Title:SFMOMA's Art Game Laboratory: Real-Life Mad Science Experiments in Visitor Engagement
Authors:Erica Gangsei
Publication:MW2012: Museums and the Web 2012

At Museums and the Web 2011, I proposed and led an unconference session called "Setting Ourselves Up to Fail: Low Cost, Low Stakes Strategies for Visitor Engagement." About 40 MW attendees participated, and we had a lively discussion and brainstorm on the topic. My current project is an attempt to test out some of the ideas from this session in real space and real time at my museum.   ArtGameLab is an interactive exhibition of crowd-sourced game prototypes, displayed and distributed in SFMOMA's Koret Visitor Education Center.  My aim in proposing this paper is to report back on this experiment, using the key principles from my unconference session as measures of the project: What does it mean to be "low cost?" And "low stakes?" How did this project succeed (and fail) in overcoming institutional barriers to experimentation? How can we use games to engage visitors, and how can we measure their engagement?

Several months ago, we sent an open call out to Bay Area game designers, experience designers and conceptual artists.  We asked for inventive but low-cost ideas for games SFMOMA's visitors can play in the galleries and other public spaces of the museum.  I received about 50 proposals from community members from a multitude of disciplines and with wide-ranging levels of experience. The proposals varied from the highly-technological to the determinedly-analog, from the absolutely-feasible to the absurdly-farfetched.  I am currently collaborating with the artists and designers who submitted the strongest and simplest game ideas to develop: prototypes, proposals for thought-provoking games that cannot be executed, and engaging public programs.

Starting in January 2012, the museum will display this selection of crowd-sourced games onsite, and provide a list of all SFMOMA-based game resources online at (url not yet active).  The exhibition will include hands-on activities, opportunities for discussion, and avenues for critical thought about gaming in museums.  Programs around the exhibition will include a panel discussion on the topic, regular "SFMOMA's Got Game" meet-ups for community members who want to play together, and opportunities for visitors to invent their own games. 

The primary goal of this exhibition is to engage SFMOMA's community in employing vocabularies of game play to test out strategies for visitor engagement.  Like a game, I am setting up the parameters but have no idea at this point what the exact substance or outcome will be.  This is wholly an experiment, and I wish to share my findings - both successes and failures - with my colleagues in the field at the upcoming Museums and the Web.