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Games are good for public engagement

It’s the interaction, argue Martha Henson and Danny Birchall

It’s the interaction, argue Martha Henson and Danny Birchall.

Like many others in the business of public engagement, the Wellcome Trust is very interested in the potential of games to engage and educate. Over the last couple of years, we've learnt a great deal in this area and launched two hugely successful casual games. So why do we think play is so powerful? And, crucially, how can we prove it?

If a game is done well, playing it is an absorbing experience. Many people will recognise the wonderful state of flow that a game can induce, blocking out all else, with hours going by whilst you play again and again to try and better your score or get to the next level. That degree of absorption is the key: it is deep engagement.

Based on fact

Furthermore, you must learn in order to progress in any game, whether it be how best to move the blocks in Tetris, which weaponry to use in which situation in a first person shooter, or how to get at the piggy in the middle in Angry Birds. This was the revelation for us: what if this learning is based on fact? The player could then be learning and thinking about science, or indeed anything else, whilst playing a game.

In the case of our game, Axon, the fundamental game mechanics were based on biological rules for neuron growth in a foetal brain and the game was developed in collaboration with a neuroscientist.In High Tea, success demands that players must understand the historical trade between British opium traders and Chinese buyers in the 19th century. For both, we worked with Preloaded, a hugely experienced and award-winning games agency who know how to weave this factual content into games that are genuinely fun to play.

Easy to rip

Another good reason to use games for engagement is their huge popularity, and reaching that large audience of gamers was our aim. Rather than expecting this audience to come to our website, we went to them. The distribution strategy for Axon and High Tea was a three-pronged attack.

Firstly, we seeded the games to high-traffic portals like Kongregate and Newgrounds. Secondly, we made our game easy to ‘rip’ so that anyone could take it and publish it on their own site. Lastly, we embedded Google Analytics events in the game so that we could see what effect this had: how many people were playing it and where.

We went on to carry out further research and evaluation.

Looking at where and how the game was played confirmed the wisdom of our distribution strategy: over half the plays of the game took place on sites we hadn’t approached directly, effectively doubling the audience for the game. Both High Tea and Axon have now had over four million plays.

Choosing to learn

Comments on the games portals and blogs showed that players were not only discussing how to get the best scores and win the game, but also about the subject matter of the game itself, sometimes in strong debate.

We surveyed players directly to find out more about their experience and how the game had affected them. A high proportion of players reported learning something, but also that they enjoyed the fact they were learning. Even better, the games had sparked the desire to find out more. Over half of players surveyed chose to find out more about the subject matter.

One player on Kongregate asked, ‘How come I only understood what I’d seen in a museum after playing this game?!’ There is something about games’ uniquely interactive nature that makes play a powerful tool for learning and engagement.

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Martha Henson
Martha Henson is Multimedia Producer at the Wellcome Collection. Find Martha on Twitter @marthasadie
Danny Birchall
Danny Birchall is Website Editor at the Wellcome Trust. Find Danny on Twitter @dannybirchall
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