Journal of Computers in Education

, Volume 6, Issue 1, pp 79–116 | Cite as

How to play storytelling games with masterpieces: from art galleries to hybrid board games

  • Maria VayanouEmail author
  • Yannis Ioannidis
  • George Loumos
  • Antonis Kargas


In this article we explore how to play storytelling games with collections of artworks. First we propose a generic storytelling game, titled “Find the artwork behind the story!”, and we present the results of a user study that investigates the game’s affordances in different environments and setups, ranging from large exhibitions at a cultural center, to a casual home setting. We report a series of game-testing sessions, highlighting the differences between on-site and remote experiences and we reflect upon critical aspects of the game design, identifying key opportunities and requirements in each case. Then we focus on the “home game scenario” and we describe how we re-designed the game experience so as to address the increased interactivity and learning requirements revealed in this setting. We propose a hybrid board game experience that combines analogue and digital media, orchestrating the use of physical “Artwork Cards” along with digital narratives displayed on the players’ personal mobile or tablet devices. We present the game-authoring platform and the mobile client application that we have developed to support the creation and provision of the proposed game experiences. Finally, following a user-centered design approach, we report preliminary evaluation results of the game prototype using the focus group methodology.


Game design Computer–human interaction Interactive technologies User-centered design Cultural heritage applications 


People typically visit cultural heritage sites in groups, either within organized tours, or with family or friends (Falk 2009; Petrelli and Not 2005) and the value of social interaction during the visits has long been stressed in museum studies (Hood 1989; McManus 1992). Some visitors actually interpret the cultural visit as an encounter session and social interaction is, in fact, their primary goal (for instance the Utopian visitor type, as identified by Umiker-Sebeok (1994). Sociality and, conversation in particular, has been highlighted as a key aspect for engaging visitor experiences in museological environments (Heath and vom Lehn 2008; Jafari et al. 2013) and a significant line of work focuses on encouraging and promoting social interactions during cultural visits. One of the most influential frameworks in research dealing with information technologies and learning in museums is the contextual model of learning, proposed by Falk and Dierking (2008). The authors consider the social context as one of the major aspects that shape the visiting experience and distinguish three main different contexts of visitor interaction: personal, socio-cultural, and physical, observing that: “These three contexts provide the large-scale framework with which to organize the complexity of meaning-making”.

Meaning-making is a central concept in museum research, and as Silverman (1995) states, with a good reason: “the paradigm illuminates the visitor’s active role in creating meaning of a museum experience, through the context he/she brings, influenced by the factors of self-identity, companions and leisure motivations”. The notion of meaning-making in cultural visits moves away from defining learning merely as transmission of knowledge from the environment to the learner; instead it emphasizes the importance of understanding the “inner work” of imagination, reflection, and interpretation that take place during, and after, a visit.

While there is a general agreement that the deeper effects of museum visits on individuals can be profound, it is rather hard to determine such effects in practice; they cannot be scheduled, it is difficult to detect them, and it is even more difficult to document them with thorough, verifiable evidence. Observational studies of museum visitors are of limited help to that end: the essence of what happens during a visit cannot be directly inferred by monitoring visitors’ behavior. At the same time, there is a growing interest in the cultural heritage sector to support narrative creation that is not curator-driven (top-down), but user-generated (bottom-up). Such narratives provide a valuable source of visitor feedback and can reflect the different meanings that visitors may attribute to exhibitions and artworks.

Several systems have been developed towards this direction, such as MobiTags and ArtLinks (Cosley et al. 2008, 2009), which stimulate visitors to annotate museum exhibits using tags, comments, and audio recordings, while also enabling them to view the content that other visitors have contributed. MuseUs (Coenen et al. 2013), a pervasive serious game application for cultural heritage sites, invites museum visitors to create their own exposition during their visit, stimulating them to look at cultural heritage elements in a different way, and permitting the construction of personal narratives. Active user involvement with the cultural content is particularly highlighted in the definition of the “Participatory Museum”, by Nina Simon, who views cultural institutions as “social places”, where the visitors can “create, share, and connect to each other around the cultural heritage content”.

Stimulated by the meaning-making paradigm in cultural experiences, and recognizing the importance of social interactions and active involvement, we propose to use a particular type of games, namely storytelling games, prompting groups of visitors to create and share stories about the cultural content. Traditional storytelling board games are more or less based on the same main principle: the players make a story about “something” and then tell (or enact) the story to the rest of the group. Remarkably, “something” varies a lot between the various games: the triggering story elements range from casual topics or everyday objects to scientific artefacts, fictional characters, vague image symbols, or even artworks which are crafted by professional illustrators. Our approach is motivated by the observation that, during a storytelling game, the players get particularly engaged with the triggering story elements: to make a story out of them, they carefully observe these elements and reflect on their different meanings, uses and perspectives. Similarly, when the story is told to the rest of the group, personal viewpoints are revealed and shared, thus cultivating further connections to the story and its elements, as well as lively discussions between the group members. Due to their inherent ability to foster creativity, imagination and conversations, we suggest that storytelling games with cultural content may provide a valuable instrument for the design of engaging social experiences, while also advancing and revealing, to some extent, the internal meaning making process of the players.

In the first part of this article (Part A), we propose a simple storytelling game, which is inspired by Dixit, a popular storytelling board game. We present the results of a user study that includes a series of playtesting sessions, investigating the game’s affordances and requirements in different settings. Some of the sessions took place in the physical environment of the exhibitions (on-site), and others evolved remotely from the artworks, in casual environments. Our findings suggest that our approach may be directly applied in fine art exhibitions and galleries, requiring limited or even no game-authoring effort. User behavior analysis indicates significant impact on visitor engagement with the artworks. Most notably, attitudinal analysis reveals that, through the game, visitor assumptions about the artworks may radically change while new cultural expectations may be created, thus indicating successful transformative play (Nicholson 2012; Schell 2012).

For the purposes of the remote sessions, a prototype board game was crafted; the artworks were printed on cards and traditional game materials were employed (pawns and scoring board). In the remote sessions, the results of the study pinpointed the participants’ need for increased interactivity and narrative provision. The second part of the article (Part B) summarizes the related results and describes in detail how they drove the re-design of the prototype board game. Two inter-connected software components were developed to that end, a web authoring platform for uploading the game data, and a mobile client application that scans the artworks and, through augmented reality technology, displays the corresponding narratives. The re-designed game experience was evaluated with a focus-group, identifying further requirements and key opportunities.

Background and related work

To enhance the experience of their visitors, cultural heritage institutions have widely adopted the use of digital devices, tangible objects and interactive technologies. A great variety of applications have been developed to that end, ranging from digital audio guides to interactive storytelling or games, using mobile, augmented, mixed or virtual reality technologies. However, the design of digitally enhanced museum experiences that efficiently promote “visitor-to-artefact” but also “visitor-to-visitor” interaction is a rather creative and challenging task (Katifori et al. 2016; Vayanou et al. 2016).

Museum co-visiting

Addressing the social dimension of the cultural visits, several works have focused on promoting communication and collaboration between the members of a group of visitors, through a variety of configurations and techniques. Pioneering work in this area is the Sotto Voce project, which uses eavesdropping as a way to share audio information, i.e., by hearing each other’s activities and thus facilitate social interaction (Grinter et al. 2002). Some research works look into incorporating voice (Luyten et al. 2006) and text (Lanir et al. 2013) messages to a mobile guide to increase sharing of information and communication between group members that are currently not in proximity, while others enable visitors to find the whereabouts of their group members (Cheverst et al. 2000). In some cases a shared medium is employed, such as situated displays (Belinky et al. 2012) or shared mobile devices, including projectors or tablets (Lanir et al. 2013). Others approaches are based on carefully designed trajectories (Fosh et al. 2013), driving couples to have time both for isolated reflection as well as shared conversation in specific locations. In the same line, the SFMOMA’s new mobile app, which delivers intimate and human-centered art stories to the visitors, implements a “Sync” feature that allows friends and family to listen to the same content together, providing a social listening experience on site (Pau 2017).

Interactive digital storytelling in cultural heritage sites

Storytelling has been embraced by cultural institutions as a method of communication and interpretation for a long time now. Human or audio guides tell explicit stories to the visitors, while guiding then to the collections of the cultural site. During the last decade, the advent in graphic capacities, processing power and connectivity, along with the widespread adoption of powerful mobile and interactive devices, have opened the way to effective experimentations with new forms of interactive storytelling in the cultural heritage sector (Lombardo and Damiano 2012).

