Game on! How do you balance entertainment with education in a museum?

A multiplayer spy game at the National Musem of Australia's DECODED exhibition.

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Collaborative and authentic, the multiplayer game at the heart of Decoded: 75 Years of the Australian Signals Directorate at the National Museum Australia was a great example for museums of how to tread the fine line between entertaining audiences and sharing information. 

Telling the story of the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) in a public museum exhibition was bound to be a challenge. You can show historical objects—medals, an Enigma machine, 80s supercomputers, a shield blown off the Australian Embassy in the Bali bombings. But anything from today? Well, that’s top secret. In a world of escalating cyber risks, such crucial IP is protected to keep Australia safe. 

So, when we collaborated with the National Museum of Australia to create an exhibition celebrating 75 years of the national intelligence organisation, we had to make the intangible, tangible. The answer—which stood at the heart of the exhibition—was a multiplayer game where visitors team up to complete missions, becoming spies themselves. Immersive, addictive and accurate, Decoded was as close to the real thing as you could get. What better way to help people understand the ASD?

Get real 

Such realism was crucial. “Museums have an ethical responsibility to be truthful, and they're held to that standard in a way that others (even politicians) are not,” says Lead Creative Technologist, Julien de-Sainte-Croix, who oversaw the development of the game. “But with great technology at play, there’s sometimes a tricky line to walk between entertainment and education.” 

To stay on the right side of that line, the game used actual scenarios, real terms and tools, recently declassified codewords, and technical jargon. And no one can win on their own. “It's an execution of an intention to make visitors understand that only by working in a team can the ASD be successful,” says Matt Kelsh, Senior Designer. 

The approach was a success. “On opening night, there were people from the ASD visiting for the first time,” Julien remembers. “It was just so much fun seeing their faces light up as they realised the level of detail and care we had put in, knowing most other visitors wouldn’t make the same connections. Authenticity at that level is how a museum differs from a normal video game experience.” 

Regular museum visitors loved it too. “It makes me smile when I think about groups playing the game,” says Julien. “People would be sitting in the main seats driving the experience, but then their friends would be running between screens, checking on everyone’s cards, trying to orchestrate everything. When we designed the game, we imagined five adults sitting statically in the correct seats, quietly communicating, but the energy grew way beyond that.” 

Make an impact 

The game had to be something people could never experience on a console at home. So what was it like to play? 

Imagine this… A large screen plays moving, movie-quality narrative cutscenes about the game missions—saving Australia's missile defence system plans and preventing a hospital ransomware attack. You’re an operative at one of five smaller screens, which are set up to resemble a buzzing control centre, making you feel like a central part of the action. 

You and your fellow operatives each have a number of cards featuring tools, such as an encrypted message or access to an intelligence analyst. These are swapped and matched to solve issues within a time limit. 

To further add to the immersion, the game alters the entire room’s lighting. An undulating soft white wash created atmosphere while waiting for players to join, and lights flashed red, amber and green during gameplay to show how long was left to complete the mission. With the Decoded game, when you were in it, you were in it. 

Visual simplicity was an important design consideration to retain this immersion, says Matt. “It ensured people could focus on the story, not learning a new game language. Players should subconsciously know what to do. Without thinking, they just go ahead and do it. For instance, we made buttons look 3D so it’s clear to touch them.” 

Be winnable (just)

Using a straightforward game logic of a card game ensured that the game was not too hard for our diverse audiences. But it also couldn’t be too easy, or people wouldn’t see how difficult it is to make these life-and-death decisions. Players nearly always failed to complete missions the first time but were given confidence to try again. 

“Due to this learning curve, the game has proved to be super addictive and fun,” says Senior Content Developer, Kate Chmiel. “When people play it, they immediately want to go on to do better.”

Pepper with playfulness 

To maintain interest as people learn, there were also more playful moments throughout the game. Interruption events matching the narrative added polish and interest. For instance, during the hospital mission, a pop-up appeared and players needed to write a briefing to the Minister of Defence.

Juggling competing priorities is something that agents are all too familiar with. “We were having a video call with the team where we were walking them through the game's progress,” reveals Matt, “And there was a major incident happening so they're trying to balance thinking about both scenarios!” 

“This was quite surreal,” adds Julien. “Here we are on a video call getting feedback and looking for insights into the world of cybersecurity. At the same time, the Log4Shell zero-day vulnerability had just landed—perhaps one of the worst vulnerabilities ever publicly disclosed—and the whole world of cybersecurity was sprinting to respond.”

Get ahead of the game 

Games that balance information sharing with intrigue and excitement are rarely developed in the museum industry, despite their potential to engage audiences. “Most games in the cultural sector are aimed at kids,” believes Matt, “and because of that, they're really basic. There was an ambitious quality to Decoded which set it apart from everything else.” 

The gaming industry is huge—bigger than the movies—and is set to continue to keep growing. As younger generations engage with museums, games are a keen tool for institutions’ to consider. “This game wasn’t designed just for younger people, but they were the ones who were drawn to it.” says Julien. “I watched a family come in and lose but the youngest kid wanted to keep going. He was playing the game by himself on all five screens and, as he did so, other unknown kids all sat down and played it together.”

That’s the power of clever games that balance learning with fun. They bring people together. To learn, yes, but also to share a memorable, magnetic moment. And isn’t that what every museum visit aims to achieve?