • Supports 2D or 3D graphics
  • Powerful, with complex scripting and customisation possible
  • Lots of help can be found online
  • Games can be published in multiple formats, including HTML5, Android app or iOS app
  • HTML5 games can be hosted on museum’s own server, or by other platforms such as itch.io and embedded on any site

Cons

  • Steep learning curve
  • Can take a long time to get basic mechanics working (though once working, they could be reused in future games)
  • Code optimisation required for games to run smoothly on all platforms
  • A basic awareness of coding and game mechanics needed – Scratch helps develop this!
  • No inbuilt library of sound/graphic resources, though other sources are available online (and could be developed in house)

That last bullet could be a stopping point for some people – games generally need sound and graphics! In some games I’ve been able to create them by taking photos of objects and locations in the museum to use (such as in Bill the Lizard) – a phone and image editing software is all you need (I like GIMP). In others we’ve drawn them ourselves (like in Hartebeest Dash). Sounds and music tracks are trickier, but examples can be found online for free, usually under a creative commons licence that simply require attribution to the original artist.

Godot is the preferred choice for more complicated creations, for example those with an extended narrative, many scene transitions and complicated animations. However, development time is longer – my first Godot game took about a week, though future creations could be considerably quicker as skills are learned and assets are reused. It is also the preferred choice for making interactives that can be accessed within a physical museum space as well as a website – as games can be played on standalone computers running Windows or Android.

So while going in with a big budget and access to a real software development team might produce higher quality results, I’d urge anyone interested to give these a try if that’s not an option. This is only a very brief introduction to the ins and outs of game development, but hopefully it serves as some inspiration and direction for getting started. I’m far from an expert in this subject, but if you have any questions, feel free to drop me an email.

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