For instance, the European project CHESS1 followed a plot-based approach and investigated interactive stories in the form of branching narratives (Vayanou et al. 2014). A virtual character appears on the visitors’ personal mobile devices and guides them through the cultural site’s environment, unravelling a story plot through narratives that make carefully designed references to the exhibits, while also employing multimedia content in the form of audiovisual presentations, mini-games and augmented reality activities. A variety of interactive stories were created with the CHESS system for different cultural sites, such as the Acropolis Museum in Greece, the archaeological site of Çatalhöyük in Turkey, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam (Vayanou et al. 2015). These stories were designed to be interactive, personalized and adaptive, yet single-user (accounting mainly for individual experiences), thus in many cases isolating the members of a group (Roussou and Katifori 2018). Targeting to group experiences, some of the CHESS stories were re-designed so as to include explicit interaction points in the experiences, encouraging discussion and collaboration in visitor pairs (Katifori et al. 2016). In the same line, Callaway et al. (2014) explore mobile drama with coordinated narrative variations, providing different versions of the narrative to each user, to induce conversations in small groups.

In all the aforementioned cases, the design of the stories is conducted by interdisciplinary teams of experts (such as cultural content professionals, educators, writers, graphic designers, information technology experts, etc.) and it is a rather demanding task that requires several iteration cycles along with extensive prototyping and testing (Roussou et al. 2015). On the contrary, the storytelling experience that we propose in this article takes a rather different direction, requiring limited design effort: the story-making process is transferred from the cultural authority to the players (bottom-up), as a key step in their game experience, thus actively involving them in the storytelling process.

Games with cultural content

Cultural content has been employed in physical and digital games, for different purposes and in varying ways, ranging from traditional treasure hunt games and quizzes, to puzzles and memory games featuring cultural exhibits, or even video games and immersive virtual environments. For instance, when searching for “Van Gogh” on Steam, one can find (amongst others) “Inklings”, a Lemmings-based game that features popular artworks on the background of the game-scenes, as well “The Night Café” (designed for HTC Vive and Oculus Rift), where the visitor can explore the artist’s world first hand, by navigating “inside” the 3D space of his paintings. The game industry frequently mixes cultural content to imaginary game elements, providing captivating game experiences. For example, the Assassin’s Creed (a very popular adventure video game series by Ubisoft) feature historical fiction mixed with real-world historical events and figures.

Obviously, such games bear significantly different characteristics over several dimensions, such as in their (i) degree of complexity, ranging from mini-games (or micro-) games with simple rules and structure (thus requiring minimum effort to be quickly understood by the player) to complex games, (ii) supported number of players, (iii) theme, such as action, strategy, role-playing, (iv) technology used, (v) orientation, such as informative, creativity, communication, (vi) education direction, etc. As a result, a number of game classification taxonomies have been proposed in related research, targeting to different aspects of the game experience; an interesting overview is provided by Antoniou et al. (2013).

Focusing on their educational potential, games have been long recognized as important learning tools (Garris et al. 2002), due to their ability to increase learning motivation, and they have been strongly employed in the cultural heritage domain. A recent systematic mapping study on serious games for museum visits and exhibitions identifies 48 serious games, reported from 2009 (study starting year) to 2015 (Paliokas and Sylaiou 2016). The number of related publications was found to be increasing since 2009; the authors highlight a significant growth at 2015, estimating 50% growth in publications by the year 2020, reflecting the high interest in this field. It is worth noting that some of the reported games provide self-contained versions of an on-line museum, while others are integrated into an existing exhibition, thus played only on-site.

Considering on-site games, location-awareness is commonly considered a key feature in the provided experience. Several pervasive gaming applications have been developed in that direction, ranging from competitive games such as the Prisoner Escape from Tower (Reid et al. 2008), to narrative oriented ones, such as the REXplorer game (Ballagas et al. 2008), which lies in the intersection of storytelling and pervasive gaming: virtual characters from the past ask the players to accomplish tasks in their favor, while taking the opportunity to tell stories about themselves. Storytelling and games are often combined in this setting: virtual story worlds are superimposed to the physical space, reviving distant eras through the use of sound or/and multimedia content on hand held devices. For instance, Ghosts in the Garden2 is an on-site experience that is part game, part story, part immersive sound scape (accessed via a special ‘Georgian Listening Device’), where present-day visitors “discover” the “ghosts” of characters based on real characters from the Gardens’ heyday.

While storytelling and games have been remarkably embraced in the cultural heritage domain, being the subjects of study in several works, traditional storytelling game activities have been hardly explored with cultural collections. Cultural institutions frequently organize game activities for children, which in some cases include some form of storytelling actions (particularly in fine art exhibitions), but storytelling game activities for adult museum visitors are rarely encountered. However, recent innovative approaches are emerging, and some of them are starting to explore this direction. For example, Museum Hack, who lead unconventional tours in some of the most popular cultural destinations in the USA, have included storytelling games in the tours they offer. In their “What to expect” statement for the tours in the Getty Museum, in Los Angeles, they mention3: “Invent a love story between portraits. Test your artistic prowess in a high-speed contest by getting your group to guess the correct art piece. Create your own Art Memes in an in-person caption contest.”.

In this article we propose to leverage the basic elements of popular storytelling games for the design of engaging storytelling game experiences with cultural content. Adapting traditional board games so as to include cultural content is a well-established practice and it has been successfully applied in a variety of game types, ranging from “Snakes and Ladders”, to complex strategy games as “Monopoly” (Antoniou et al. 2013). Nowadays, there are several commercial storytelling board games available, including Dixit, Once Upon A time, Rory’s Story Cubes and Nanofictionary, some of which have large and active player communities worldwide. Having analyzed the content, goals and structure of these games, we claim that, with a few adjustments, such games may be easily transferred to the cultural heritage setting. Instead of crafting new, expensive game-plays, metaphors, and content that are tailored and tied to the particular domain of a cultural heritage institution, we suggest to leverage the fundamental game concepts of successful storytelling games and apply them to collections of cultural artworks.

Mixed reality approaches and hybrid board games

Recent approaches in cultural heritage applications often aspire to blend the physical and the digital worlds. The loss of materiality has been highlighted as a core problem underlying all digital artefacts (Mesch project4) and several attempts have been made to put the physical back in the center of cultural heritage experience. Multiple approaches have been investigated to that end, such as “Parallel Exhibits” (Lischke et al. 2014), which combine exhibitions of physical objects with virtual ones, tangible smart replicas (Marshall et al. 2016), or Augmented Reality applications using the “Loupe” handheld prototype (Van Der Vaart and Damala 2015). At the same time, traditional board games have been constantly expanding towards the digital world, integrating digital component to the physical game instruments, in varying ways and scope (Arjoranta et al. 2016).

Paying significant attention to materiality and considering the high value of social interactions in a storytelling game experience, our approach starts with physical materials exclusively, i.e., without using information technologies. In this way, we are able to monitor and analyze the “natural” flow of the experience, the participants’ behavior, their interaction with the artworks, their social interactions and the group dynamics that are developed, in a technology-free setting. For the remote scenarios, which target to casual storytelling game experiences taking place in relaxed, social or house environments, our approach starts with a traditional physical game board prototype that is gradually extended with digital elements.

Several works have experimented with the blending of digital media to physical board game components. For instance, Andrukaniec et al. (2013) describe OUTLIVE, an augmented reality game that is inspired by the popular board game “Settlers of Catan”: physical game pieces are used along with a mobile device that acts as a “magic window”, enabling the player who uses it to see things that are not visible to other players, and act privately. Another example is “Art of Defense”, a cooperative tabletop game inspired by the “Tower Defense” game genre, which combines handheld devices (such as mobile phones) with physical game pieces, creating a merged physical/virtual game on the tabletop (Huynh et al. 2009). A different approach in blending the digital and physical media is followed in the “Fall of Humans”, where the game experience evolves over two different but inter-connected games: first a physical card game takes place, where players compete to create different “characters”, and then an interactive tabletop game where players can get to see the characters they have created come to life. In this work, Dionisio et al. (2015) propose transmedia storytelling as a way to introduce players to interactive tabletop games and explore how to combine physical board games to interactive tabletop devices.

In all the aforementioned cases, the players interact either with the digital device that is employed, or with the physical board game components. Moving towards tangible interaction, Zhou et al. (2008) explore the use of tangible cubes to control the evolution of an interactive story, which is visualized in augmented reality over the cubes. On another direction, De Lima et al. (2014) explore hand-drawn sketches as an interaction interface, recognizing drawing as a primary human skill that has been long used to complement visual, written and oral storytelling. They present an interactive storytelling system that allows the players to interact with the virtual characters of a story by drawing sketches of objects on a conventional sheet of paper: the system recognizes the human sketches and creates the corresponding virtual objects, which are then accordingly used by the virtual characters of the story world. It is worth noting that the use of human sketches was also investigated as a way to control the game in “Art of Defense”, while in the end it was replaced with physical game tokens due to technology limitations.

