Imagination is one of our greatest and most humanizing characteristics, and playing games is beneficial for shaping our imaginative instincts. When I was growing up, I witnessed the evolution of video games from 8-bit side-scrolling forms of gameplay to expansive environments where players could explore the gaming environment at their own pace. This transformation also changed the narrative structure of games from typically binary themes (i.e. go through levels and beat the bad guys) to more player-centered experiences. Coming from a background where free-play and imagination were valued and rewarded, I enthusiastically gravitated towards the latter type of video games. Computer games like SimCity, Dino Park Tycoon, Sim Hospital and The Sims, are some of my all-time favorites, because they gave me agency to make creative, logical or absurd choices. There was flexibility in the gameplay that made me feel like I was truly responsible for the frame to frame progression of the game. Every action had a reaction and there were so many different ways a scenario could play out. I had my share of triumphs and disasters in each game.
I haven’t played a video game in several years, but when I heard about the upcoming release of Mondo Museum (sometime in 2020), a museum themed management sim, I became very excited. This game combines both my adolescent and current interests and passions. A museum simulator is a curator and video game aficionado’s dream come true. There are several benefits to playing management sim video games, and they relate to many of the studio habits of mind that we learn via the arts. In order to be successful in the game, players need to brace themselves for ambiguity, be flexible in their actions and reactions to change, establish cross-disciplinary connections and make assessments as to what went well and how their process of play can be improved. The game enables us to realize how consciously arranging cultural objects, which span time and place, provides historical and contemporary context. By researching objects from the collection (or on loan from another simulated institution) and curating them into gallery spaces, the player creates compelling narratives and gives their viewers ample opportunities to make cross-cultural and multi-disciplinary discoveries.
Mondo Museum’s gameplay is also intended to build empathy (another artistic habit of mind) because you see what others are going through as they move throughout your museum. The viewer experience inspires and influences the player to make equitable decisions that enhance their engagement with the museum. Furthermore, you advance in the game by curating exhibitions that make relevant connections between the museum objects and their aesthetic, cultural and historical context. For example, a player can gain ‘combo’ points by creating a thematic exhibition that displays works of art that address the topic from multiple cultural perspectives. Organizing shows thematically and showing the heterogeneity of sociocultural concepts, is one way that real-life museums are shifting the gaze from the Western Canon to a global and intersectional representation of culture.
Mondo Museum supports the proper contextualization of culture through ethical cross-cultural partnerships with other museums. The provenance of works of art and artifacts are represented by the region and culture they were created in. You build your exhibitions by participating in a discourse with curators and directors from museums around the world, in order to gain knowledge about the intent and function the object had/has for the people who made it.
While the game is still in development, the idea of having the gameplay reflect contemporary issues around equitable access to museums and decolonization, is something that drives the game’s designer, Michel McBride-Charpentier. He intends for the game to address and raise awareness around a major issue affecting museums and cultural institutions throughout the world: the colonialist practices of collections acquisitions. In other words, major museums have established collections of cultural objects through unethical means like looting and nefariously brokered deals. McBride-Charpentier states, “the way that [museums] have built their collections in the West is mostly based on colonial looting…Instead of representing that, this game is showing a more utopian version of what museums should be like” (Jackson, 2019).
While Mondo Museum will present a stylized version of a museum, the ethical principles behind decolonization are very realistic goals that would behoove museums around the world to make right. Elisa Shoenberger writes, “the decolonizing project will have starts and stops as each museum, cultural worker and audiences have difficult conversations and reflections about the meaning of museums and who the institutions are intended to serve” (Shoenberger, 2019). One obvious way of decolonizing a museum, is to return the objects of historical importance to the contemporary cultures where they hold significance. There are so many examples of objects in museums that were acquired during colonial and imperial eras and have since been requested by the people in the region they originated from. Returning the objects to their cultures of origin (known as repatriation) would ensure that current and future generations have access to primary resources regarding their cultural heritage.
Another objective is to create a dialogue through partnerships with cultural organizations and individuals from nations that have their objects in foreign museums. In a recent post (see: Exhibiting Empathy), I describe how the Seattle Museum of Art is collaborating with African artists whose experience and background provide relevant insight about the works in the museum’s African art collection. By having advisors who are a part of the society where the art is from, the museum ensures that the narrative is both properly presented and connected to the contemporary life of its originating place. Too often, works from African nations are presented in Western museums as ethnographic mementos, which ignores the fact that there is a continuity of the specific culture (the same can be said about art by North American, South American and Australian indigenous peoples).
