I visited the Exploratorium a few weeks ago and saw their new exhibition Listen: Making Sense of Sound. It's summer; the museum and the exhibition were hopping. But there was one interactive in Listen that was clearly the rock star among amateurs. Over four hours, there was a steady queue of folks waiting to use it, and we didn't even get a chance to enter until the staff had started tolling the closing bell.
The hot exhibit in question is an interactive in which you play a simple game. You walk as quietly as possible across a tray of stones, towards a small screen that records your increasing "noise score." The louder you are, the higher the score.
That's it. No fancy materials or phenomena. Just a simple feedback mechanism that turns casual play into a game.
People were waiting in line to play, burning their eyes into the rising score as they stepped tentatively over the stones. Some people played to win; others played to get as high and crazy a score as possible. People waited, played, and then jumped back in line again.
Would this exhibit be as popular if there wasn't a score mechanic? Would it be more popular if your score was saved, or if the top five quiet walkers of the day were displayed? What's the balance that makes for successful integration of game mechanics into an exhibit?
I think this exhibit hits the sweet spot by emulating the simplest of casual games. Exhibits, like casual games, strive for a neglible learning phase to precede user action. No one reads the full instruction book for a board game; no one reads the full label for an exhibit. Likewise, a reliance on registration or setup turns off potential player/users who just want to jump in and have a good time. This exhibit literally only requires you to take the first step to get started. The time it takes to engage (about 15 sec to walk across the stones) is short, so replay is an attractive option. Plus, the fact that you wait in line to play creates a natural voyeuristic preparation phase in which you watch others play and plan your own strategy.
Finally, this exhibit exploits the most powerful of game mechanics: personal feedback. My highly unscientific observation is that this exhibit is much more popular than a similar scoring exhibit in which you experiment with materials to make a little car that races down a track. It's more fun to see how good YOU are than how good your invention is. And in the case of the quiet walk, the emphasis is not on how good you inherently are (as in some "test your reflexes" exhibits) but how good you can be. There's an easily identifiable skill involved, one at which most people think they can improve. And the feedback makes you feel that someone cares whether you will.
There are many exhibits, especially in science museums, that focus on encouraging visitors to develop skills. The more obvious those skills are, the more obvious the potential path to improvement, and the more immediate and simple the interface for feedback, the more likely a visitor is to keep trying. Which means getting in line. Buying a ticket. Coming back again. And isn't that the feedback we're looking for?