Targeting to casual environments, our approach employs personal mobile devices hence not requiring specialized hardware (such as tabletops) or sophisticated configuration setups. In its current form, the mobile application focuses on narrative provision. Considering the preliminary evaluation results with the focus-group, we plan to extend it so as to support voting and scoring, as well as to display augmented reality content.

Part A: user study description and findings


Our main assumption is that storytelling games may be directly applied in fine art galleries and museums; instead of using game-specific content, we can leverage artworks from their cultural collections. But, if we do not use game-specific content, will the game be fun and engaging? What are the affordances of playing such games? Do the players get engaged with the cultural artworks through the game? Do they get immersed into the gaming experience? Do they feel connected to the group? Is learning or/and creativity encouraged and in what ways? And where can we play such games? Can we play in the environment where the artworks are displayed, i.e., inside a gallery or museum? Can we play the game remotely from the exhibition? If so, how will the game evolve in the different environments and settings? Finally, what is the authoring effort and expertise that is required to create a storytelling game with cultural heritage content? What type of cultural heritage content is suitable for such a game?

Aiming to investigate the aforementioned research questions, we designed a simple storytelling game, which we name “Find the Artwork behind the Story”, and we conducted a series of game-testing sessions with different groups. Following a user-centered design methodology, the game-testing sessions were accompanied by semi-structured group interviews and questionnaires that were filled in by the participants individually. The game-testing sessions took place in several different physical environments, ranging from large exhibition areas in a high-profile cultural center to informal casual settings, such as a small hall in a yoga center, and a home environment.

Game-play design and analysis

The game instructions of “Find the Artwork behind the Story!” are depicted in Fig. 1. During each turn, one player is the storyteller and the rest are the voters. Essentially, the goal of the Storyteller is to select one of the artworks in the game collection and make a story about it. Then the rest of the players try to figure out which is the artwork behind the story.
Fig. 1

Storytelling game instructions

The main idea is that, in order for the storyteller to collect points, some of the players need to identify the selected artwork, but not all of them. So the story needs to somehow indicate the artwork, yet not in an obvious way. This is also the core idea encountered in the Dixit-based game that we produced and tested for the “home scenario” (a detailed comparison of the two game-plays is conducted in Part B of the article).

We analyze the players’ activities by structuring them around the four main phases encountered in each storyteller’s turn, as depicted in the following game flow diagram (Fig. 2):
Fig. 2

Flow of “Find the Artwork behind the Story!”

  • Story making phase, where the storyteller selects an artwork and conceives a story about it. During this phase, the voters may spend their time in several ways: observe the artworks, read the accompanying narratives, develop their own storytelling strategy, or comment on the artworks and discuss with the other players.

  • Storytelling phase, where the storyteller narrates or enacts the story in front of the group.

  • Voting phase The voters reflect on the story and try to find the “right” artwork, i.e., the one selected by the storyteller. This is a decision making process; the players may further observe the artworks, now reflecting on them with regard to the story that has just been narrated by the storyteller.

  • Explanations phase One by one, the voters reveal their answers and explain their reasoning. During this phase, the players may freely discuss or comment on each other’s choices. Their attention is again directed towards the artworks, examining them with regard to the provided explanations and remarks. Finally, the storyteller reveals the identity of the selected artwork and explains how the story was related to it.

  • Scoring phase, where each player’s score is calculated and the total scores are accordingly updated. In essence, scoring may be conducted merely based on the votes, i.e., comparing them to the Storyteller’s selection. While the Explanations phase may be considered optional with regard to scoring, it is one of the most interesting and social phases of the game.

User study overview

Our initial hypothesis was that the game may be directly applied to fine art exhibitions, since they typically evolve around particular theme(s), providing a fun and engaging gaming experience. To investigate whether we can play the game with an “arbitrary” collection of artworks (i.e., developed to form an independent art exhibition, rather than to serve the purposes of the game), a pilot game-testing session was conducted at the Agora Lobby of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center (SNFCC), in the exhibition “Greek Light and Colour in Panayiotis Tetsis’s Painting”, which was co-organized by the SNFCC and the National Gallery—Alexandros Soutzos Museum (Table 1).5
Table 1

Game-testing sessions overview

Game session

Game-testing session characteristics

Group six and relations


Cultural collection

Location of artworks

GS #1

6 part/Nts—colleagues

SNFCC—Agora Lobby

Tetsis paintings


GS #2

9 part/nts—mixed


Moralis paintings


GS #3

4 part/nts—family

Home Environment

Tetsis paintings


GS #4

7 part/nts—yoga peers

Yoga Center Hall

Tetsis paintings


GS #5

7 part/nts—yoga peers

Yoga Center Hall

Contemporary artist paintings


A group of six participants was formed (Computer Science colleagues) and visited the exhibition so as to perform a pilot game-testing session (GS #1) in the exhibition’s physical environment. A couple of months later, a second game-testing session was conducted at the SNFCC, leveraging the artworks of a new exhibition, entitled “Yannis MoralisChristos Kapralos. A friendship in life and art”.6 The game-testing session evolved around the paintings of Yannis Moralis that were hosted in the area of the Lighthouse at that time. Aiming to investigate the impact of the group’s size and cohesiveness to the overall experience, a radically different group formation process was followed this time: couples and small groups of friends were united into a single group of 9 people (GS #2).

Our initial hypothesis was confirmed in both of the aforementioned game-testing sessions: all players enjoyed the game and they would like to play it again. They stated that the game significantly enhanced their visiting experience to the galleries; it notably promoted player-to-artwork interactions, encouraging the players to closely observe the artworks and cultivating deep personal reflections about them.

Having observed how the proposed game improves the gallery visiting experience, we decided to go the other way around, and investigate the game’s potential to introduce artwork collections into casual, social gaming activities. How will the gaming experience evolve remotely, i.e., when the group is not located in the cultural heritage environment where the artworks are physically displayed? To answer this question, we identified some key social contexts where such storytelling games are typically played and we conducted game-testing sessions in two rather different settings:
  • Home environment Storytelling games are usually characterized as party or family games, having easy setups and simple rules and encouraging social interaction. To that end, a “family group of gamers” was selected for the game-testing purposes (GS #3): the group gathers together frequently, almost once a week, and plays a variety of board games, including storytelling ones, such as Dixit and Once upon a time.

  • Yoga center Storytelling games are often used as ice-breaker activities, for instance at social events or in work environments, creating shared experiences and improving social connections between the members of formal or informal groups and communities. In addition, drawings, pictures and storytelling activities have been widely explored in psychology as projective instruments (e.g., Rorschach Inkblot Technique, Thematic Apperception Test, Projective Story Telling Cards, etc.). Aiming towards self-analysis and reflection, several modern cultural centers perform such activities in a group-level, sharing and analyzing personal view-points. Moving towards this direction, a “yoga-peers group” was selected for the game-testing purposes (GS #4): All the participants are members of a yoga union and they often cooperate to do charity work, as well as to organize lectures, open discussions, art performances and social dinners at the local yoga center.

Our hypothesis was that the game can also be played remotely, away from an exhibition’s physical artworks, similarly to a traditional storytelling board game, while still offering an engaging social activity. To that end, for the purposes of the remote game-testing sessions, we created a paper prototype, where representations of the artworks were printed on “game cards”, employing the exact same cultural content that was used in the pilot game session at the SNFCC (i.e., representations of the artworks along with a few narratives).

A fifth game-testing session was conducted, while not originally planned: during the group-interview section of the yoga-peers, their teacher suggested to play the game with her own personal collection of paintings. Aiming to investigate the effect that the physical presence of the artworks has on the gaming experience, an informal art exhibition was set in the hall of the yoga-center containing 20 paintings. The same group played the game again while this time co-located with the artworks (GS #5), hence enabling to compare their on-site and remote gaming experiences.

Participants and groups’ synthesis

Overall, 23 participants were recruited in the user study and 10 of them participated in two game testing sessions, an on-site plus a remote one. The four groups were formed so as to capture a variety of social relations between the group members, including colleagues (GS #1), family members (GS #3) and peers (GS #4). A hybrid approach was followed in GS #2, which was formed by uniting smaller groups (a couple, two siblings, colleagues and friends) into a large one. In contrast to the other groups, some of the members were totally unfamiliar with each other, meeting for the first time in GS #2 (Fig. 3).
Fig. 3

Participants’ demographics: a gender distribution (left), b age distribution (right)

On-site game setups

In GS #1, the play evolved in the main hall of the Agora Lobby at SNFCC. The participants were seated on the floor, in the middle of the hall, around a fabric board, which served as the game board, reflecting the players’ scores throughout the game (Fig. 4). The players were handed post-its and pens, for noting their votes. The post-its were placed over the fabric board and player choices were gradually revealed at the end of each turn.
Fig. 4

Snapshots from the game experience and setup in GS #1: a seating area (left), b scoring board (middle), c winner photo (right)

In GS #2, the play evolved in a seating area right next to hall where Moralis’ paintings were displayed. The participants were seated on chairs, around a table where the game board was placed, but this time the artworks were not directly visible from the game board area. The players were again handed post-its and pens for writing down their votes, while the stories were noted in a magnetic board by the storytellers.

In GS #5, the play evolved in the main hall of the yoga center where the informal exhibition took place (Fig. 5). Similarly to #GS 1, the participants were seated inside the main hall, having visual access to the artworks throughout the game session. Since most of the artworks had no title, a set of “Voting Cards” was handed out to each player, containing a small, representative picture of each artwork. Similarly to GS #2, a magnetic board was employed for scoring purposes while a second one was used by the storytellers for writing their stories.
Fig. 5

Snapshots from the game experience and setup in the yoga-center: a informal exhibition (left), b story board (top right), c board and voting cards (bottom right)

Remote game setups

GS #3 and #4 leverage the same collection of artworks that was employed in GS #1. The artworks are printed on large cards, preserving scale between them so as to reflect relative dimensions of the original paintings. These are called “Exhibition Cards”, since they provide a low-scale representation of the exhibition (Fig. 6). They also include the tile and date of the artwork, along with its size in centimeters and its current legal owner. A few of them contain small narratives beneath the artwork, mostly quoting the artist’s ideas or experts’ opinions on the corresponding paintings.
Fig. 6

Snapshots from the remote game experience and setup: a at the home environment (left), b at the yoga center hall (right)

In GS #3, the “Exhibition Cards” are placed on the table where the family’s board gaming sessions typically take place. A customized printed-copy of a Scoring Board is placed in the center of the table (containing a photo of the artist) and the Exhibition Cards are placed around it. Players select their pawns and place them in the scoring board. Each player is handed a pack of small “Voting Cards”, referring to the artworks on the Exhibition Cards. In GS #4 the same printed materials are employed, while placed on the floor.


Before starting the game, the players fill-in a small questionnaire including demographic information, past visits to fine art exhibitions and storytelling game experience. As soon as the questionnaire is filled in by all the players, the facilitator of the game testing session asks permission to audio (GS #1, 2) or video-record (GS #3, 4, 5) the session.

In the case of on-site experiences, the facilitator prompts the participants to make a free visit to the gallery, at their own pace (no time-restrictions are posed). In the case of remote experiences, she prompts the participants to observe the exhibition cards while making a very short introduction about the artist. Then the facilitator hands out the voting instruments (post-its or voting cards) to the players and explains the game instructions. Having the game explained, the facilitator prompts the participants to move and behave in any way they wish: they can move around the hall or stay seated, pick up or move the exhibition cards, discuss or comment on any topic they choose, use their mobile phones, etc. Finally, a storyteller is randomly selected, and the game starts. Throughout the game, the facilitator remains in the room and observes the storytelling process, providing explanations when needed.

After the game ends, a questionnaire is filled in by each player. The questionnaire includes two main sections:
  • Overall assessment

    This section starts with two main questions: “Did you like the game?” and “Would you like to play the game again?” and participants make their choices in a 5-point Likert scale (Not at all 1 2 3 4 5 Very Much). It continues with two open-questions: “What aspects of the game did you like the most?”, “What aspects of the game you did not like?”, and participants may write down their answers in a short text area (optionally). The answers to these questions provide the basis for discussion in the group-interview section that follows.7

  • Game experience questionnaire (GEQ)

    Aiming to asses several different dimensions of the subjective experience of playing the game, we have employed the popular GEQ, originally proposed by Ijsselsteijn et al. (2007) to study player experiences with video games. We have tailored the GEQ to our game testing scenarios in two main ways: (a) since the game was tested with paper prototypes we omitted questions related to the digital aspect of the experience, and (b) we included four questions related to the particular game’s objectives.

Then a group-interview takes place, discussing the strong and weak points of the game, potential uses and alternative game-plays. Players who participate for a second time in a game testing session do not fill-in the questionnaires again. A group-interview takes place instead, comparing the two experiences.

Evaluation scores and qualitative input

The game was in general very well received and all the participants expressed high interest in playing the game again. It was successfully tested with three independent collections of paintings (two temporary exhibitions at the SNFCC and a personal collection of a contemporary artist), thus indicating potential to be applied in varied fine art collections, while requiring limited or even no content authoring effort for the game purposes. The evaluation scores of each game testing session are reported in Table 2 (averaged per group).
Table 2

Detailed game evaluation scores of the game-testing sessions

Evaluation questions and metrics

GS evaluation scores

GS #1

GS #2

GS #3

GS #4

Overall assessment

 Did you like the game?





 Would you like to play the game again?





GEQ dimensions






 Sensory and imagination






























Artwork and group engagement

 Group engagement





 Artwork engagement





Overall, the participants said that the game was fun and they enjoyed it, which is also reflected in the high scores reached in the positive dimension of the GEQ (Table 2). Based on the participants’ qualitative input (derived from the free-text questions along with the interview section), the main strong points of the game are the following:
  • Connection and familiarization with the artworks

    This aspect was strongly appreciated in all the game testing sessions. It is reflected in the high “Artwork Engagement” scores of our questionnaire (Table 2) and it was also highlighted by the majority of the participants (19) in their qualitative input.

    Several participants explicitly stated that the game made them observe the artworks really closely. Participant 3 (GS #4) noted that “I liked concentrating on the pictures” while participant 13 (GS #1) reported that “The game made me examine carefully the artworks and view them in a different way”. Participant 10 (GS #1) emphasized that “Looking at the paintings to find interesting details on which to base your story cues, is what I enjoyed the most”. After the game-testing sessions ended, several participants remarked that they now feel familiar with the artist’s work. For instance, during the group-interview section, participant 15 (GS #3) commented “Now I feel that I really know Tetsis!”.

    Some participants also reported that the game increased their interest in the artworks. Depending on their prior interest in fine arts, different comments were made. For instance, participant 4 (GS #4) said that “I felt awakening of my interest in works of art”, while participant 20 (GS #2) commented that “the game makes the artworks more interesting to me, I can see them through new perspectives”. Going into this direction, several participants appreciated that, while a game with art collections, it does not require art background or prior knowledge to play it. For instance, participant 16 (GS #3) reported three strong points of the game: (1) learning about the artworks in a funny and not boring way (for someone that is not familiar with art at least), (2) being able to learn and play with artworks that may be far away, in a gallery that you would never visit or know about, (3) doesn’t need to know about art to play it.

  • Group interaction and diversity of perspectives

    The way that each person perceives, interprets and engages with an artwork and its various visual elements varies remarkably. This holds for abstract, but also for figurative works of art (which is mainly the case for the artwork collections that we employed) and it has been verified in all the game testing sessions. One of the most appreciated aspects of the game experience was the diversity of perspectives and thoughts that were reveled and shared between the group members. This is reflected in the high scores reported in the Group Engagement dimension of our extended GEQ (Table 2), while 15 participants made an explicit reference on the diversity of perspectives as a truly strong point of the game.

    Participant 12 (GS #1) focused particularly on group interaction, noting that: “I really enjoyed the collaborative nature of the game, observing the details on the paintings, and hearing scenarios I would have never thought by my colleagues”. Participant 22 (GS #2) also focused on the social aspect of the experience, mentioning that “I loved trying to decrypt the others’ thoughts and watching them do the same”. Similarly, participant 9 (GS #1) highlighted that “The disclosure of each player’s version and the following explanation was the most fun part”. Participant 7 (GS #4) stated that “It helped me understand how my co-players think and I felt really connected with the group” while participant 10 (GS #1) noticed that “It was interesting to observe that each one of us was engaged with the paintings in a different way, and that was clearly reflected in the cues, e.g., some chose emotions as cues, others used colors, or words from the labels”, a remark that was almost repeated by participant 17 (GS #3):” It is interesting to see how differently others think when triggered by the same item (e.g., artwork).”

  • Imagination and creativity

    As expected, being a storytelling game, triggering of imagination and creativity was generally identified as its strongest aspect. This is reflected in the corresponding GEQ dimension and it was also explicitly remarked by 10 participants. For instance, participant 4 (GS #4) noted: “I liked the imagination challenges that I felt”, while participant 21(GS #2) expressed the belief that “The game increases imagination!”. On the other hand, however, participant 11 (GS #1) made a very meaningful observation: “The game triggers imagination and requires observing, guessing and competition, but hints can sometimes be too subjective or even unrelated to what they describe, thus scoring may be actually based on luck”.

