Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Gaming the Talkback Experience with the Signtific What If? Machine


Jane McGonigal and the folks from IFTF have released a new future-casting game/collaborative experience called Signtific Lab. Unlike Superstruct, which employed a very open-ended collaborative framework to invite people to imagine their circumstances in 2019 relative to several provocative scenarios, Signtific is a more focused, tight experience, both in content and format. In other words, it's way better. This is one of the clearest, most physically translatable me-to-we platforms I have experienced. It's fun, I learn something, I'm challenged to contribute something meaningful, and I connect with other users. SigntificLab in its second iteration, and you can play live from now until March 5 (or again from March 9-12).

I like suppositional "what if?" questions because I believe they invite anyone to creatively respond, unlike "what is?" questions, which imply a correct answer. The Signtific platform is a kind of "what if?" machine that could be adapted to any potential scenario (and I believe that's what they plan to do in the months ahead). And while it's fun as an online experience, I see the potential for Signtific to be repurposed in physical space as a dynamic platform for capturing diverse visitor opinions on a variety of "what if?" topics. In other words, a new kind of talkback board or participatory educational program.

Here's how Signtific works (their rules here):
  1. The organizing institution presents a three-minute video exploring a "what if?" question. In the current case, the question is: "What will you do when space is as cheap and accessible as the Web is today?" In other words, what if anyone could launch a satellite into space for $100?
  2. Players are invited to play one of two kinds of cards based on the scenario: "positive imagination" cards or "dark imagination" cards. A card includes 140 characters of text either envisioning a positive or negative outcome of the suppositional scenario.
  3. On any given "positive" or "dark" imagination card, players can play four different kinds of follow-up cards: momentum, antagonism, adaptation, or investigation, to add additional ideas, disagreements, other uses, or questions to the original imagination card.
  4. Players get points for playing cards as well as for starting chain reaction of dialogue via follow-up cards. There is a simple leaderboard and each player's cards are aggregated on a personal dashboard. The organizers also curate some of the most interesting cards and offer rewards for "outlier" ideas that are improbable but fascinating.
The result is a network diagram of cards, a threaded dialogue that takes place across many nodes. On the web, these are shown via long lists of positive and dark cards, some of which have trees of follow-up cards. The visual interface is not perfect--but imagine the physical analog. A big board, with the "What if" question across the top and six different colors of cards. Red for positive. Blue for dark. Pink for momentum. Green for antagonism. Purple for adaptation. White for investigation. You get the idea. There would be lots of red and blue cards, some of which would have other colored cards clustered around them.

The thing that excites me about this is not the opportunity to use all the weird-colored cardstock hanging around the supply cabinets of most museums. What excites me is that Signtific provides a very deliberate framework that prioritizes collaborative thinking and dialogue. If Signtific just asked the "What if?" question and allowed open response, it would not be as good. If they just had positive and dark cards, it would not be as good. What's GOOD about Signtific is that it encourages people to reflect on others' submissions and react to them in a series of intentional ways. In museums, we are often struggling to find deeper ways to encourage people to engage with each others' opinions and to learn collaboratively and relationally.

The most important aspect of designing a successful participatory platform is to intentionally, deliberately, and clearly DESIGN the platform. Signtific is not an open mushy conversation about the future. It's a structured set of specific interactions that are guided by clear values like interpersonal learning and seeing multiple perspectives on an idea. The scoring system doesn't just value output; it values quality, dialogue, and uniquenss. The brevity of each card (140 characters) keeps the content tight and makes it easily repurposed to other platforms (like Twitter). I also love that they are opening the site in short iterative stints so that they can continue adapting the platform as they learn how people are using it.

I look forward to seeing where it goes, and where museums might take it as the basis for a talkback board or a programmatic live event. Maybe they'll open source the platform at some point so that anyone could use the system to play out their own what ifs.

I encourage you to check it out, submit a card, and share your comments here. What if we created suppositional interpersonal engagement platforms (what if? machines) for informal learning environments? What positive and dark outcomes could you imagine?

2 comments, add yours!:

Suzanne said...

Like you, I found the design and constraints in Signtific ideal for structured brainstorming. I would love to adopt/adapt the structures for use on the floor and elsewhere. The process is so iterative I could see impressively lengthy trees and chains of ideas being developed, snaking their way across the floor.

The history of technology is full of what-ifs and our interpretation often stresses the non-inevitability of certain technologies becoming adopted (the battle over AC/DC current, for instance), and I think the Signtific structure would be a good fit for thinking about ideas of tech and progress.

For more context, here's Nikki's response to the game and Nathan's account of designing the game.

Unknown said...

Thanks for pointing this out! Great blog entry - at Civinomics we're beginning to understand the importance of the structured process rather than mushy feedback - its great to draw from what you have learned in the museum space already.