Game Play 2: Gaming the brain - by Danny Birchall and Martha Henson, Wellcome Collection

Collaboration between game-makers and curators is essential. Part 2 of making a successful museum game - by Danny Birchall and Martha Henson of the Wellcome Trust...

In issue 10 of Museum/iD we wrote about how we have been exploring games as a means of engaging worldwide audiences with Wellcome Collection themes and content, and evaluating our High Tea game to understand the kind of engagement that it offered. This year we have shifted our focus from the broad stage of imperial history to the microscopic environment of the growing human brain. Our latest game, Axon, accompanying our Brains: The Mind as Matter exhibition, asks you to grow a neuron as long as you can by clicking on rapidly moving protein triggers, and has now been played over three million times.

Our starting point for Axon was collaboration. We know that the key to a good game is when the subject matter meets entertaining gameplay, and that means more than handing over a brand identity or learning outcomes for sugar-coating in ‘fun’. Collaboration in practice means working together and thinking together, a sometimes fragile process that needs to be encouraged and nurtured.

In September we got together with the curator of the then-forthcoming Brains exhibition, Marius Kwint, neuroscientist Richard Wingate and Preloaded (the agency who created High Tea). In the morning, Richard gave us a crash course in neuroscience for beginners: the shape of the brain, how it connects to the rest of the body, and the cutting edge of current brain science. In the afternoon, Preloaded’s Phil Stuart took us through the essential elements of a game mechanics: challenge, jeopardy, score and achievement. Then we put our heads together to try and apply the game to the neuroscience.

The overwhelming complexity and many unknowns of the human neural network isn’t an obvious match for a game, where simplicity and clarity make for effective gameplay. We found a common ground in rules: the formation of biological systems, such as neural growth, is governed by rules, as are game mechanics. In a video Richard had created of foetal chick neurons growing across brain tissue, watching some succeed while others failed, we found the core of the game dynamic for Axon.

Our second focus was aesthetics. Richard and Marius had co-authored a paper for Nature on the visual culture of the neuron, and its return to prominence as an alternative to map-type representations of the whole brain. Fight Club’s opening sequence; artworks like Andrew Carnie’s Magic Forest; and the ‘brainbow’ genetic technology pioneered by Jeff Lichtman, Jean Livet, and Joshua Sanes have all contributed to the way we now see the brain cell: as a beautiful, complex, tree-like structure. As well as making a game that was educational and informative, that engaged players with the ideas behind brain science, we also wanted to make a game that would contribute to, and influence, this new visual culture of the neuron.

Preloaded quickly turned this concept into something both addictive and beautiful, we added some in-game pages to give people more background on the science, and Richard Wingate provided a nice little extra for players - achievements in the form of neuron names with links through to the relevant Wikipedia page. We launched Axon on the 19th March on our own site and seeded it to key games portals (Kongregate, Newgrounds and Miniclip) a few days later. The latter process involves a slightly nerve-wracking wait to see if your game makes it out of the “under judgement” purgatory before it is accepted on the site. This can take over twenty four hours.

By Saturday we could relax. The game was generating a positive response in the comments and ratings, and the number of plays was rising steadily. A request came in from Armor Games to add it to their site, and Kongregate added badges to it, both of which boosted the audience considerably. We soon hit one million plays, and now, a little over a month later, we have passed three million. In terms of the numbers, then, an undoubted success. However, the survey and comments are where the real interest is for us, as this is where we discover what people actually got out of playing it.

Pleasingly, players seemed to understand the concept, and enjoyed the scientific themes. One said: “I like that I feel motivated to learn after playing this strangely addictive game... after every round I click the link to see what a “golgi cell” or a “trigeminal motor neuron” is.” Another wrote: “Fantastic science-y game that teaches you new information without the player consciously knowing. I love it!”

Over 90% of survey respondents rated the game as very or fairly good, and around 76% said that they learnt something, mostly about neurons grow and connect in the brain and the structure of brain cells. About 70% of players were prompted to find out more about neurons and the brain after playing. All of which was great for us to hear and validated the approach we had taken in creating it. We also asked whether playing the game had affected players’ ‘mental image’ of the neuron. Rather surprisingly, nearly half said that the images in Axon coincided with the image they already had of the brain.

To further investigate the meaning of results like this, the next stage is to follow up the survey with interviews. We’ll also do more analysis on the commentary from games portals and other websites, which should allow us to delve a little deeper into these results. From this initial analysis we seem to have achieved our aims with the game and feel that the collaborative process and focus on the rules of brain development was the key to this success.

We’ll publish our full evaluation in a few months, but in the meantime, we’ll continue to update the Museum Games wiki ( with resources and links -- and if you’re involved in making or evaluating museum games, we encourage you to join in .

Danny Birchall, Web Editor, and Martha Henson, Multimedia Producer, Wellcome Trust