    Competition has been generally regarded in very different ways by the participants. For instance, most of the players in the Family group (GS #3) focused a lot on this aspect, considering it the main weak point of the game: “It is not very competitive” (participant 15), “It was difficult to confuse the other players, since some pictures did not have enough similarities with the others” (participant 14), “selection of artworks should be done with the game in mind so that it better fits their objective as battleground” (participant 17).

    A rather different approach was followed by the majority of the players in the rest of the groups. Most of the participants in GS #1, 2 and 4 almost ignored the scoring aspect of the game. For instance, participant 9 (GS #1) commented that “The competition was not literally a bad aspect but didn’t mean much to me. I mostly enjoyed the imaginative stories that came out of it”, while the yoga-group (GS #4) actually transformed the game play into a cooperative one. Going one step further, in GS #2 participant 22 expressed a strong dislike on that front: “I did not like the feeling of loosing or winning, the chance that a subgroup in the group had better understanding due to past experience”. The different groups’ attitude towards the low competitive nature of the game is reflected in Table 2 and it partially explains why the scores of GS #3 are significantly inferior with regard to the rest.

Game duration and behavior analysis

Game duration varied significantly between the onsite and remote game testing sessions, ranging from 2 h in the former cases to 35 min in the latter (Table 3). This is rather indicative of the positive effect that the artworks’ physical presence has on the overall experience. All the participants who experienced both types of sessions (remote and on-site) stated that they preferred the on-site session, mainly due to the artworks’ presence: “The game was now so alive; the artworks were right in front of us” (participant 2).
Table 3

Game testing sessions duration (in minutes)

GS #1: on-site

GS #2: on-site

GS #3: remote

GS #4: remote

GS #5: on-site






On-site game testing sessions

For the on-site experiences, it is worth noting that the participants’ visits in the galleries (prior to the game-testing session) lasted no more than 10 min. Participant 15 (GS #2) highlighted that “I would complete my visit in 5 min, but by playing the game I stayed in the gallery for two hours, discussing about its artworks!”. Participant 11 (GS #1) commented that “I would never imagine that I would have stayed in a gallery for so long, having so much fun!”. At the same time, some participants reported a duration concern and suggested to include a time limit in some of the game phases, to keep it balanced and fine-tuned.

In GS #1 and 2, the groups had a clear movement pattern: During the story-making phase, all the participants walked around the gallery observing the exhibits. Some participants preferred to do so individually, considering this phase as a private moment for developing their game-strategy, while others walked in pairs, having frequent discussions. As soon as the storyteller announced that his/her story was ready, the group gathered and got seated around the game board to hear the story (or in some cases observe the storytellers’ physical performance). When this phase ended, the group lifted up and walked again through the gallery, observing (and in some cases also discussing about) the paintings, with regard to the story announced. When someone was ready to vote, he/she returned next to the game board and got seated, waiting for the rest of the players. When everybody had returned in the game board area, the players started one by one to reveal their votes while also explaining the reasoning behind them. During the vote revealing phase, no particular turn was maintained by the groups; when some players agreed with the one currently revealing his/her vote, they frequently intervened and started elaborating on their personal view-point as well. This was the primary social phase of all the game-testing sessions, including plenty of discussions.

In contrast to GS #1, 2, in GS #5 the participants mainly remained seated throughout all the phases of the game. This may be partially explained due to two reasons: (a) the size of the hall was crucially smaller than the ones at SNFCC, enabling clear visual access to all the artworks from the seating area, and, most notably, (b) instead of post-its, in GS#5 the players were provided with voting cards. While the voting cards had been originally produced to merely serve the voting procedure of the game, we observed that the participants leveraged them to have a close, private look at the representations of the artworks during the game, which practically resulted in somehow redirecting their attention and focus from the artworks themselves to the voting cards. This clearly indicates that, for the on-site game experience, special attention needs to be paid in the physical implementation of the game materials and interfaces to avoid the “heads-down phenomenon”, which is so commonly encountered in museum studies with cultural heritage applications.

Remote game testing sessions

In the remote game testing sessions (GS #3, 4), the participants remained seated; they rarely picked-up or moved the Exhibition Cards, even though they wished to have a closer look in many cases. Similarly to GS #5, the Voting Cards captured the participants’ attention, but to a much greater extent. This result has been also strongly reflected in the qualitative input of the participants. In the open question referring to the negative aspects of the game (i.e., “What aspects of the game you did not like?”), Participant 7 (GS #4) filled in that “I needed bigger size of pictures”, and in the interview section that followed, she explained that she was actually referring to the voting cards, and not the exhibition cards where the artworks are presented in larger scale (Fig. 6).

Several similar remarks have been reported in GS #3. During the game, participants 15 and 16 commented that they would prefer to have larger Voting Cards, maybe along with some narrative info included on them, enabling them to browse through the collection of artworks privately. Participant 16 explicitly highlighted these issues in the negative aspects of the game “I would prefer better cards/larger photos on hand”, again referring to the voting cards, and continued that “More details on each artwork would be good both for learning more about the artwork and maybe making better and more stories with them”. Similarly, participant 17 reported that “No background on each artwork was given prior or during the game”.

So 3 (out of 4) of the participants in GS #3 expressed an explicit request for additional information, complementing the artworks. However, it was very interesting to discover during the group interview that none of the participants had actually read all the narratives lying beneath the artwork representations on the exhibition cards. This result is related to the fact that the participants were reluctant to pick up the exhibition cards; some of the narratives were not located close to the participants’ position around the table, so the participants could not read the narratives without somehow getting closer to them. So in its current form, the paper prototype that we have produced for the remote play-testing sessions clearly downplayed the provided narratives and it needs to be adjusted so as to better promote them during the game experience.

Finally, in the “Gamers Group (GS #3), all the participants commented that they would like more interaction during the game; the board (meaning the set of the Exhibition Cards) did not change throughout the game, and the set of Voting cards that each participants had on their hand was also kept the same (i.e., there were no card exchanges between the players). As a result, the participants of the “Gamers Group” felt that the game was sort of “static”.

It is worth noting that during the design of the remote game prototype, we anticipated that the participants would frequently pick up and move around the “Exhibition Cards”, hence creating a live, shared collaborative board space. However, our expectation was not verified by the participants’ behavior; in both GS #3 and 4 the participants hardly picked up and did not move around the Exhibition Cards. Nevertheless, no similar “interactivity remarks” were made in the “Yoga Group” (GS #4). This obviously relates to the different background, hence the different expectations of the participants between the two investigated groups; traditional board games are heavily based on card manipulation mechanisms and the game board evolves according to the players’ actions, so the “Gamers Group” had increased interaction expectations with regard to the “Yoga Group”, aligned to their prior gaming experience.

Discussion of game affordances and requirements

To support the “Find the artwork behind the story” game, some central themes are required throughout the artworks. But, how hard do the “artwork inclusion criteria” need to be? Do all the artworks have to be related through some common theme? Furthermore, what is the effect of the textual stimulus that is provided during the game experience? Do the players read the title or the narratives accompanying the artworks? Do they use this info in their story making process or do they focus only on the visual elements of the artworks? What types of game strategies are developed? In this section, we try to answer these questions by describing particular use-cases in the game-testing sessions and reflecting upon them.

Game-design: artwork selection criteria

Considering for instance the Tetsis collection (GS #1, 3, 4), most of the artworks that we have used in the game sessions depict landscapes of islands, while some of them display crowded public places (street markets and a coffee shop). However, one of the artworks differs significantly from the rest, depicting the portrait of a woman (Fig. 7a). How did this affect the game? Is this particular artwork selected by the storytellers, despite its uniqueness in the set, or did the storytellers avoid it? Did it get voted, i.e., did the players manage to relate it to stories about other artworks?
Fig. 7

Voting cards depicting paintings of Tetsis: a “Portrait of M.P.” (left), b “The Sunset” (middle) and the c “Coffee Shop” (right)

Game testing results show that the portrait is indeed rarely selected by storytellers. In fact, it has been selected only once. Having a long experience in board games, a participant in GS #3 developed a very interesting story-making strategy. He identified a peculiar detail in the portrait: the woman seems to have no mouth. He internally translated this into silence and he conceived a narrative evolving around it. His story did not employ any characters but covered familiar, emotional, contradicting and alternating states of the Greek islands, such as crowd, noise, waves, stillness, and depression. The narrative ended with a key personal statement that would hopefully lead some voters to the right answer: “I believe that during winter, the island is the personification of silence”.

