Monday, October 06, 2008

What Cross-Platform Gaming is Doing for Books... and Can Do for Museums

A few weeks ago, I learned about Scholastic Books' new series, The 39 Clues, which ties together a ten-book mystery with an online gaming environment. I've long been interested in the power of cross-platform experiences, so I was excited to see today's New York Times article about the evolving relationship between books and video games. But the Times missed the boat. Their article focuses on an "either-or" relationships, tackling the question of whether reading or gaming is more conducive to learning. It's an interesting discussion, but it's not what makes The 39 Clues and other projects like it worth studying. The point of these endeavors is that video games and books provide different kinds of experiences, and by putting them together, audiences can experience more varied, layered overall content.

Consider the problem that Scholastic is trying to solve with The 39 Clues. They have paid for ten books written by ten different authors, and the books are being released every few months over the next two years. How can Scholastic keep readers interested enough between releases to bring them back for each subsequent episode?

Scholastic realizes that their books can't do everything. Reading a book can be an intense and powerful experience, but it is a punctuated moment in time. Few people obsessively reread the same book over and over, especially if the "next" book is coming in only 4 months. Is the intense experience of one book enough to hook readers to that author or series? And if the author is changing each time, how do you build allegiance to the content rather than the writer?

This problem is analagous to the repeat visit problem for museums. Museum visits, like book reading, can be an intense and wonderful experience. But is one museum visit enough to compel a second visit? If exhibits are organized by different staff members on different topics at different times, how do you build allegiance to the museum rather than a specific exhibit? How do you encourage visitors to have a sense of pervasive experience with the museum?

Most museums try to solve this by convincing visitors that there is more to do at the museum--that the deeper, layered experience can happen within the galleries. But that strategy requires audiences to deepen their engagement with the museum by visiting, which is necessarily a time-limited, location-specific experience. Time-limited, location-specific experiences don't lend themselves easily to pervasive relationships.

Scholastic realized that. They knew there was a desire among some readers to engage more deeply and continuously with characters and stories, and that there was an opportunity to draw some lukewarm readers into fandom with other avenues into and around the books' content. Rather than trying to solve this problem by releasing longer books (for the obsessed) or more books (for the skeptical), they went to another medium: online gaming. Scholastic realized that they were already good at achieving a primary goal: publishing great books for readers. To achieve new goals--deepening the experience for obsessives and bringing new readers into their empire--they turned to another medium that was better at achieving those desired user effects.

Here's a breakdown of how The 39 Clues cross-platform experience works. There are 39 clues to find. Each book unlocks a clue. Each book also comes with 6 game cards that help you find clues. These two elements guarantee that people will not only read but purchase books (to get the cards). While the books follow a team of orphaned siblings who hunt for clues, the online game reveals that you the player are also related to them (surprise!) and can hunt alongside them. There are online puzzles to solve and new book-related content to absorb. As a reader, you consume the fictitious experiences of others. As a player, you are the main event. And both experiences enhance each other.

There are also some creepy advertising components of The 39 Clues. They are offering cash prizes for participation, which seems both inappropriate and non-conducive to the creation of real online community. And the whole approach--manufacturing a series featuring a range of authors--is not exactly an entrance to literary heights.

But the approach is valuable. It takes humility to acknowledge that museum visits can't--in most cases--accommodate every kind of relationship museums would like to have with visitors. There are content-related experiences and preferences that would be better served in alternate environments. Art museums have always created catalogues to accompany exhibitions, which are one cross-platform way for obsessives to deepen their relationships with content. But what about the grazers, the visitors who come once but never make it back to that time- and location-specific experience of visitation? What other engagement platforms could connect those individual museum experiences into a more continuous, growing relationship?

The Web is certainly one of these platforms. Too many museums have an overly structured concept of the online pre- and post-visit experience that limit the opportunities for pervasive engagement. Rather than thinking of extending one museum visit with a pre- and post-visit, we should be thinking about linking many museum visits with online experiences. Scholastic has the audacious attitude that people will want to read all ten books, and The 39 Clues online experience is unapologetically geared toward that long-term investment. Imagine a museum game that requires visitors to visit six times in a year to connect with six different exhibits that punctuate a more open-ended online narrative. Forget "build the exhibit and they will come". This is "build the narrative and they will return".

These narratives need not be crass advertising grabs; they can become opportunities for visitors to educate themselves in a range of ways about museum-related content. Because despite what the New York Times may say, it's not an OR situation. All of the media experiences in our lives--of objects, of books, of games, of video--can be ANDs. We just need a good enough story to help people make the connection.

For profiles of other cross-platform experiences, check out these that blend books with treasure hunts, TV shows with online narrative, even labels with objects.

4 comments, add yours!:

craney said...

What a stimulating post. At Questacon we actually do think in terms of contacting students several times during their schooling - both at our Centre in Canberra and in their school, via our various travelling national outreach programs. But there's no narrative: we don't thread those visits together.

It would be so cool to have an online "account" where each of those students could deposit their experiences. Over time they'd see an accumulation of exhibitions and shows, be involved in competitions and workshops. We could top up their account with more content, say videos or science news: the museum equivalent of compound interest.

Nina Simon said...

Yes! My dream is a museum that creates online accounts for members in which you "level up" each time you visit the physical museum. You can play a bit online at home, and you are functionally accumulating more reasons to return to the museum itself. Then, you are excited to get back home from the museum and see which parts of the online experience have been unlocked by your onsite visit...

Paul Orselli said...

Hi Nina,

I think your enthusiasm for the potential of online engagement tools is getting the better of you in this particular instance.

As part of a family with 4 kids that REALLY makes use of our great local library, I'd say that this latest approach by Scholastic seems like "old wine in new (cyber) bottles."

There is a long history of book series that offer clues for prizes -- in the main, however, such books are usually execrable -- the only reason to pick them up is the same reason people get excited by buying lottery tickets. (Their shelf life is about the same as used lottery tickets after the prizes have been given out as well.)

I love the idea of building continuing layers of engagement with readers or museum visitors, I'm just afraid that "The 39 Clues" smacks of the same type of base-level hucksterism found in professional wrestling, WebKinz, or some museum traveling exhibitions. Namely, a flashy surface-level type of engagement that rewards/encourages acquisitive consumerism.

Enthusiasts of "finished" series like "Harry Potter" or "Narnia" or more recently "Dripping Fang" or "Artemis Fowle" still look for, find, and create ways to meaningfully reengage with these "classics" without becoming entangled in as heavy-handed a commercial filter as that being employed by 39 Clues.

Just like the publishing industry, the museum biz should find a way to keep reintroducing visitors to their "classics" (permanent collections, commissioned exhibits, etc.) as well as promoting their new "best sellers."

Nina Simon said...

Paul,
Point taken--and as a reader, I admit that this has CRAP written all over it.

But the reason I'm interested has to do with the concept of using different media for different kinds of engagement. Museum visits are punctuation marks in long paragraphs of experience. How do we fill in the words in-between--with online or otherwise?