Mike Horn: Designing Interactive Games for Museums

Mike Horn: Designing Interactive Games for Museums

tabletop game

Assistant professor Michael Horn is known for the interactive exhibits he designs for museums. In his quest to determine what makes a museum exhibit engaging and educational, he and his colleagues designed and tested a tabletop touchscreen game to help museum visitors understand evolution and the diversity of life on earth.

The researchers’ results showed that the game succeeded in making learning engaging and collaborative. “Visitors were engaged in focused, on-topic interaction for prolonged periods of time,” Horn says. A multi-touch tabletop, which is similar to a desk-size tablet computer, allows people to play a game together as they learn difficult material in an engaging way.

Horn’s team of computer scientists, psychologists and biologists from Northwestern, Harvard, University of Nebraska and University of Michigan created a puzzle game with multiple levels called Build-a-Tree. It aims to help people understand diagrams called phylogenetic trees that show the evolutionary history of organisms. In Build-a-Tree players assemble trees showing these relationships by dragging icons on the screen together.

The study, which took place at the Harvard Museum of Natural History, showed that tabletop games have high potential for museum learning. “Not only are tabletop games motivational, but they also cue social practices of game play that spark productive collaboration,” says Horn.

Build-a-Tree was developed through multiple rounds of user testing and then studied intensively with 35 family groups. “We worked hard to make sure that the game was not only fun and easy to play, but that it also integrated target learning objectives. The fun of playing the game derives directly from the learning activity,” says Horn.

The researchers are still in the process of analyzing learning outcomes, but they have found that visitors are having meaningful conversations around the exhibit as they play the game. “They are asking questions about the nature of evolutionary relationships and about how to interpret phylogenetic tree diagrams, which is what we hoped to see,” says Horn.

Mike Horn

“You see phylogenetic trees everywhere,” notes Horn. “They're not only critical tools of modern biology, but they're also common in school science. Natural history museums make extensive use of phylogenetic trees to help visitors understand evolution and the place of various organisms in the great Tree of Life. The problem is that research has shown that people find phylogenetic trees very confusing, even at the college level.”

“What we've done is try to make interacting with phylogenetic trees fun, interesting and collaborative. Even though museum visitors generally want to learn, they have little patience for exhibits that are complicated or feel like a lot of work. They don't want the museum to feel like school. Our challenge was to make this confusing topic engaging for groups of visitors — to get people hooked in as little as 30 seconds. In that challenge I think we've succeeded.”

Looking ahead, the researchers are working on a redesign of the game to test at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago late this summer. Horn says, “Our goal in the redesign is to promote more thoughtful reflection while maintaining the same level of engagement that we saw at Harvard last summer. The other thing I'm excited about is our plan to deploy the game on mobile devices like Apple iPads as a web app for anyone to play.”

By Marilyn Sherman
Last Modified: 10/2/13