We believe that this is a remarkable story, revealing personal meaning making procedures and showcasing the creativity affordances of storytelling games with artworks. For the purposes of the game, i.e., winning, the story was “unsuccessful” since no player voted the correct artwork. However, when the storyteller explained his reasoning, i.e., that the woman in the portrait has no mouth, all players were clearly surprised and everybody’s attention got totally trapped on the corresponding Exhibition Card for several seconds. Participant 7 commented “That’s really interesting! I have repeatedly looked at this painting but I hadn’t notice it!”. Then Participant 9 added “I think I see something at the right, maybe this is an abstract tiny smile, it’s modern art anyway”. Participant 10 proceeded with a humoristic description explaining the artist’s choice not to include a mouth: “This is his wife, who was obviously nagging all the time, so this how he was dreaming of her”. They kept on speculating and commenting for a while and, before moving on, they all agreed that this was a very nice story. So the storyteller felt content, despite his loss (scoring-wise), because he found a very creative way to address his personal challenge.

While the portrait has been selected only once, by a storyteller, it has been voted several times. During GS #1, one player voted it for the story “Gallery or Art Exhibition”. The storyteller had hinted the other players to read the narratives accompanying the artworks, but one of the players decided not to follow the hint; while observing the portrait during a previous state of the game, she had wondered who that elegant woman might be and she had (internally) though that she really looks like a painter. So when that player heard the storyteller’s description, she believed that the storyteller might have actually shared the same idea about it. The artwork behind the story was not the portrait, but during the explanation phase the player had the chance to share her internal reflection about the woman of the portrait with the rest of the group, which again surprised the other players and directed their attention towards the corresponding artwork.

The portrait has been also voted twice, during GS #4. A storyteller decided to sing the melody of a Beatles song (“Here comes the sun”). While singing, she revealed some of the lyrics, but deliberately omitted the key word “sun”, which would hopefully lead some of the players to the selected artwork, entitled “The Sunset” (Fig. 7b). Her strategy proved to be successful: All the players who knew the song voted the correct artwork. However, two players did not remember the lyrics; being unable to exploit the semantic “hint” lying in there, they followed a different decision making approach. Both of them voted the portrait of the woman, because, as they said: “that was a sweet melody, matching the girl on the portrait”. During the explanations phase, the two players were happy to find out that they made the exact same reasoning, even though it did not lead them to the right answer.

So from an authoring perspective, we believe that there is no need for hard inclusion criteria; the artworks may be loosely related, in different ways. In fact, it is rather interesting to observe how the visitors’ personal reflections and creative thinking can be orchestrated to devise semantic links between artworks and stories. On the contrary, it is quite likely that too similar paintings (with regard to the rest of the collection) should be probably be grouped together for the game purposes. For instance, in the contemporary’s artist collection (GS #5), four paintings depicting flowers were effectively grouped as one. On the contrary, two paintings depicting sea waves were kept as separate game-candidates, causing negative reactions from the participants when one of them was selected by a storyteller. The group decided that there is no way to differentiate between the two artworks and agreed to handle them as one.

Artworks and information: an alliance in the group force

Apart from the artworks, a significant amount of textual information was accessible to all the players during GS #1, 2, 3, 4. However, the level of attention that each individual paid on the titles, the meta-data and the exhibition narratives varied remarkably. For instance, the first story in GS #1 was referring to the “The Sunset” artwork. Paying absolutely no attention to its title, the storyteller perceived the depicted image as a sunrise, i.e., the start of the day. The dark colors of the landscape made her feel that there is trouble and mystery in this city, so her story was “Every beginning is difficult”. On the contrary, the rest of the players did pay a lot of attention to the painting’s title; when the storyteller revealed the identity of the chosen artwork, some of the players commented that the sunset clearly denotes the end of the day, rather than its beginning, hence they would personally never consider the particular painting. Similar reactions took place in GS #4, when the storyteller used the “Here comes the sun” lyrics to denote the same artwork. One of the voters commented: “but this is a sunset!” and the storyteller replied “yes, whatever, it seems like a sunrise, doesn’t it?”.

A similar situation was observed with this artwork in GS #3, though the other way around this time. The first story evolved again around the beginning of the day: “The sun had just risen. The sky was blurry; it had this early morning haze. I could hardly see any details; the only thing I could see was the figure of the objects, but with unclear bounds.”. By the time the storyteller ended her story, one of the players commented “I think we all know which one it is”. This time, two (out of three) players voted “The Sunset”. After revealing their votes, the storyteller was clearly surprised and asked them “But why did you choose the sunset? I said that the sun had just risen!” It is only then, that the two players (participants 15, 16) actually noticed the title of the artwork.

Besides the title, some players leveraged additional information in their story-making or voting processes, such as the accompanying narratives, the artwork’s creation date or even its hosting institution. For instance, for the “Every beginning is difficult” story at GS #1, two players voted the “Coffee Shop” painting (Fig. 7c) because they noticed that, on a chronological basis, it is the former artwork of the artist in the collection. A third player also voted the “Coffee Shop”, but for a radically different reason: “I observed that there is a man leaving the coffee shop; he seems to be quite serious or troubled, and he is heading somewhere”. His explanation directed the group’s attention towards the painting, leading to playful comments and discussions about the persons depicted on the painting, questioning their attitudes and personalities.

After noticing that their co-players leverage textual info into their story-making processes, some players changed their original approach to the game, especially when they were strongly motivated to win. For instance, in GS #3 participant 16 at some point commented out loud: “I have understood that she pays a lot of attention to the titles so I am now voting accordingly”. So if one or more players in the group leverage textual information into their story-making processes, this may motivate other players to do so as well.

Narratives and learning

Getting familiar and reflecting upon the artworks of an artist certainly accounts as a form of knowledge and the majority of the participants have really appreciated the learning affordances of their game experience to that end. However, it is important to discuss here the role and the effects of the narratives in the overall participants’ experience.

Apart from the artwork’s title and meta-data, a typical exhibition includes some informative narratives that are traditionally displayed on labels, carefully placed in the environment of the gallery, making an implicit story that connects the artworks and communicates some main messages to the visitors. This was the case in the two exhibitions that took place in the SNFCC; so the game experience in GS #1, 2 built on top of this setting, leveraging the storylines that have been established by the curators during the design of the exhibition. In GS #5 there were no narrative labels, but the artist herself was present during the game, commenting and discussing her internal thoughts and reflections over her artworks with the participants.

On the contrary, in the remote-game scenarios the narratives that we have included in the paper prototype are only a subset of the ones provided within the whole gallery of GS #1. In addition, the results from GS #3, 4 indicate that the way the narratives were integrated into the Exhibition cards significantly degraded their visibility, and hence their role in the overall game experience. As a result, explicit requests for additional information were made in GS #3, as previously reported. It is also worth noting that in GS #4, participant 6 negatively commented that, although now she was more familiar with Tetsis’ work, she felt that her knowledge on his work and context had not been advanced. Her comment took place in the group interview section and it fired a live debate between the participants about the value of factual information, revealing a diversity of personal preferences on that front.

Observing the amount of “narrative information requests” in the remote game testing sessions, we decided to re-visit the remote game scenario. To better address the learning craves of the participants we decided that we need to somehow promote the narratives in the remote game implementation, while keeping them as an optional element in the game play.

Part B: Redesigning the remote game experience for the “home scenario”

The following table summarizes the key issues that we identified during the remote game testing sessions, the corresponding requirements expressed by the participants and the way each one has been addressed in the re-design of the remote game experience (Table 4).
Table 4

List of negative remarks and player requirements, along with the corresponding design solutions

Negative issues


Way addressed

Static game-board and limited use of the personal cards

Increased interactivity

Game play adjustment, extension of the artworks’ set

Attention shift from exhibition cards to voting cards

Larger voting cards

Removal of exhibition cards, replacement of voting cards with larger Artwork Cards

Narratives on exhibition cards were not visible to all players

Display narratives per artwork

Development of a mobile application that scans the Artwork Cards and displays related narratives on the screen of the players’ personal devices

Limited amount of narratives

The main problems of the paper prototype had to do with the Exhibition Cards: their placement on the table created a large shared view space between the players, but the participants rarely physically interacted with the Exhibition Cards, hence resulting in a static game board that remained unchanged throughout the game. Instead, the participants’ attention was directed towards the Voting cards and several remarks about their content and features were made. Based on these observations, we decided to remove the Exhibition Cards from the game setup and test a different storytelling game-play that is based on card manipulation, hence increasing the role of the personal cards and advancing interaction between the players and their cards.

