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Oct 17 2014

Game Design, Art, History: NYC Haunts Has it All

Guest Post, Members

This is a guest post by Rachel Ropeik, Senior Museum Educator/Teacher Services Coordinator at Brooklyn Museum.

Here’s one for you: How do you include a nineteenth century portrait miniature, a scallop-edged silver spoon, and a Mexican painted chest in an interactive mobile game? That was the task that a group of teens took on this summer at the Brooklyn Museum as part of a collaboration with Global Kids’ NYC Haunts program. Before we get too buried in piles of fall leaves, I wanted to share the successful summer spirit of this program.

NYC Haunts is a program that started back in 2011 as a partnership between Global Kids and the New York Public Library. The idea was to get teens learning about their neighborhoods and creating location-based mobile games that encourage players to uncover interesting local stories and to make connections to broader issues. That’s still the motivating idea behind the program, but in the meantime, it’s expanded into partnerships with more libraries, assorted schools, and now—here’s where I come in—an art museum.

Global Kids brought expertise on location-based game design to the partnership, while the museum-based partners brought our approach to visual literacy and observation, and of course the assets of our collection, to the table.

Previous iterations of NYC Haunts explored outdoor spaces, but this time around, we moved inside.  Our group of 13 intrepid ghost hunters pretty quickly chose to set our game in the Museum’s Visible Storage Center, after listing the pros and cons of a set of exhibits which also included Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party and the period houses and rooms. They got up to speed on the elements of a game and the traits of a location-based game by playing and analyzing games made by past students, and then worked together to conjure up their own game’s story. It involved a good deal of brainstorming in small and large groups and then coming to consensus to choose plot details and game mechanics that most or all could agree on.


Once they got the basics of the game’s story and goal down (help a ghost haunting the Museum to remember how she died, and put her spirit to rest by recognizing and collecting a set of objects), we went with that time-tested strategy: divide and conquer.


(Left: Global Kids’ Sara Vogel setting up the burn-down chart of tasks for each of our teams; Right: The burn-down chart in action.)


Our programming team worked out the game’s mechanics, logic, and scripts (using MIT-developed game design app, Taleblazer), our writers crafted details that brought the story to life, our investigators chose objects to represent key elements of our story, and our art team made the in-game visuals for players to follow.

We as adult mentors guided this process by facilitating open-ended brainstorm activities and scaffolding smaller design challenges within the larger project: for example, mapping out a story arc or coding a particular set of scripts out of the larger program.

At the same time, while working on the different parts of the game, the teens drew on each other as resources. Those who were learning to code for the first time benefited from the experience of those who had made a flowchart or used programs like Scratch to code before. The art team members encouraged each other as they learned about perspective and anatomy to draw graphics for their game.

Even though it was technically summer break for these students, they also developed some more academic skills. We spent a good deal of time talking about the best ways to convey the desired tone and mood of the game and how to appeal to a player audience that would range from eight years old through adult. They created flow-charts and game design documents, cultivated planning skills, and gained an understanding of the iterative cycle — concepts that can be applied to a variety of disciplines they may be interested in pursuing.

By the time all of the task Post-Its moved over to the Finished column of the burn-down chart, we had a playable game prototype.  And all of it in just 8 sessions.  Or, more precisely, 7 sessions, because we spent the last one sharing our work process with some other Museum staffers and then playtesting our game in the galleries.

(“I learned to really express myself by the end of the program.”)

Our playtester audience of Museum staff and summer campers with their families gave us useful feedback, and we ended our NYC Haunts time together having succeeded at what we set out to do: create a game that was fun and that got museum visitors to look closely at objects and engage with museum space in a whole new way.

(“We didn’t fight at all, and I had fun.”)

(“I got out of my comfort zone and did something I didn’t know I could do.”)


Additional resources:

Participants kept a group Tumblr about their progress and ideas. This became the site of many a selfie and reflections on the process.

If you want to play this game, Helen’s Treasures, and uncover the mystery of how Helen died, here’s how:

  1. Download the free app Taleblazer on your iOS or Android device.
  2. Once the app is open, tap the Game Code tab at the top of your screen.
  3. Enter the following code: gvxkfju
  4. The game will download to your device, and you’re free to play!

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