Penn Museum in Philadelphia, has a renowned collection of art and artifacts from the Middle East dating back to 4,500 years ago. Although the museum states that 95 percent of their Middle Eastern collection “was excavated by Penn archaeologists” in partnership with local governments, it still raises issues about ethical acquisitions. Art critic Olivia Jia questions the idea of an ethical excavation, “given the fact that many of these excavations occurred against a backdrop of strife-ridden fallout from British colonial rule, and were co-sponsored by the British Museum” (Jia, 2019). Furthermore, the museum has presented their Middle Eastern objects through the lens of the archeologists, which gives Western narratives precedence over the stories that are intrinsic to the region where the artifacts and art objects were collected. To shift the narrative towards a more local and decolonized perspective, the museum established an innovative program called Global Guides, where they hire refugees from the Middle East as docents who lead visitors through thematic tours of the permanent collection. The docents provide unique insights and personal connections to the work. Analyzing exit surveys for the Global Guides program, Jia was amazed to discover that many participants never had an actual interpersonal connection with an individual from the Middle East until then. The presence of docents like Moumena Saradar, a Syrian refugee and only one of two Muslim staff members at the museum, has an empathetic impact on both visitors and museum staff (Jia, 2019).
Mondo Museum is only a simulated game, however its mission to reject colonial narratives reflects a very real issue that is at the forefront of artistic and institutional practices. Furthermore, Mondo Museum’s experience and equity driven platform is similar to the operational missions at brick and mortar institutions, where the viewer’s experience and participation are given elevated attention. Many museums no longer serve as ‘banking models’ (see: Freire, 2008) where visitors are presented with didactic displays of objects and text. Instead, they are being transformed into environments that enable viewers to curate their own experiences in dialogue with the museum’s collection and architectural space (Zucker, 2019).
Museum scholar and critic Seph Rodney explains that today’s museums are incorporating distinct factors that are in-line with visitor’s needs, such as “social interaction, spiritual sustenance, emotional connection, intellectual challenge, or consumerist indulgence” (Rodney, 2016). From the preview and demo of Mondo Museum, it appears that all of these elements will be integral to the management sim’s gameplay. These undertakings provide experiences that support experiential learning, collaboration, socialization and the democratization of cultural spaces. Museums that acknowledge their visitors’ unique personalities and treat them as participants, are likely to retain them. In Mondo Museum, that retainership leads to winning the game. It is McBride-Charpentier’s hope that players of the game will become more engaged and active participants at their local museums. He says “I would love it if people play this and then were inspired to go out to the real museums that might be nearby” (Jackson, 2019).
References, Notes, Suggested Reading:
Freire, Paulo. “The “Banking” Concept of Education.” Ways of Reading. 8th ed. Bartholomae, David and Anthony Petrosky. Boston: Bedford- St. Martin’s, 2008. 242-254. Print.
Jackson, Gita. “Upcoming Museum Sim Lets Players Combine Artifacts to Tell Cool Stories.” Kotaku, 11 Oct. 2019. https://kotaku.com/upcoming-museum-sim-lets-players-combine-artifacts-to-t-1838977490
Jia, Olivia. “Refugees Connect Their Personal Stories with a Museum’s Ancient Artifacts.” Hyperallergic, 19 Feb. 2019. https://hyperallergic.com/484835/global-guides-program-penn-museum/
Rodney, Seph. 2019. The Personalization of the Museum Visit, Abingdon: Routledge.
Rodney, Seph. “The Evolution of the Museum Visit, from Privilege to Personalized Experience.” Hyperallergic, 22 Jan. 2016. https://hyperallergic.com/267096/the-evolution-of-the-museum-visit-from-privilege-to-personalized-experience/
Shoenberger, Elisa. “What does it mean to decolonize a museum?” MuseumNext, 7 Feb. 2019. https://www.museumnext.com/article/what-does-it-mean-to-decolonize-a-museum/
Zucker, Adam. “Summer Reading.” Artfully Learning, 10 June 2019. https://theartsandeducation.wordpress.com/2019/06/10/summer-reading-list-2/