Regarding narrative provision, we considered the option to print the narratives and include them in the physical board game, but we identified several shortcomings. First, where should the narrative be included? Card manipulation games require relatively small-sized cards (enabling the players to hold them on hand with ease), so the space that is available on each card is rather limited. The front side of the cards depicts the artworks, so the most intuitive choice would be to print the narratives on the back side of each artwork. However, this is not a valid option for the particular game-play: the cards that each player has on-hand need to remain private throughout the game, thus the back sides of the Artwork Cards have to be identical. If the narratives were printed on separate cards it would be practically impossible for the players to handle them; retrieving the narrative card that refers to a particular artwork would be a tiresome procedure, requiring some form of manual indexing to be established and, most notably, be maintained. A card slip-in would be an option, but it would significantly increase the complexity of card handling, which is essential in a card manipulation game. In addition, small size fonts are neither practical nor suitable for a casual storytelling game, so the size of the cards poses important hard-constraints on the provided narratives’ length.

Facing in essence a traditional information retrieval problem, we decided to integrate a digital component in the board prototype that addresses exclusively the requirement for private narrative provision per artwork. To that end, we implemented a mobile application that leverages image tracking technology. The players use their personal mobile or tablet device to scan the artworks; when the image is tracked, the related narrative is directly presented on the screen of their device. In this way, the mobile application is used along with the paper prototype, thus defining a hybrid board game experience that orchestrates the use of physical materials, such as cards and pawns, to digital devices (Fig. 8).
Fig. 8

Snapshot from the hybrid board game experience

Targeting to casual environments, our approach employs personal mobile devices (hence not requiring specialized hardware or sophisticated setups) and uses well-established techniques (image tracking and recognition). Due to the widespread adoption of personal mobile devices in modern everyday life, we assume that all the players have a personal device they can use during the game, and they are familiar with application installing.

Game-play and mechanics adjustment

The re-designed game setup includes only a set of “Artwork Cards” along with a scoring board, color-coded pawns and voting tokens. Each Artwork Card contains an image representation of the artwork, along with its title and creation date. The Artwork Cards are larger than the Voting Cards of the first prototype (8 cm × 12 cm) but yet suitable for card manipulation.

Moving towards a card manipulation game, we have adopted the Dixit game-play. To that end, the original game-play of the “Find the Artwork behind the Story!” is modified in two main ways (indicated with dark red notation in the following game flow diagram) (Fig. 9).
Fig. 9

Flow of the Dixit-based Game

First, the Artwork Cards are handed to the players (instead of being placed on the table, under a common view). At the beginning of a turn, each player holds six Artwork Cards. So in the Story making phase, the storyteller selects an artwork between the six ones displayed on his private cards’ deck. Second, an additional phase is introduced, following the Storytelling phase, which we call “Artwork Contribution phase”. After the story is narrated to the group, the storyteller removes the corresponding Artwork Card from his/her personal deck and places it face down on the table (so that the artwork is not visible to the group). Then the other players select amongst their six private Artwork Cards the one that best matches the story made up by the storyteller, and each of them places their selected card on the table, next to the storyteller’s card (again without showing it to the others).

In this way, a pile of X candidate Artwork Cards is created, where X equals to the number of players. As soon as everybody contributes an “Artwork Card” in the pile, the storyteller shuffles the cards and then randomly places them (face up) on the table (Fig. 10). Then Voting is conducted between the X candidate Artwork Cards that are currently on display. Similarly to the original game, the players try to find the storyteller’s Artwork Card.
Fig. 10

Voting with colored numbered tokens

Obviously, a great difference between the Dixit-based game and the “Find the Artwork behind the Story!” has to do with the number of artworks that need to be included into the game. The original game was tested with 14 (GS #1, 3, 4), 25 (GS #2) and 20 artworks (GS #5), respectively. However, card manipulation games typically require a quite larger number of cards, thus an increased number of artworks in our case. For instance, each Dixit game pack includes 84 cards.

In the re-designed game experience, voting is conducted using the Dixit voting tokens: each player contains a set of colored numbered labels and since the candidate Artwork Cards are placed in a line, a virtual numerical identifier is agreed between the players based on the cards’ location, e.g., the card on the left will be number 1, the one next to it will be number 2, and so on. So if the “Green” player wants to vote for the left-most artwork, he places the voting token with number 1 on the table (face down). Voting is followed by the Explanations and then Scoring phases, which are carried out in the same way to the original game: each player reveals his/her vote (Fig. 10) and explains the reasoning behind it. At the end of each turn the players update their score, moving their pawns on the physical game board, and a new Artwork Card is handed to each player (so that they all have 6 cards on hand at the beginning of the next turn).

Game-pack design

The new game-pack that we have produced for the remote-scenario includes a series of Vincent Van Gogh’s masterpieces, along with selected narratives for each one of his artworks. The reason for choosing Van Gogh’s artworks was two-fold:
  1. 1

    A very famous exhibition was taking place in Athens at the time, titled “Van Gogh Alive—The experience”,8 and we planned on-site game testing sessions (in the exhibition environment). So to be able to investigate the connection between the on-site and remote game experiences, we decided to base our remote-game prototype on the artworks included in the particular exhibition.

  2. 2

    Vincent Van Gogh is the creator of a very large number of artworks, which are widely accessible and significant amount of narratives is published on-line, by high-profile museums and cultural institutions.


So for the design of the new game-pack, we have included the 14 main artworks that were on display in the exhibition of “Van Gogh Alive—the Experience”. In addition, we have added in the game pack a series of artworks and related narratives that are available from the official site of the Van Gogh Museum,9 as well as from other cultural institutions. The resulting game-pack includes 80 Artwork Cards, including a variety of paintings that cover the main periods of the artist’s work.

Mobile client application and web-platform implementation

Focusing on the technological requirements of the new game scenario, we identified two main users: the game designer and the game player. Aiming to effectively support the whole game experience, from design and creation to final provision, we developed two inter-connected end-user tools: (a) an authoring web platform that supports the game designer during the entire digital content upload and management process and (b) a mobile application that supports the game players in the content display process throughout the game.

In essence, the authoring platform serves as a digital repository and enables the game designer to insert into the system the digital representations of the masterpieces that will be included in the game pack (i.e., the ones printed on the Artwork Cards of the physical prototype). To do that, the game designer simply creates a new game gallery and adds cultural items (Fig. 11a). To create a new cultural item, the game designer enters some fundamental information about the artwork (such as title and type), along with some optional meta-data. Most notably, the game designer fills in the “Description”, which is the narrative to be presented when the corresponding Artwork Card is scanned by the players, and uploads the digital file of the artwork (Fig. 11b). When the cultural item is submitted, the artwork is added in the list of gallery items. The back end of the web platform is developed in Java, using the Spring Framework, and the front end of the web platform is implemented in JavaScript using JQuery, CSS and Bootstrap.
Fig. 11

Web authoring platform interface: a list of game artworks in the gallery, b addition of a new cultural item

At any point, the game designer can choose to “export” the game gallery; when clicking on the corresponding GUI component of the web platform, a native Android application is produced (in the form of an.apk file) that performs image scanning and recognizes the particular gallery’s artworks. The game designer may either directly download the.apk file and distribute it to the players, or publish the application to the Google PlayStore. Once installed, the application enables the game players to scan the gallery’s artworks and displays the corresponding data when an artwork from the game gallery is recognized. Two alternative types of applications may be exported from the web authoring platform: (a) local or (b) cloud-based applications. The former store locally all the digital content required for the scanning and recognition purposes, thus requiring no network connection during the game. However, if new content is added in the game gallery, then a new export and thus, a new installation will be required. On the contrary, cloud-based applications exchange information with the back end of the web platform (via REST web services); as a result, any changes made by the game designer through the authoring platform are directly reflected to the application, without requiring additional exports and updates.

The mobile client application is implemented in Unity and employs a Vuforia service for the image scan and recognition process. The reason for choosing image recognition instead of simpler techniques, such as QR codes, is that it enables the application to support both remote and on-site game experiences, as well as traditional gallery visits, requiring no external information or signs to be added along the artworks. The client interface is kept minimal: when launched, the application enters an image scanning mode, using the device’s camera. As soon as an artwork of the game gallery is tracked, the related narrative appears on the screen. The narrative is displayed in a white scrollable area and, at the bottom of it, there is a black OK button; when clicked the app returns to image scanning mode, enabling new scans and recognitions (Fig. 12).
Fig. 12

Application interface (on a tablet device)

Aiming to create a hybrid game experience, where the digital devices naturally complement the physical prototype rather than replace it, we decided to include only the narratives on the digital screen. In this way, the digital and the analogue media are meant to be used in a combined way, providing a different part of the artwork data: image representations are printed on Artwork Cards, and their narratives are displayed on digital screens.

