Friday, June 05, 2009

Think Like a Game Designer

I've been designing game-like experiences with museums for a long time. But this week, I participated in a game design workshop with Ken Eklund that totally changed my perspective. My starting point is interactive exhibit design; Ken's is game design. Getting a peek into how he approaches his work induced three aha moments related to prototyping, visitor entrypoints, and designing for maximum impact.

AHA #1: If you abstract far enough, you can prototype interpersonal interactions very quickly.

Ken led us through an activity in which we crowded around a table and watched six people play a quick card game called Pit. As they played, we talked openly about how the game was progressing. We observed and played many rounds of Pit, swapping in and out of the game seats. We talked about the strategies different players were using and tried to determine the most effective winning strategy based on our limited data. Finally, we developed several variations and played rounds with our own new rules.

This is, of course, a form of rapid prototyping. I've spent many hours watching people scratch their heads and bang on interactive prototypes. What stuck out about this experience was putting the focus on the interpersonal gameplay and interactions rather than the content experience. We didn't watch to see if people could "figure it out" or "get the answer." Instead, we watched to see how people pursued different strategies and how comfortable they were with different types of interaction.

We could also iterate incredibly quickly. Pit is a highly abstracted card game meant to simulate commodities trading. Because the infrastructure is so simple (just a pack of cards) and a round lasts only a few minutes, it was easy to change the rules on the fly. I've always believed in prototyping at the simplest level possible, but when it comes to group dynamics we often argue that without a full-size model or the actual space, it's hard to see how people will really interrelate. Pit proved to me that this isn't true. With a table, some chairs, and a set of cards, we were able to make some serious insights about how to affect the speed, energy, cognitive requirements, and overall nature of the game.

AHA #2: Visitors have strategies.

While watching Pit, we openly talked about strategic approaches to the game. David's strategy was to make as many trades as possible. Irina's strategy involved hoarding cards and only making high-value trades. In the context of a game, it's obvious that individuals play with some kind of strategy. Some people optimize their strategies to win, others to have a good time or explore a new aspect of the game.

We rarely talk about this when we design museum exhibits. We expect that visitors will intuit our intended strategy and play accordingly. This doesn't make sense. Games are more interesting when there is more than one viable strategy; that's why we graduate from Candyland to chess. Rather than designing a prescribed "correct" path through an interactive exhibit, we should be thinking more about the rule sets or platforms we can design that will invite visitors to successfully bring personal strategies and modes of interaction to the experience.

AHA #3: You can design interactions to encourage "playing well," i.e. in accordance with your organizational values.

Supporting multiple strategies doesn't mean you can't affect the way people play. We were amazed to realize that a simple change in the rules could transform a slow, strategic game into a fast-paced shouting match. We could change a game that was about diplomacy into one which rewarded cutthroat backstabbing. When we added rules that were well-designed, they fundamentally changed the way that people played the game and the attributes that made the game fun. When we came up with muddier rules, they just confounded the players about the overall goal. In 45 minutes, we were able to make some sophisticated observations about how to change the rules to reflect a wide variety of underlying values or goals.

Ken made the powerful point that many poorly designed games often have a mismatch between what it takes to play well and what it takes to win. Museum scavenger hunts are a classic example of this; we want people to "play well" by exploring obscure areas of the museum, but instead they focus on winning by zooming all over the place without contemplating the objects they seek. Of course, sometimes people have different opinions about what it means to play well--Scrabble enthusiasts will go to war over whether the playing well is about placing elegant word combinations or memorizing all the five-letter words in the Scrabble dictionary.

Ken challenged us to to design interactions to encourage and reward people for playing well. For example, he created a game for the retreat called "Faces in the Crowd" which was designed to encourage participants to meet each other. It had a very simple structure. Each person was given an "identity card" that featured a mashup of two faces smooshed together (see image at top). Your goal was to identify the half-faces on your card and trade cards with others until you were holding a card that featured half of your face. Once you found your partner (the other person attached to your face), you were supposed to determine what the two of you had in common and then present your completed identity set to the game master.

What did kind of values did the Faces in the Crowd gameplay reinforce? It encouraged you to meet new people and literally put names to faces. It forced you to interact with many people, and to work together to try to successfully make a match. And once you found your partner, you spent time talking about what you might possibly have in common (an interest in pyromania, for example). There were various strategies--hunt for a person on your card, ask and collaborate with others, make yourself obvious and hope others will come to you--but the overall experience was one that supported meeting people, expressing interest in them, and making connections (see fun 30-second video).

What does it mean to play well in your museum? Does it mean seeing lots of stuff? Engaging deeply with a few things? Sharing something with someone else? Taking home a memory? How can you reward people not just for following a set path, but for acting in accordance with your overall institutional values? How will you define and reward "playing well?"

1 comments, add yours!:

Anonymous said...

A really fscinating article that has got me thinking.