Select Page

Talk with Jonas Heide Smith


Jonas Heide Smith is Head of Digital at National Gallery of Denmark (SMK) and holds a PhD in Game Studies. Knowing both worlds – games and museums – he is the perfect interview partner to talk about why to research games, the potential of videogames for museums and digitized collections.

MMA:  Why did you decide to pursue a PhD in Game Studies? What motivated you and how does it impact your work at SMK?

JHS: There were a few different reasons. First, I did my PhD 20 years ago when Game Studies was a new academic field with enormous potential to establish a solid foundation. Back then, it was just super interesting to study games. I had already been exploring games in my Media Studies master’s degree, a field interested in both the cultural and formal aspects of games.  This showed me the possibility to explore the intersections between this new area of Game Studies with other well-established academic fields. I wanted to try to find those connecting bridges applying other theories to games taken from political science and economics. It was interesting to explore how those theories were applied and reflected in games that play in built worlds where not only the space is constructed but also the set of rules which act upon that world. Games are just a rich playground for a lot of topical debates. They might be in itself a narrow field to study, but if you look at games from that intersection perspective it opens up a whole new range of study avenues.

I always found games very enticing both as a cultural and a design phenomenon. What drove me was this idea of games as experience systems that go beyond traditional narrative forms allowing the player to have agency. This is quite similar to designing a museum experience, where you create a framework for an experience to take place within a guided environment, offering freedom within that framework. This stands in stark contrast to scripted experiences like movies, books or theater.  So many different disciplines converge in game design – architecture, graphic design, sound design, experience design. The beauty of games lies in their generative layers, providing access to different kinds of interactivity.


MMA: There are still many stereotypes attached to games in society, such as being a waste of time, a low-entertainment activity, or violent, particularly in the case of shooter games. These stereotypes are often reflected in the cultural sector. Do you think the cultural sector still does not recognize the true potential of videogames?

JHS: I am sure you are right. The cultural sector often views games as “low culture,” similar to how early films were perceived. Traditionally, literature and theatre have been considered the highest forms of cultural expression. This is why early filmmakers and, later on, game designers have tried to associate their works with established literary sources as a way to gain legitimacy.

Video games have yet to achieve the long-standing, sustained recognition that other art forms enjoy. Additionally, video games are often viewed as generative digital art, which many see as overly system-driven or algorithmic, and therefore not as “real” art. It took cinema a long time to attain its cultural status, with significant advocacy from scholars and critics who argued that filmmakers “use the camera as a pen” just to make absolutely sure that no one misses the analogy to literature. Today, Hollywood films can address serious topics on par with any fine European art-house movie. There is no reason why video games cannot follow a similar path, which they clearly often do.

There is also a lot of boundary work happening. Established cultural media may resist recognizing video games as art to avoid competition for state funding. This competition between art forms can perpetuate stereotypes, keeping video games marginalized as a subcultural children’s phenomenon, best hidden away in children’s rooms or in very specialized locations.

However, games have made strides in breaking through these stereotypes, and Game Studies have played a significant role in this progress. Now, there are academic journals, books, and conferences dedicated to video games. But while some changes have occurred, video games have yet to achieve the same level of recognition and sophistication as other forms of art.

“What drove me was this idea of games as experience systems that go beyond traditional narrative forms allowing the player to have agency. This is quite similar to designing a museum experience, where you create a framework for an experience to take place within a guided environment, offering freedom within that framework.”

MMA: Circling back to museums, given your background in Game Studies and your work at the SMK, what do you think are the benefits of museums using video games?

JHS: Well, I think first of all, videogames are a fascinating design phenomenon and museums can learn a lot from game design, especially in the digital realm. Game designers excel in creating pleasant, intuitive, and easy-to-use interfaces, which can be very inspiring. While museums are experts in physical exhibition design, concepts and rules of physical design do not automatically transfer to digital interfaces, which are often clunky and difficult to use in museums.

More importantly, video games can offer a new way of experiencing art museums. Many current and potential museum visitors might enjoy a more relaxed or goal-oriented visit. Of course, this does not apply to everyone, as not all people enjoy games. However, for those who do, games can add a playful layer to the traditional museum experience without altering it. Both options can coexist, providing visitors with a choice. Of course, traditional visits already offer choices, such as which artworks to view and how long to spend on each, but they lack the high level of interactivity that games can provide. I am sure this goal-based approach could attract a different and new audience, including more inexperienced visitors. Museums, particularly art museums, often have a high threshold for entry, requiring prior knowledge and experience to fully enjoy the visit. Video game techniques could lower this threshold, making museums more accessible.

However, some museums are reluctant to games within their walls, because games do not align with the museum’s ideals for interpretation. Take treasure hunts for example. They do not leave a lot of room for interpretation, because they function as binary systems and have a concrete goal in mind. To some degree at least many art museums – and certainly many artists – would prefer the artworks to speak for themselves. An honorable ideal, perhaps, but not a very inclusive one. To avoid imposing one’s own worldview on guests is admirable but on the other hand many museum guests are lost if no guidance is offered.

Anyway, the dichotomies need not be real. Museums do not necessarily need to introduce games with binary goals but should focus on interactivity, offering people a meaningful way to act. Science centres naturally include interactivity, but art museums often struggle to be immersive or interactive beyond educational programs.


MMA:  In regard to digitized museum collections, many museums have done a great job digitizing their collections and making them open access. Is there potential for the game industry to draw on these collections to create their games?

JHS: Absolutely, museum collections offer a variety of objects and game designers often pick from those when looking for assets to populate their worlds. Actually quite a few game design studios contact SMK looking for high quality photos or 3D models. There is significant potential for games to be built using this kind of open-access data from museums. Museums would be wise to make collections available for use in systematic and easy-to-understand ways.

Of course, game designers may not be looking to museum collections for high-minded purposes of teaching history but such use can surely serve as a portal to cultural heritage. It can inspire curiosity, just as downloading a painting as your laptop wallpaper can provide simply joy but just might, if the stars are right, spark a lifelong interest in art history. To me, the more open and the more flexible museums are with their collections and the more people know about this accessibility, the better.

MMA:  Last question, what is the best game or gamified experience you have seen so far in the museum field that you would like to share?

JHS: Let me start with pointing out that when it comes to applying games or gamified experiences, I believe science centres and technical museums are way ahead of art museums. I’m just amazed by the number of interactive exhibits and ambitious technical implementations that exist in them. Such museums clearly invest a lot of time and effort to create these experience.

A recent experience I want to share is a very local example, my visit to the National Museum in Denmark. It is currently showcasing an exhibition on money which is highly gamified and in my opinion very well though-out. When you enter the exhibition you are encouraged to open a fictitious account with the goal of earning as many points as possible through activities like trade stocking or engaging with a hamster wheel, a very playful symbol for capitalism. At the end, you get your score and can either donate it or keep it, even “showering” in banknotes is possible. Such a game layer would not work everywhere but here it is a great fit. The most important thing is to find the right setting and then implement game elements thoughtfully.


My heartfelt thanks to Jonas for taking his time to talk with me.

Image credits: SMK