Prototype evaluation with a focus group

Following a user-centered design methodology, the new game prototype was evaluated with a focus group. The “family group of gamers” was selected to that end. The group gathered again in a home environment (similarly to GS #3), while this time the participants were asked to bring along their personal Android devices (mobile or tablets). The facilitator installed the application to the participants’ devices (2 mobiles and 2 tablets) and demonstrated its functionality. A cloud-based export was employed (requiring internet network access during the game), so all the devices were connected to the same Wi-Fi.

Then the facilitator passed the new game’s Artwork Cards to the participants and asked the group to start playing a Dixit-like game (with Van Gogh’ artworks), using their personal devices for accessing the related narratives. In contrast to GS #3, the facilitator participated in the game as well, and the group was asked to comment on the application’s usability throughout the game, while also to reflect and discuss whether their main requirements and remarks from their prior game experience were successfully addressed or not. The whole session was video-recorded and lasted approximately 2 h.

Application usability

All the participants stated that the application was in general easy to use and they really liked its functionality during the story-making phase of the game. While the storyteller was making up his/her story, the other players used their personal devices to scan their Artwork Cards. Image scanning and recognition was quick and successful for the great majority of artworks and the participants really appreciated the fact that they could use their personal devices to privately read the narratives during this phase.

The analysis of the video recordings shows that, while reading the narratives, in most cases the participants held the Artwork Card on one hand and placed the device next to it, either holding it on the other hand (Fig. 13b) or placing it over the table (Fig. 13a), thus creating an extended view area, and their attention alternated between the two media. Nevertheless, we also observed several cases where, as soon as the narrative appeared on screen, some of the participants put back on the table the scanned Artwork Card, along with their private personal pile of cards, and continued reading the narrative without having visual access to the artwork. This behavior was mostly observed in the tablet users, which is rather reasonable since their devices were larger and heavier. After two turns, one of the participants took the initiative to place his tablet on the table using its standing case, which resulted in freeing both of his hands and thereafter drastically changed his behavior to that matter (Fig. 13c).
Fig. 13

Extended view area created in several ways: a device on table and Artwork Card on hand, b both on hand, c tablet on standing case and Artwork Card on hand

Moving on to the voting phase of the game, a rather complicated situation was observed: following the “Artwork Contribution” phase, 5 Artwork Cards (one from each player) were placed on the table, side by side. Before proceeding to voting, the participants wished to scan all of the candidate artworks to find out more information about them. The participants did not lift up the Cards (to place them in front of their individual devices, as they did during the Story-making phase), because they felt that the Artwork Cards had to be constantly visible to all the players during this phase. Instead, they tried to scan the artworks by simultaneously, by lifting up their devices and pointing towards each individual Artwork Card (Fig. 14).
Fig. 14

Snapshot of the application use after the Artwork Contribution phase of the game

A key problem was revealed in this process, which relates to the close proximity of the Artwork Cards: to scan one of the artworks, the participants had to bring their devices close enough to the particular Artwork Card, so that the rest of the artworks were not visible through the device’s camera. After a while, all the participants commented that the process of frequently lifting up their devices and moving them towards different angles was tiresome, particularly for the tablet users. In addition, in several cases “false hits” were reported, i.e., while trying to scan a particular artwork, some of the surrounding Artwork Cards were scanned first, thus displaying different narratives. It is also worth noting that in some of these cases, the participants were not directly aware of the “false hit”; it was only after reading some part of the narrative that they noticed it was not referring to the artwork they were originally aiming for.

Participant 15 commented that, during this phase, he would like to be able to hold his device in the same way he did during the Story-making phase. He suggested that the application scans all candidate Artwork Cards at once and, while on display on the device’s screen, all the identified artworks could be highlighted and then act as an “artwork menu”, i.e., enabling the user to select one (for instance, by tapping on it), move on to the corresponding narrative display, and then return back to the “artwork menu” to explore other artworks. The rest of the participants liked this suggestion and agreed that this approach would better serve this phase of the game. Participant 14 added that she would like the “artwork menu” to be also employed for supporting the actual voting procedure.

Narrative qualities and their impact

The participants made several remarks and suggestions about the quality of the narratives, focusing mainly on their length and their relation to the game-play. The length of the narratives employed in the game prototype varied from 70 to 200 words, while the average narrative length was 119. Overall, the participants agreed that they would prefer the narratives to be significantly smaller.

Participant 16 was overwhelmed by the amount of information provided, and suggested to use an upper threshold of 4 lines per narrative (i.e., about 35 words). Participant 14 commented that, although in many cases she did not go through the entire text, she liked having the option to get into more details about some of artworks. Participants 15 and 17 also reported that they skipped several parts of the narratives. “To keep up with the game pace, in several cases I was not able to read the entire narrative at once. It would be better to break the narratives into much smaller pieces”, said participant 17 and suggested that each scan of the artwork randomly leads to a different narrative piece. Participant 15 agreed with this suggestion and proposed that each narrative piece provides a particular “clue” about the artwork, in a form of a complete sentence that extends only a couple of lines, while a “More” option may be provided, enabling the player to deep into the clue if he/she wishes to. Participant 17 appreciated the clue-based idea and said that “In their current form, I felt that the narratives were not tightly connected to the game-play; if they were provided as short clues, then it would be easier for me to quickly employ them in my story-making and voting decisions”. Following this comment, a long discussion took place about the relation between the length of the narratives and the number of artworks that are included in the new game: “Maybe the extended narratives would be more suitable for the original game-play, where the same, limited set of artworks was always on display”, said Participant 14.

Moving on to a different issue, all the participants highlighted that they would like the narratives to be in their native language. Unknown vocabulary and reduced reading speed are considerable barriers, particularly in a causal game-setting.

With regard to their prior play-testing experience, all the participants stated that the new game was considerably more interactive and dynamic. It had a quick pace, despite the extended amount of narratives, and their knowledge about the artist and his work was significantly advanced in the new setting. Participant 15 stated that he really liked the new “Artwork Cards” and moved on to proposing an alternative use of the game instruments: “I would really like to sit on my couch, browse the Artwork Cards and scan them to read the extended narratives privately; I would totally prefer that than reading a traditional book”.

When asked if they would buy this game after their visit to a Van Gogh exhibition, all the players agreed that they would definitely do so: “Combined with the application, it is both a board game and a source of valuable cultural information” (Participant 15), “It would be a fabulous souvenir from a gallery visit” (Participant 17), “It would be a wonderful gift” (Participant 14).

Conclusions and future steps

The proposed storytelling games are generic, in the sense that the game-plays are not tied to the cultural content of a particular collection, thus enabling their efficient “re-use” in several cultural contexts. The game “Find the artwork behind the story!” was successfully applied and tested in three rather different art exhibitions, requiring very limited or even no game-authoring effort: the artworks have been simply grouped together to form a “game-pack” according to the space syntax of the cultural environment (i.e., halls, corridors, etc.). The user study results show that playing the game inside the exhibition areas may remarkably enhance the visitors’ experience, increasing significantly the duration of the visit and promoting social interactions between groups of visitors, hence advancing the visitors’ engagement and reflections upon the artworks in a playful, co-operative way. Envisioning museums as social places, we plan to implement a mobile-based platform that will enable on-site and virtual visitors of exhibitions to play storytelling games with a variety of cultural collections.

Moving on to the remote game-experiences, the user study results indicate promising potential to introduce artwork collections into casual, social gaming activities. Different game preferences and requirements have been identified, requiring for customized game-plays so as to tailor the gaming experience to different users’ attitudes and social contexts.

Focusing on the “home scenario”, to address the increased interactivity requirements of the “gamers group”, the original game was extended by leveraging the card manipulation mechanics of a popular storytelling board game. At the same time, aiming to address the learning requirements of the participants, we promoted the role of the narratives through the digital application that complements the physical game cards. The prototype has been evaluated with a focus group and several insightful suggestions have been reported, leading future development steps. We also plan to extend the application so as to support Augmented Reality content and study its impact to the game experience through future game-testing sessions.

Finally, from a design perspective, we plan to explore additional storytelling game-plays and investigate their relation and impact to the critical elements of the game experience (such as the social context, the number and type of artworks and narratives, personal preferences, varying application modes and functionalities). Our ultimate goal is to reach the definition of an overarching methodology that will support the conceptual design of storytelling game experiences with collections of artworks in varying environments and settings.




This research has been co-funded, originally by the EMOTIVE project, that has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under Grant Agreement No. 727188, and in the following by the ΠΙΣΕΤΟ project that has received funding from the General Secretariat for Research & Technology of Greece (ΤΙΕΔΚ-05362).


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Copyright information

© Beijing Normal University 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Dept. of Informatics & TelecommunicationsUniversity of AthensAthensGreece
  2. 2.“Athena” Research and Innovation CenterAthensGreece
  3. 3.Content Management in Culture P.C.AthensGreece

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