Fantasy Collecting: A Game for Art Education and Market Simulation

Patrick Herron, Duke University

In 2010, an estimated 183 million Americans reported playing video or computer games for 13 hours a week on average. [1]  This is one of the many astounding testaments to the ubiquity of gaming revealed in Reality is Broken, Jane McGonigal’s groundbreaking inquiry into the social and cultural revolution fueled by today’s $68 billion game industry. Thanks to scholars like McGonigal, game developers have begun to see games as vehicles not only for entertainment, but also as pro-active tools for teaching and research. “Gamification,” here defined as “the use of game thinking and game mechanics to engage users and solve problems,” is one of the inspirations for Fantasy Collecting, a browser-based game currently under development at Duke University.[2] By offering its users the ability to play with art, Fantasy Collecting innovates traditional methods of teaching the history of art and generates rich data for researchers in the process.

Fantasy Collecting is a visually stimulating browser-based game that teaches its participants about art history as well as the theory and practice of the art market. Featuring a flexible platform that will allow professors and museum professionals to adapt the game to the pedagogical demands of their respective courses and exhibitions, Fantasy Collecting will engage students and museum visitors in an odyssey of connoisseurship and exchange that is propelled by educational challenges and rewarded by points and trophies. By “gamifying” the process of interacting with world art in a virtual setting, Fantasy Collecting allows participants with any level of expertise to learn more about art, its history and the market dynamics that it creates.

About a year ago, Katherine Jentleson, a PhD student in the Art, Art History and Visual Studies Department at Duke University and I presented the basic concept of Fantasy Collecting at the Duke, Art Law and Markets Initiative (DALMI) workshop in Durham, North Carolina. The consensus of the international group of scholars from art history, economics and sociology gathered at the DALMI workshop was quite straightforward: prior to digital elaboration, the game should be put into practice on a role-playing basis to test the validity of a basic assumption—that students would willingly engage in the game. In advance of the Spring 2012 semester, we designed an analog version of Fantasy Collecting for Art History 245S, an interdisciplinary art history-economics seminar on the history of art markets taught by Hans Van Miegroet, the chair of the art history department at Duke and Neil De Marchi, professor of economics. Over the course of the Spring 2012 semester, the 15 students enrolled in the course had the opportunity to play an analog version of Fantasy Collecting in class. In the first meeting, students were exposed to the game’s marketplace through a slideshow of 70 masterpieces of Western Art History chosen randomly from H.W. Janson’s History of Art. Each student then received a randomly generated “Fantasy Collection” in the form of a dossier containing images and information on the works from the marketplace that he/she owned. In subsequent classes, students shaped their collections by engaging in bartering sessions and buying new pieces during in-class auctions. Students generated the currency they used at these auctions by being active in the marketplace—primarily by fulfilling various challenges over Twitter. These challenges demanded that they educate their fellow students about works in their collections or express interest in works of art not yet included in the game through succinct tweets. At the end of the semester, the collectors with the most points had the opportunity to present their final collections to the class, emphasizing their collection highlights and collecting strategies. The end of the game reflected the model of stock portfolio competitions in M.B.A. programs, which often culminate with pitches.

In its Spring 2012 iteration, the educational game Fantasy Collecting was primarily paper-based and played through in-class bartering and trading sessions, while several preexisting online tools facilitated gameplay outside of class. Dropbox, a popular cloud storage service, allowed students to view each other’s collections, while Twitter provided a forum for communication under the hashtag #FCplays2012. Although the paper-based round of the game was conceived as a proof of concept rather than a precise model for future gameplay, it confirmed that paper play is not scalable, as it required an intense amount of overhead work from Jentleson, who had to manually track points through a complex Excel database and redistribute updated collections each week based on recent trades. This experience reinforced the team’s enthusiasm for developing a fully digital version of Fantasy Collecting, which would not only make the game scalable to multiple concurrent sessions for multiple classes across multiple institutions, but also would permit the creation of valuable automatic data archives and analytics that would efficiently capture and help in the evaluation of the important data generated in the game.

In January of 2012 William Shaw, then a new employee of the Duke Library, took a meeting with Jentleson, Van Miegroet and De Marchi and agreed to participate in game development. In subsequent months, Shaw made speedy progress with the digital prototype of the game, developing it on a parallel track that was responsive to Jentleson’s Spring 2012 analog gameplay. From the very first iteration of the prototype last March, Shaw has written Fantasy Collecting as a browser-based game backed by a MySQL database, written in PHP and JavaScript with a jQuery library. While Shaw worked on designing the game’s database and interface, I focused on approaches to the data generated by gameplay, developing several tools that would track the communication between players active in the game.

