The Use of Games in Museums and Science Centers

The white paper The Use of Games in Museums and Science Centers was released in October of 2016.

It’s actually a game. Click here to read…err, play.

One of the most useful metaphors to use when thinking about games comes from historian Johan Huizinga in his seminal work Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture. Huizinga defines the ‘magic circle’ as the agreed upon space (either physical or temporal) within which a game occurs. Inside the magic circle there is a tacit agreement amongst the players that the challenge posed inside the game is separate from real life. This is what Samuel Taylor Coleridge called the “willing suspension of disbelief” in context of the theatre.

Without these boundaries, a game would be indistinguishable from real-life. Think of the physical boundaries of a playground or a soccer pitch. Or the well-defined play spaces of Chess or Monopoly. Video games usually have the entirety of the game world enclosed within a computer monitor or phone screen (although these boundaries are blurring with the prevalence of so-called ‘pervasive games’ such as Pokémon GO). When players compete in a game, they are also cooperating in extending the illusion of the magic circle’s artifice. The root of the word compete comes from the latin competere meaning “to come together” or “to strive in common.”


Museums and science centres understand this metaphor well: when visitors cross their thresholds, they are primed to accept a new and different experience that is distinguishable from their everyday life. The museum itself is a sort of magic circle to explore new ideas and objects.