It's May 10, and the AAM (Association of American Museums) annual conference is starting this weekend. So, in honor of the conference (at which I was supposed to-but cannot-speak about games in museums), some discussion about games for conferences.
There's an essential problem with conferences; it's hard to find meaningful ways to connect with new people. The first time I attended a museum conference, I attended as the sole delegate from my institution. I went to sessions and events. I chatted people up in the convention hall. But in almost all situations, I saw gangs of people, eating, talking, having what I perceived to be Deeply Important conversations--and I didn't know how to break into that.
A few years later, I'm still on the fence about how that works. There are articles out there on how to "make the most out of conferences," but if you're not there as a salesperson hawking yourself or your product, how do you get the content you care about? How do you ask someone what really matters, instead of just asking them to pass the cheese platter?
One way to solve the problem, especially for conferences that throw lots of strangers together, is through games. Gamelab, an innovative game design company out of NYC, has created "massively multiplayer games" for the last three GDC (Game Developer Conferences). My favorite of these was Bite Me, a simple game in which players passed along cards like viruses, "biting" new players into the action. Why is that my favorite? It's not as complex or technologically enhanced as their most recent offerings, but it focuses on person-to-person interactions. It doesn't have a fabulous story or even very interesting game play. But it gives people who don't know each other an excuse to start talking about the thing that's most important to them: games.
I've seen this work on a smaller scale at a yearly MLK weekend 3-day event my friends and I have hosted for the past 8 years in Washington. Each year, the guest list gets bigger and more diverse, and in the past couple years, we've tried to address that by hosting a massive game on the first night of the weekend. Two years ago, it was a murder mystery in which all the guests worked in teams to solve the puzzle presented by the hosts. Last year, we had "MLK-ingo"--bingo in which you needed to get people's signatures in boxes who fit certain criteria ("Someone from your hometown," "Someone with a beautiful smile," "Someone who will do a jig with you"). These games have been a huge positive in terms of breaking the ice, and breaking open the tightly knit circles of "already-friends" who tend to congregate at these things.
Because this is the secret I've learned about conferences. All those groups of people chatting? Most of them already know each other, work together, and are DYING for someone new to join in. When you're in a huge crowd, you stick to the people you know, unless you have a reason and motivation--like a game--to seek out someone new.
I'd love to develop museum-focused games for AAM, ASTC, and other museum conferences. I could imagine games that encourage people to share their favorite exhibitions, to put together puzzles that map out institutions, to hold versions of Rock, Paper, Scissors with funny designations for Exhibits, Education, Development (then again, who beats development?).
And if there isn't a big game going on at the conference you're attending, come up with your own personal game. Try to meet three people who have your same job. Tell someone about a problem you have and challenge them to get to the answer before the big bad monster eats up your options. Make goals. Give yourself gold stars when you take risks and succeed. Play tag with the people you dream of meeting, and hide and seek from the sketchy ones you wish you never met.
And if you want to help me develop a game for ASTC this year, you can tag me at ninaksimon (at) gmail (dot) com.