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Magazines > Computers in Libraries > December 2016

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Vol. 36 No. 10 — December 2016

Gamification Meets Meaningful Play: An Inside Look
by Jan Zastrow

It's an exhilarating trend, and one Id like to see more GLAM (galleries, libraries, archives, and museums) institutions implement.
Has your institution gotten on the Pokémon GO bandwagon yet? There’s so much potential to get new users in the door, but it’s so fraught with possibilities for unexpected consequences.

In case you’ve been living under a rock, Pokémon GO is a free, location-based, augmented reality (AR) game developed by Niantic for iOS and Android devices. AR refers to real-life settings with virtual (often 3D) effects overlaid onto real-world surroundings, usually viewed through a camera, appearing as part of the physical environment.

Released in July 2016, Pokémon GO allows players to use the GPS capability of their mobile devices to locate, capture, battle, and train virtual creatures (Pokémon) that appear on the screen as if they were in the same real-world location as the player. While its positives include popularizing AR gaming, promoting physical activity, and supporting local businesses, the game is also controversial for contributing to accidents and becoming a public nuisance at certain cultural heritage locations.1

Arlington Cemetery and the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., have banned the game. “Playing the game is not appropriate in the museum, which is a memorial to the victims of Nazism,” explains Andrew Hollinger, the Holocaust Museum’s communications director. One image circulating online shows a player encountering an unsettling digital critter inside the museum: a Pokémon called Koffing that emits poisonous gas floating by a sign for the museum’s auditorium—which portrays the testimonials of Jews who survived the gas chambers. “We are trying to find out if we can get the museum excluded from the game,” says Hollinger.2

Serious Games, Meaningful Play

Pokmon GO websiteBut while Pokémon GO may be the biggest, most popular AR craze we’ve ever seen, it’s only one example of an AR game. In a more educational vein, academics in Taiwan are experimenting with AR applications to teach local history and architecture. Dubbed the Digital ARt/ARchitecture Project, the two 3D AR applications—a game called Hukou Old Street 3D AR and the Hsinchu County History Museum AR Tour—provide strong stimulation to engage users in learning about art and culture.

Hukou Old Street and Hsinchu County leverage content from historical archives and architecture to blend real objects and virtual content to create serious teaching games. By using AR imaging techniques, the users are immersed in virtual exhibitions and learn in a “surround-around” ubiquitous computing environment. The Hukou Old Street game “brings the beauty of Hukou local culture and traditional architecture into the palms of players. But the purpose for designing this game is to stimulate players to pay a visit to present-day Hukou Old Street and to taste the cultural atmosphere in person.”3 Just as in Pokémon GO, the impetus is getting players out into the real world.

“This project makes cultural and historical materials portable and interactive, and furthermore, transforms users into players to interact with AR content in an intuitive and exciting manner” (Shih, Lin, and Tseng 2015). It’s an exhilarating trend, and one I’d like to see more GLAM (galleries, libraries, archives, and museums) institutions implement.


Another genre of serious games for learning is the “docugame,” which uses digital archival documents in elearning games based on historical events. One example from Australia is AE2 Commander, a role-play elearning docugame that authentically recreates a historical mission forming part of the unsuccessful Allied campaign on the Gallipoli Peninsula in April 1915. The players use digitized documents of original source records held by the Australian War Memorial and National Archives, providing essential intelligence to get to the next stage of the game.4

“As on-demand and preemptive digitization bring important collections online, opportunities exist to engage new audiences and leverage this activity in ways that are transformative in terms of public perception of important cultural institutions. … Docugames are a new and exciting way of connecting users with important cultural heritage in digital format. Current work has merely scratched the surface of what might be possible with docugames and how they might transform the user experience of cultural heritage online” (Brogan and Masek 2013).

Metadata as a Game

Guess What! websiteA third genre integrates crowdsourcing with metadata creation in a suite called Metadata Games. This open source game platform uses more than 45 collections at 11 different institutions and includes tens of thousands of media items—images, audio, and video—that have generated 167,000-plus tags so far.5

Started with grant funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) in 2009, Metadata Games set out to remedy the lack of cataloging suffered by most mass-digitization projects by making it fun and interesting for virtual volunteers to provide tags in an entertaining and participatory way. The diverse players provide more metadata than a single staff member could come up with alone and often contribute specialized knowledge that may be otherwise difficult to collect.6

One of the cleverest games is called Guess What!, a real-time collaborative two-player game in which one player sees a single image of, say, a mammal on her screen, and the other player sees a dozen images of mammals on his screen. Player One must describe the picture accurately enough so that Player Two can correctly select the image from the array. “Players enjoy giving each other accurate but arcane hints, thus raising the specificity of the vocabulary terms used. The game serves the goal of the project in two ways: it helps to collect new metadata on images that have none prior, and it helps verify existing terms by monitoring their frequency of use among players” (Flanagan and Carini 2012).

Why do these virtual volunteers do it? In a 2013 interview, Mary Flanagan—a designer, writer, and artist for Metadata Games and a professor of digital humanities at Dartmouth College—gave details: “We have three motivations in terms of audience/players, with overlaps among them. One motivation is to assist a particular institution, or simply contribute to a good cause. These players first and foremost like the idea of helping. A second motivation for players is to play because they love a subject area—they like tagging buildings, or playing games about parts of boats, or dog breeds for example. A third player motivation is simply to win—to be the best, the fastest and most accurate.” 7

Metadata Games websiteThat last element is satisfied by the Arcade,8 the splash page of the game site in which players’ scores can be displayed across the suite of games that a participating institution hosts. This offers the competitive “juice” some players need for a game to be fun.

