What role does “promoting human happiness” play in the mission statements and actions of museums? That’s the question I’m pondering thanks to Jane McGonigal and the Center for the Future of Museums (CFM). Earlier today, the CFM offered a free webcast of Jane McGonigal’s talk on gaming, happiness, and museums. You can now view the video in its entirety as well as the chatlog from the webcast. UPDATE: You must register an account with AAM to view the video and chatlog.
I'm a huge fan of Jane's and have been writing about her work since the early days of this blog, so I was thrilled to learn that the CFM was bringing in Jane to speak live and then opening up the lecture to a wider audience of about 300 online. We had a very active chat-based discussion during and after the webcast, and the chatlog will be available at the CFM site soon.
Jane’s main happiness argument has three points:
- Happiness research shows that four things make people happy: having satisfying work to do, the experience of being good at something, time spent with people you like, and the chance to be a part of something bigger.
- Games are happiness engines that are designed to support these four things. They provide clear instructions and rules for how to succeed, better feedback on how well you are doing, better community with which to experience the game, and induce more intense emotions of personal pride and accomplishment (fiero!).
- Non-game social platforms like museums should use game design techniques to make these institutions more successful at supporting user happiness.
Many game designers talk about how game mechanics can be applied to functional activities and “boring” topics, but Jane is unique in her argument that game structures don’t just make real life more fun, they help increase human happiness. One of the things that makes Jane’s work so popular and appealing is that her argument can be applied to many industries. Many industries have adopted “serious games” for use in training, but Jane is talking about pervasive gaming, gaming that is integrated into “real” life and work. A recycling bin that cheers for you when you flatten your cans. A workplace in which the path to career advancement is clearly laid out in the rules that come with the job. It’s easy to imagine ways that game structures could make life seem less capricious, more fair, more responsive, and more controllable.
However, I'm wary of the limitations of game structures to support human happiness. Games provide a powerful extrinsic motivation and reward structure via points, levels, flashing lights, slain dragons, etc. For people who receive poor extrinsic feedback in their lives--students who are told they are dumb, workers in unstimulating jobs, people who feel shy and lonely--games may provide an alternative motivational structure that supports their growth and happiness. But the motivation is still external. There are few games that teach you to "feel rewarded within" or appreciate the ways that you are part of something greater, and so I wonder whether games become an assistive technology, a happiness engine, upon which people become too reliant.
For example, consider voting. Voting is a real-life activity that suffers from poor extrinsic structure. People who don't vote (and there are lots of them) don't see the benefit of doing so, and perhaps a game structure could create an artificial benefit, like "citizen points," that would make voting feel more valuable. But would it translate to the citizen/player actually feeling that voting IS valuable? That their voice DOES matter? If not, the game becomes a crutch, a patch on a system that exacerbates our dependence on extrinsic motivation.
Early in Jane's talk, she showed statistics from a "happiness index" of countries that are most and least happy. The people in countries that are most happy--mostly small, incredibly poor countries in Central and South America--may not be as reliant on external indicators, like money and status, to feel valued, connected, and important to their communities. As Elsa Bailey asked in the chat: "Don't cultural attitudes toward the definitions/descriptions of happiness come into play here? Might relate to how to interpret the global happiness findings. Expectations may affect how people judge their ''happiness rating.'"
I'm not suggesting that games don't induce happiness, or that game mechanics are not powerful design agents of change. I think there are LOTS of ways in a society to use game structures to rewire our values and feelings of self-worth. I see games and game design methods as underutilized, exciting systems that museums should add to our experience design toolbox. But I don't believe that games are the only structures we should consider as we try to design experiences to promote feelings of self-worth, connections to community, and value. We need to make sure that we are also using design mechanisms that promote introspection, personal discovery, and intrinsically motivated exploration. There may be ways to marry these; for example, the Exploratorium has created an oxymoronic game called Be Here Now in which you see how long you can meditate on nothingness without your mind wandering.
This long reflection on external motivation relates directly to the core mission of museums. I think one reason museum professionals struggle with gaming is that many see it as a crass external substitute for the elegant, intrinsic rewards of museum-going. But for people who don't perceive those rewards (and there are many), games may offer a powerful connection point to help uninitiated visitors experience the kind of happiness, wonder, and discovery possible in museums.
And this leads to the broader question: are museums fundamentally in the business of promoting human happiness? I think many of us would like to be. As Mary Case put it in the discussion: "The point is that museums can provide satisfying work, help people be good at something, help them spend time with people they like, and be a part of something bigger. If we can do that (some of which we already do), we will all live happily ever after..." But others weren't so sure. Matthew Jenkins commented: "Still don't grasp why is creating sustainable world happiness the primary mission of a museum? What about learning?"
If we can use game design techniques to help people feel happier exploring collections, discovering exhibits, and messing with interactives, then we will help them learn. Happiness is an "enabling" emotion that makes people more open to new or uncomfortable experiences, and games may be a happiness-delivery system that enables people to be more energized and curious about museums.
And we have an enormous and unique opportunity to enable happiness. I think the point is not that museums should be happiness engines but that we can be. Museums are already good at connecting people to friends and letting them be part of something greater--we just have to work on the meaningful work and feedback part. And that's very doable. Unlike many other designed experiences, museum consumers have a great deal of agency in their visits. It is much easier to imagine museum-goers as "players" than to imagine book-readers or movie-goers as players. Museums are flexible, open spaces that support visitors creating their own connections with content. And one of the ways we should do so is via games and game mechanics.
I'll be thinking more about this and hope to play further with the idea of what a museum-specific "happiness engine" might look like. In the meantime, I'm curious to hear your thoughts. I also want to point out that you can find a LOT of game-related posts on this blog by clicking "game" in the tag cloud on the sidebar, or by clicking this link. Happy playing!