I got to play educational games for a couple of days

It’s a great job when you get to do stuff just for fun. For the last few days, I’ve been at the Science Museum of Minnesota, consulting on their new exhibit? Theatrical performance? Interactive game? called Infestation: The Evolution Begins. It’s a 3-part project funded by NSF to help teach key concepts of evolution to kids, and it’s looking pretty amazing.The first part is done, and it’s a theatrical event where the concepts are explained entertainingly, and the audience are introduced to little imaginary creatures called VISTAs. If you go to SMM today, you can watch the whole show yourself, get certified as an official VISTA handler, and get a sticker. A sticker! I got one! Oh, boy!

It stands alone, and is a fun demo. But there’s more! Not available to the public yet, but I was part of a team of consultants brought in to comment on/criticize/maybe improve some preliminary versions of interactive games that follow from Part I. Eventually, kids will be scurrying all over the museum to solve puzzles and address challenges that will require them to learn about biology and evolution. For now, it was just a troop of aging game designers, cognitive psychologists, theater people, museum curators, educators, and biologists running around trying out rough versions (some of the game rooms weren’t quite as polished as they will be). They’ve made great progress on Part II of the project, and I think, maybe, they’re hoping to have it available to the public this summer? Next fall? I’m getting an inside look at what it takes to build a professional and quite elaborate interactive exhibit in a museum, and I’m exhausted just thinking of all the labor and thinking that is done.

I had a lovely couple of days hanging out with the fantastic people who work behind the scenes at SMM — did you know real museums have large staffs of people who are doing, you know, science? — and my fellow consultants, like Scott Nicholson and Jonathan Tweet, who some of you may have already heard of. If you think combining “education” and “games” is going to flop at both, think again. This is serious stuff in the service of fun and learning.

We get to go back at some later date, once Part II is fully operational, and when Part III is in a preliminary state — we had some suggestions, but that bit is still up in the air, as it’s supposed to be a capstone that brings everything the kids learn together. I’m looking forward to seeing what they come up with. You should all be looking forward to a trip to SMM next year when the magic is all ready for prime time.


  1. killyosaur says

    Yup, “Grandmother Fish” is one of the books in my reading list rotation for my daughter!

  2. Artor says

    What? I was told that museums consist of static displays and a bunch of signs on a wall as you wind your way to the gift shop. Interactive educational games? That’s not how Ken Ham rolls.

  3. marcoli says

    VISTA? As in Variation Inheritance Selection Time Adaptation? I use that reference in my class! :)

  4. says

    #4: Yes, exactly. VISTA is introduced in part 1, the theatrical presentation, and then there are 5 games using museum materials for each of the pieces.

  5. Pierce R. Butler says

    I’ve puzzled for years (having little classroom experience and no kids or training in pedagogy) over how one introduces evolution to younger kids without causing stress and strain (even without having to counter creationist crap).

    Putting a process-of-elimination mechanism together with storytelling creates a damn dismal narrative.

  6. methuseus says

    Educational games either flop or are really good. It also depends on the audience; if they assume it’s a bad game because it’s educational, then they won’t like it no matter what. If they just try to think of it as a game, and forget the educational part, then it shines. I loved Math Blaster as a kid. It was a pretty solid game, let alone being educational.

  7. brasidas69 says

    There are some great educational games out there – Cytosis for example is a worker placement game which gives helps a basic understanding of some of the interior workings of cells.