The Metadata Games project is still going strong. A 2015 study9 found the value of patron-generated “folksonomies” enhanced findability and confirmed the ability of the general public to contribute meaningful metadata. This could prove to be a game changer (pun intended) for the way GLAM institutions organize materials and handle classification in the future.

What’s next? The tagging of audio and video content. Try the addictive Metadata Game NexTag, in which you watch four historical video/audio clips and tag them with keywords and phrases. Betcha can’t stop at just one!

Trevor OwensTALKING TRENDS With Trevor Owens

While working on this column, I caught up with Trevor Owens for a chat about trends in gamification and the cultural heritage space. Owens teaches for the archives and digital curation program at the University of Maryland, blogs at his eponymous site, and co-edits a history and video games blog called Play the Past, which explores the intersection of cultural heritage, games, and meaningful play. Oh, and he’s also a senior program officer for digital stuff at the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).

JZ: So what got you interested in writing about gamification and crowdsourcing back in 2011?

TO: I wrote that post around the peak moment when “gamification” was flying around. Jesse Shell talked about it at the D.I.C.E. [Design, Innovate, Communicate, Entertain] Summit and the whole conversation was disconnected from all the things we know about motivation and learning.

JZ: I see in your blog posts10 that you really dislike the terms “gamification” and “crowdsourcing” because they’re demeaning and frame valid activities in terms of commercial exploitation. Are there other terms you prefer?

TO: “Gameful Design” is a newer term that gets into the ethical, crowdsourcing conversation of using patrons—check out the work of Sebastian Deterding, and the SuperBetter blog.11 “Engaging the public” is another term for crowdsourcing that has framed some great work in this area. Have you read Jane McGonigal’s book, Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better [and How They Can Change the World]?

JZ: Not yet … but I will! What do you see for the future of “meanification” in the cultural heritage space?

TO: So I don’t really expect anyone to use that term. We’re stuck with crowdsourcing and that’s fine. But there are lots of neat projects in these areas. WGBH in Boston has an audio transcription crowdsourcing project, mixing machine and learning research on speech-to-audio … computational stuff. Lots of that work is focused on getting computers to do what they do best and letting humans provide input on what we do best, in other words, higher level thinking. That’s an example of a powerful combination of engaging the public with cultural materials.

JZ: As an archivist and futurist, I’ve long hoped there might be immersive “games” to enter virtual worlds recreating historical events or time periods based on content from archives and museum collections. Do you think a game like that may someday be possible?

TO: The developments around VR [virtual reality] are really exciting but the future may be far stranger and also much more mundane than we expected. Who could’ve predicted Wikipedia? Or Google? Or Twitter? Or that all kinds of folks would be using their phones as personal computers? We’re not running around in jetpacks, or in a VRML-based 3D World Wide Web, things futurists were imagining. There are always weird twists and turns—we can’t anticipate the future.

Correction: A previous version of this article included a picture of Trevor Owens ( that was not his likeness.


1. Wikipedia, Pokémon GO, accessed Sept. 8, 2016.

2. The Washington Post, July 12, 2016, “Holocaust Museum to Visitors: Please Stop Catching Pokémon Here” by Andrea Peterson;

3. “Combining Digital Archives Content With Serious Game Approach to Create a Gamified Learning Experience” by Deng-Teng Shih, Chan Li Lin, and Ching-Yueh Tseng, presented at The International Archives of the Photogrammetry, Remote Sensing and Spatial Information Sciences, Volume XL-5/W7, 2015, 25th International CIPA Symposium 2015, 31 Aug.–04 September 2015, Taipei, Taiwan;

4. “E-Learning With Docugames: AE2 Commander” by Mark P. Brogan and Martin Masek, Edith Cowan University Research Online, ECU Publications 2013 (Australia); 1817&context=ecuworks2013.

5. Metadata Games;

6. “How Games Can Help Us Access and Understand Archival Images” by Mary Flanagan and Peter Carini, The American Archivist, Vol. 75, Fall/Winter 2012, pp. 514–537; american 424537w27970gu4.

7. “The Metadata Games Crowdsourcing Toolset for Libraries & Archives: An Interview with Mary Flanagan” by Trevor Owens, April 3, 2013; 2013/04/the-metadata-games-crowd sourcing-toolset-for-libraries-archives-an-interview-with-mary-flanagan.

8. The Metadata Games Arcade; play.metadata

9. “‘By the People, For the People’: Assessing the Value of Crowdsourced, User-Generated Metadata” by Christina Manzo, Geoff Kaufman, Sukdith Punjasthitkul, and Mary Flanagan, Digital Humanities Quarterly, 9(1), 2015; 000204.html.

10. Trevor Owens, “Meanification and Crowdscafolding: Forget Badges,” Play the Past, March 17, 2011: 1027; “Crowdsourcing Cultural Heritage: The Objectives Are Upside Down,” Play the Past, March 10, 2012; 2012/03/crowdsourcing-cultural-heritage-the-objectives-are-upside-down; “The Key Questions of Cultural Heritage Crowdsourcing Projects,” Play the Past, July 31, 2012;

11. “Gameful Design,” by Chelsea, SuperBetter blog, June 13, 2012;

12. IMLS Research Grant: “Improving Access to Time-Based Media Through Crowdsourcing and Machine Learning,” June 1, 2015; WGBH Educational Foundation, American Archive of Public Broadcasting, and Pop Up Archive Abstract;

Jan Zastrow is a certified archivist, librarian, and information professional, based in Washington, D.C. Contact her at