Decoding Design

The Met creates mobile game to boost learning, interaction

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Smartphone-toting museum goers are given clues to solve the mysterious (if fictitious) murder of Madame X.

When John Singer Sargent painted his fellow American expatriate Madame Pierre (Virginie) Gautreau in Paris, in the late 1880s, both he and she were looking to advance their places in high society. It backfired. But when Sargent later came to sell the painting, known as Madame X, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he never could have guessed that nearly 100 years later the painting would land him (and she) another 15 minutes of fame -- in a most peculiar way.

Madame X has become part of a fictitious narrative about a murder that takes place in the museum's New American Wing Galleries for Paintings, Sculpture, and Decorative Arts. The story forms the foundation of Murder at the Met, a web-based application designed for smartphones and tablets. Visitors to the Met are encouraged to play the game, which begins: "Virginie Gautreau, known as Madame X, was found dead in the American Wing. Who could have done it and how?"

Gautreau had been attending a gala at the museum when she was killed, the story goes. Players are then given clues, suspects and possible motives, all based on objects found throughout the wing's collection. They're shown maps of the galleries to help them navigate through the space and they can take notes to help them track the story.

The game is being offered as part of what Erin Coburn, the museum's chief officer of digital media, told me is "the Met’s overall commitment to enhancing the visitor experience through engaging and thoughtful uses of mobile technology."

Museums have been using handheld devices to provide audio tours for decades, and more recently WiFi networks have helped visitors find their way more easily. But couldn't playing a game on a smartphone detract from the museum experience? Or produce a cacophony of text-pings and ring tones and renegade photo-taking? Or am I being totally 2011? Apparently, yes I am.

"We recognize that many of our visitors have smartphones, and that they have increased expectations to access information about the works of art and exhibitions on view at the Met," said Coburn, in an email. "As a result, we recently optimized a portion of the Met’s website for smartphones, so that visitors can easily access information about every work of art on view, as well as gallery overviews, and exhibition information." She added: "Visitors are very mindful when using their smartphones in the galleries. We also welcome visitors to take pictures in the galleries of non-copyrighted works, and to share their experiences at the Met, which is frequently done through smartphones."

In fact, the murder mystery game is part of a larger effort at the Met to use technology as means of engaging visitors and pull them deeper into the collections. The museum's Education and Digital Media Departments led the creation of the game, working with educational game developers Green Door Labs to create the story. The application itself was developed using TourSphere, a kind of content management software platform that allows non-programmers to develop online games and tours that are optimized for smartphones and other mobile devices, says Rob Pyles, TourSphere's CEO.

"The Met wanted something that was cross-platform, so that it didn't need to make different versions for iPhones, Adroid phones, etc.," he says. Plus, he adds, "many different applications for different platforms can get really expensive."

This isn't the Met's first mobile app. Last year it released Met Guitars as a multimedia compliment to its exhibit "Guitar Heroes: Legendary Craftsmen from Italy to New York."

Now, if someone could make mobile apps for magazines just as fun...

Images: The Met

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Mary Catherine O'Connor

Contributing Writer

Mary Catherine O'Connor has written for Outside, Fast Company, Wired.com, Smithsonian.com, Entrepreneur, Earth2Tech.com, Earth Island Journal and The Magazine. She is based in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure