Anyone who loves games has had this experience. Staying up until 3am to jump over that last pool of digitized lava. Reading the rules again after each person's roll of the die. Clutching the crossword puzzle through layovers and lost luggage in the desperate hope that the Canadian word for "wadi" will come to you.
Frustration is a reality of gaming. Overcoming frustration is part of the challenge of figuring out what to do and how to succeed. There's an expectation of a learning curve followed by reward, and most people approach games ready and willing to pay the startup costs to learn a new game. Sure, there are some poorly designed games, like novels with too many characters, that are just too convoluted to possibly be worth the pain. But in museums, the exception is often the rule. I rarely see people enjoying the "figure it out" part of the challenge. Instead, I see visitors walking away from interactives. Heck, I'm one of those visitors; there are many interactives in museums (especially computer-based ones) that I drop in frustration.
What makes frustration okay for players in the game world, but not okay for visitors in the museum interactive world?
Games are supposed to be fun; museum interactives are supposed to be... educational? When you start playing a frustrating game, you know in the back of your head that it's (hopefully) going to be fun once you get the hang of it. There's no such certain expectation in museums. When you start playing with an interactive in a museum, you have to BOTH learn how to play and evaluate whether the experience is fun or not. Granted, not every interactive need be fun, but without a clear understanding of what the user reward will be, the incentive to stick it out diminishes.
Games often are more flexible than museum interactives. When you are learning a board game, you can go at your own pace, taking breaks for even days at a time to maximize the opportunity to play when you want to play. With video/computer games, there are often opportunities to save your game, start over at will, or skip around in the game environment. But many interactives (and I'm definitely guilty of this design-wise) are fixed-time experiences. You hit GO, and you start playing at the game's pace, not your own. You can't rewind or skip over a boring part. This makes frustrating parts worse, because you can't slow down to really understand and overcome them. Plus, often the reward doesn't come (or isn't apparent) until minutes into the experience, at which point visitors may already have given up. All of these inflexibilities make it clear to the user that they are not driving the game--the game is driving them.
Even when the reward is hard to attain, game mechanisms make it fun just to play. Remember Mousetrap? It was painstaking to set up, the pieces constantly got lost or broken, but it was a really, really fun game. The reward (trapping the mouse) was not nearly as big a deal as the fun of watching parts of the Rube Goldberg machine go all over the board. There are other games that are frustrating but the failure mode is funny (i.e. killing lemmings). But in museums, either the mechanics are confusing (how DO I get the ball in the air?) or there's no acknowledgement of unsuccessful attempts.
There's persistence in numbers. When you play a game alone, you have to be motivated by the game mechanics and the rewards available to overcome frustration. But when you're playing with other people, the frustration of figuring out what to do often becomes a fun social adventure. Have you ever played bridge? I cannot imagine that any sane person would choose to learn to play bridge if it were a one-person game. But when learning and playing are perceived as potential bonding experiences, people rise to the challenge. In museums, I find that I am far more likely to stick with an interactive--totally independent of its inherent value--if I'm using it with someone else. If it's great, we have fun using it together and are more likely to experiment. If it's lame, we make fun of it. Either way, I have a good experience because of the social context. Whenever possible, I think designers should rely more on multi-person design, using the encouragement of others to push visitors to battle through to the reward.
There's a blacksmith's puzzle on my desk, a classic, where you have to get a metal ring through two loops of rope. I have fiddled with and stared at the darn thing for months, and have never solved it. Why do I keep trying? Because someday, I'll solve it, and the reward will be ecstasy. Until then, I get to keep pushing and pulling, testing things out, having fun just playing the game.