Title:From Knowledge to Narrative—to Systems? Games, Rules, and Meaning-Making
Authors:Dave Schaller
Publication:MW2011: Museums and the Web 2011

Laura Robert's landmark book "From Knowledge to Narrative" (Roberts, 1997) analyzed a paradigm shift in museum exhibition in the late 20th century as educators moved museums from traditional methods of knowledge transmission to constructivist interpretive methods such as narrative. Today, museum educators wishing to adopt game-based learning methods face a similar challenge: to move from now-familiar narrative methods to a systems-based approach. Games are, at heart, a set of rules that define player choices and subsequent consequences. Applying a strong narrative to a game usually results in neither a good story nor a good game. Instead, we must learn to think like game and system designers, finding the rules intrinsic to our content. 


In some ways, this shift from narrative to systems is less formidable than was the shift from knowledge transmission, since both narrative and systems are rooted in constructivism, the notion that learning is, as Hein (1998) says, "is not a simple addition of items into some sort of mental data bank but a transformation of schemas in which the learner plays an active role and which involves making sense out of a range of phenomena." Games, one could argue, are even more constructivist than narratives, since the player's role is by definition active, evaluating various phenomena to inform successful tactics to win the game. 


Nevertheless, this shift from narrative to systems is often difficult for museum educators, particularly art and history educators schooled in the humanities rather than science. Exhibits and education materials generally explore the idiosyncrancies of a given topic, whether they be the expressive and interpretive aspects of an artwork or the narrative arc of an historical event. The meaning to be made from this approach is powerful, often pulling us back in even when we struggle toward a systems approach. For example, inspired by game designer Sid Meier's fabled definition of a good game as "a series of interesting choices," we might use a "choose your own adventure" branching story design. This approach appears to serve both the idiosyncratic arc of an historical narrative while providing the meaningful choices so central to a game. In practice, though, this approach serves both the history and the gameplay poorly, as it forces players into increasingly less-meaningful choices simply to keep the number of story branches manageable. 


Instead, we must adopt a true rules-based design, digging into our content to find even a few rules inherent in the subject matter that can then define the gameplay. This paper will explore this challenge, drawing on both game design theory (core dynamics, rules, actions, skills, chance) and published commercial and non-profit games to show how the heterogeneous realworld content of museums can indeed be turned into exciting and meaningful learning games.



Hein, G. (1998). Learning in the Museum. London: Routledge.

Roberts, L. (1997). From Knowledge to Narrative. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books.