As a team, Jentleson, Shaw and I achieved further progress on the digital prototype during the summer of 2012, thanks in part, to support from Duke’s Humanities Writ Large Initiative, which is funded by an Andrew W. Mellon grant. Our most recent user experience tree demonstrates the basic flow of gameplay as it is conceived in our current digital prototype: Players enter the game as “Newbie Collectors” and move through the game by meeting challenges, making transactions, and generating Fantasy Collecting Gilders (‘FCG,’ symbolized with ‘∮,’ pronounced either ‘fees’ or ‘f-c-g’). The process of passing from one level to the next is affected by a player’s participation in challenge completion, trophy acquisition, and total ∮ acquired, basic game mechanisms that are also the central pedagogical engines of the game (see Fig. 6 for a list of current challenges and trophies). Fantasy Collecting also introduces the possibility for micro-scholarship through posts and pitches that advance players through various levels of the game. When a player puts her work up for sale in the Classifieds section, for instance, she writes a sales pitch. In addition to advertising her consignment to buyers, her pitch will generate ∮s when it exhibits the apt use of art historical keywords to describe her art work.

The game is also designed to provide players with a window into the fascinating study of art markets, a relatively new field of enquiry that operates at the interface of the humanities and social sciences through interdisciplinary Art & Markets courses already underway at Duke. As part of Fantasy Collecting, we create and imitate real market situations and events, predominantly for pedagogical purposes. For instance, a player might learn that one of his trusted dealers has been intercepted by Interpol and accused of illegal antiquities trade (this episode is based on the recent story of Subash Chandra Kapoor) or that a very wealthy American heiress has decided to patronize his arts education, sending him to Europe for a Grand Tour (this episode is based on the relationship between Isabella Stewart Gardner and Bernard Berenson). These “Curveballs” will come to players with hyperlinks that give them the opportunity to explore the real-life occurrence that inspired their unexpected gamified circumstances. In addition to these anecdotal history lessons, Fantasy Collecting strives to replicate many of the contemporary and historical conditions of the art world through its internal logic. By mapping the rules of play in Fantasy Collecting against real art market conditions (such as the existence of high transaction costs for selling at auction) the game has the potential to generate valuable data that will be a useful resource for scholars in such fields as art history, sociology, economics and museum studies. We plan to archive and make open the data generated within the game; back-end aggregate analytic tools that record and visualize transaction history, price levels, marketing strategies and so on will allow scholars from various disciplines to explore research questions related to interaction patterns, collector behavior, art preferences and taste formation.

This semester we are putting the current prototype to work in another undergraduate class. From November 1­st to 13th, the 35 students enrolled in Neil De Marchi’s Contemporary Art Markets course will play a stripped down version of Fantasy Collecting. Since these players have a background in economics, we are challenging them to critique the game economy that we have envisioned for Fantasy Collecting thus far. Their level of engagement will be a test of how “sticky” the basic market simulation is, without the added layer of pedagogical game mechanics such as challenges and trophies. This round of the game will also be a test of how well Fantasy Collecting can work in conjunction with museum exhibitions, as the game marketplace will consist of works from the contemporary art collection of Duke alumni Jason Rubell that are currently on view at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. We are especially excited to be pairing gameplay with this exhibition, because the show is about the collection that Rubell put together while he was a student at Duke. Fantasy Collecting allows Duke students to build on Jason’s example and experiment with collecting from a young age, albeit in a fantasy realm.

One our main takeaways from the analog, paper-based edition of Fantasy Collecting in the Spring of 2012, was that students with disciplinary backgrounds outside of the humanities become truly engaged in learning about art when they can claim a proprietary relation to it. The November round of gameplay will put this assumption to the test once more, as the students in De Marchi’s course are mostly economics majors. This is a good note to end on, because it allows me to emphasize that Fantasy Collecting not only has the potential to resituate traditional practices of looking and learning among individuals already engaged in the study of art, but that it also has the potential to plant the seed of humanist pursuits among individuals who may not have been otherwise inclined. I can’t resist but bring up another statistic from Jane McGonigal’s book here: A 2008 study showed that after a group of 7,000 subjects played games that simulated the playing of musical instruments, 67 percent of the non-musicians in the group “reported that they had been inspired to pick up a real instrument.”[3] Fantasy Collecting, similarly, aims to make art lovers out of individuals who may not have otherwise taken a substantive interest. It is a recurring challenge for humanists engaged in the study of visual culture to leverage new developments in digital media as meaningful platforms for innovative methods of research and teaching. Fantasy Collecting taps into the power of games to promote learning and everyday engagement with art in a digital context, thus creating unprecedented pathways for scholarship and pedagogy in the arts that will attract new constituencies and transcend traditional disciplinary boundaries.


[1] Jane McGonigal, Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World (New York, N.Y.: The Penguin Press, 2011), p. 3.

[2] Gabe Zichermann and Christopher Cunningham, Gamification by Design: Implementing Game Mechanics in Web and Mobile Apps, 1st edn (O’Reilly Media, 2011), p. 7.

[3] McGonigal, p. 75.

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1 Response to “Fantasy Collecting: A Game for Art Education and Market Simulation”


  1. 1 Parme Giuntini October 18, 2012 at 9:09 am

    What a great strategy! I got a bit lost in some of the technical data but I can already see ways to apply this to my own class. We so often forget that student buy in increases their willingness to learn and research and this game approach sounds engaging. Plus, I think that the competitive aspect is important…adds that real world application.


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