AMNH’s Wondrous ‘Creatures of Light’ Exhibition Could Have Used A Game

This week, I was invited to preview the Creatures of Light exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History. The well-researched exhibition, which opens on March 31st, was presaged by a smart and elegant press conference. There we sat, surrounded by the kingly, fossilized dinosaur giants of eons past. Up to the stage stepped Ellen Futter, the renowned museum president; she began a short speech that was perfectly written. Dr. Futter spoke of bioluminescence and fireflies in a way that reminded of the beginning of Capote’s A Tree of Night. Her concise beginning paragraphs were almost literary in tone. Like the opening of the eponymous story in Capote’s short tome, I could immediately see what she was talking about as if a movie were playing before me frame by frame.

Michael Novecek, the museum’s provost of science, was equally articulate as he spoke of bioluminescence in history, dating as far back as Aristotle. Aristotle named 180 species, including a bioluminescent organism as early as 350 B.C. I often enjoy speeches by our finest videogame developers. At that moment, though, I wished their speeches had the rich context and historical perspective of Futter’s and Novacek’s short, sweet remarks.

Journalists then moved to the exhibit itself. As if in a science-laded haunted forest, pitch black darkness was illuminated by a giant bioluminescent mushroom model. A few crooked steps later and there was a cave you could step inside of. There, the glowworms from the Waitomo Cave in New Zealand held court. They lure prey from what look to be long, lighted fishing lines. There was an homage to the dinoflagellettes from the lagoons in Vieques, Puerto Rico. When you go in the water and move into them, they light up. At the exhibition, you could make a dinoflagellettes follow you and light up as you walked through virtual water. Haunting music from an Emmy award winning composer filled the room. A short movie featuring a deep ocean Loosejaw Dragonfish looped over and over again. IPads were placed at many of the kiosks, adding interactivity and knowledge to the mix.

It reminded me that videogame level designers have been adding bioluminescent themes to their games for a very long time. I’ve certainly seen bioluminescence in Halo and Rayman games. Most recently, the new Xenoblade Chronicles features an area called Satorl Marsh, which is full of the kind of naturally glowing beauty which makes the museum’s show so compellingly resonant.

Every kind of media was represented at the museum – except for one.

The thoughtful exhibit could have benefited from a small game that showed bioluminescence in action. Something casual along the lines of one or two levels that mimicked Angry Birds – but with a bioluminescence theme – would have gone a long way to immerse the exhibit-goer in the sheer beauty of the phenomenon. Or the museum could have designed something like FlOw with a Loosejaw trying to attract and eat a variety of bioluminescent shrimps. What I’m saying is that a few levels that riffed on any the important, popular casual games of the last few years wouldn’t have been expensive to make. And they would have been as memorable – or perhaps more memorable – as any of the awe-inspiring displays in Creatures of Light.

-Harold Goldberg

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