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Museums need more compelling games

23 Mar, 2011
High Tea

High Tea

Do you play games? We might dismiss them as childish, but in his 1938 work Homo Ludens, Johan Huizinga argued that play is an essential component of all human culture. The chances are that you enjoy playing something – whether it’s Angry Birds or a round of charades at Christmas.

Globally, gaming is big business, with a market worth an estimated $50 billion (£30 billion) in 2011 and a demographically diverse audience with an even gender split. But it’s not just about numbers: the dedication of gamers to the pleasure of play means time spent at the console can exceed that spent with a feature film or novel.

The educational potential seems obvious. So why have museums and educationalists, with all the information and resources at their disposal, failed to make more than a handful of really compelling educational games? The work of game designers and researchers such as Jane McGonigal (author of Reality is Broken) and Channel 4 Education (including the Wellcome Trust-funded Routes) has amply demonstrated the power of games to bring both children and adults cultural and scientific ideas in new forms.

But many have assumed that any game-like feature is enough to engage people, and tacking minimal interactivity onto a barely disguised didactic lesson plan has unfortunately been the dismal standard in this field. However, others, such as the Science Museum, have begun to harness the potential of games for learning. The physics-based Launchball game was hugely popular and they have just released Rizk (about climate change).

We’ve had our own success recently with High Tea, a strategy game centred on the dubious actions of the British Empire in the run-up to the Opium Wars of 1839. From over 1.5m plays in its first fortnight after release, plus comments, reviews and survey responses, we can see that we have achieved both a wide reach and our educational aims.

Why are these particular games successful? Because they put gameplay at the centre of the experience and use experienced digital agencies to deliver this. These examples are a great start, but surely more could be done in this area. Games might seem a trivial way of approaching the public with new ideas, but the playful and exploratory impulses that draw gamers to great games are still largely untapped as a means of engagement. By pushing boundaries ourselves, we hope to show others what can be achieved.

Martha Henson and Danny Birchall

Martha Henson is Multimedia Editor at the Wellcome Trust.
Danny Birchall is the Editor of the Wellcome Collection website.

Play High Tea at

This opinion piece appears in the latest issue of Wellcome News, the Trust’s flagship magazine. Download a PDF copy or subscribe for free at

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Anna Sayburn permalink
    24 Mar, 2011 2:14 pm

    Compelling indeed – I lost several hours of one evening to High Tea, and never made a decent trader. Congratulations on an innovative and successful game.

  2. 18 Apr, 2011 2:26 am

    esta muy exitoso tu trabajo de juegos yla ideas que compactaron para hacer estos inteligentes formas de expresar por medio de juegos puesto que cuando uno juega aisla los problemas si los tienen el juego produce endorfinas que producen relajamiento del sistema nervioso y nos distancia el pensamiento durante el juego de las responsabilidades que presenta nuestras tareas a diario que aveces nos produce estress


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