Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Challenges, Rules, and Epic Wins: Using Game Design to Build Visitor Loyalty

Think of the last time you overcame a huge obstacle. When you mastered arcane rules to achieve your goal. When you felt that sense of "fiero!"--an epic, fist-pumping win.

Was it while playing a game?

Last week, as part of my museum's year-long Loyalty Lab project, we hosted a workshop for Bay Area museum professionals with special guests Ian Kizu-Blair and Sam Lavigne of the game design firm Situate. Ian and Sam design real-world games that encourage people to engage in ordinary environments in extraordinary ways. They are the geniuses behind SF0, Ghosts of a Chance, and Journey to the End of the Night--games that encourage people to see their city or a museum in a new way through a series of unusual rules and challenges.

I've been interested in applying game design concepts to museums for a long time (there are over sixty posts on this blog on the topic). While the phrase "gamification" has been overexposed and can lead to inane design choices, the underlying elements that make games powerful--narrative, a sense of purpose, opportunity to attain mastery--are universal. Particularly when it comes to a project like Loyalty Lab, whose goal is to encourage repeat and meaningful participation, game design techniques can help visitors feel a sense of measurable purpose and mastery as they deepen their engagement with the museum.

Ian and Sam asked us to design three seemingly-simple things: a challenge to overcome, rules to master, and a win condition to celebrate. I encourage any team to try this. It's not easy. Here's what we learned from each of these activities.

A Challenge to Overcome

Every game has a central challenge or mission. Save the princess. Get four of a kind. Capture the flag. How could we design a simple, understandable challenge that visitors could accomplish in the course of a series of visits to the museum?

We've actually been experimenting quite a lot with this here at the MAH with a simple project called the Five Friday card. At the end of October, we started handing visitors business cards with all the Fridays through the end of 2012 listed on it. The "Five Friday Challenge" was simple: come on five Fridays before the end of the year, get your card punched, and earn a museum membership in 2013. Our goal was to help people see the museum as a Friday night habit. This experiment was surprisingly successful; despite the busy holiday season, we had 18 people complete the challenge (out of 500 cards distributed). The challenge was simple, understandable, and for the right person, pretty fun.

This is functionally another form of the scavenger hunt, where the goal is checkins over time instead of checkins at discrete locations. At their best, these kinds of challenges encourage people to explore the venue and feel comfortable coming back again and again. At their worst, it's just about getting the stamp and not about having the experience.

Based on the Loyalty Lab workshop, we're now talking about experimenting with a "bring a friend" challenge. We find that word of mouth is the most powerful way that people come to the museum, but once people become regulars, they may not be in the mindset of bringing others with them. We have families who are incredibly loyal to our programs, but they think of the museum as their family thing. Maybe a challenge that focuses on sharing that experience could give a nudge in a more social direction.

The hardest part of this element was thinking of challenges or missions that we felt were meaningful AND simple to convey. Abstract goals around learning or engagement don't boil down well to a short phrase. But it's worth realizing that for most visitors, they have some kind of simple goal in mind when they visit, whether it's "get inspired" or "survive until lunch." If we can offer understandable alternative goals that they haven't considered, we might be able to powerfully reframe the experience.

Rules to Follow

Ian and Sam noted that most games are based on the fact that there are rules that serve as obstacles to achieving the goal at hand. They asked us to devise rules that would make it "extra-challenging" to experience the museum.

This was met with confusion and some resistance. We're all working so hard to reduce barriers to engagement, to make the museum experience less challenging, not more. There are secret rules everywhere in a museum that challenge people as they navigate our spaces.

But when we started reframing this in terms of idiosyncratic rituals, we got further. For example, at our museum, we've been giving out free small cups of hot chocolate at winter events in a little booth made from a couch box. We offer a variety of marshmallow types, and the "price" for different types of marshmallows is paid in high fives (see photo). This silly rule--pay for hot chocolate with high fives--creates a kind of ritual that is representative of our overall approach to whimsical engagement at family programs.

And I don't want to write off rules entirely. Recently, I was talking with a colleague about the American Repertory Theater's Donkey Show, a play that breaks a lot of conventional rules of theater in its club-style venue, vibe, and marketing. Artistic Director Diane Paulus has spoken powerfully about her desire to transform Oberon, the Donkey Show's venue, into an atypical theater space by stripping away all A.R.T. branding, blacking out the windows, and generally making it feel like an underground venue. Hearing her speak about this, I was torn. I was drawn to Diane's vision--who doesn't love the magic of discovery?--while at the same time struggling with the extent to which this approach creates a kind of exclusivity that is just as limiting as the "rules" of a normal theater.

Our rules define us. Whether your rules are about the things people can't do in your space or how they have to pay for things, it changes the overall feel and engagement with the institution. For me, the most powerful outcome of this exercise was how it got me thinking about our overt and covert rules, and how we might wholly "own" them to sculpt desired experiences.

If you are interested in rules, please check out this interview with Nikki Pugh about the Ministry of Rules, a really wonderful project in which children rewrote the rules for a museum.

Celebrating the Win

Most games have a big finish. Whether it's the screen that pops up with pixelated fireworks or your own personal board game victory dance, games have clear endings, clear winners, and a bevy of special effects to celebrate.

How can we create celebratory endings to visitors' experiences in museums? This challenge elicited the most creative responses in our workshop, from take-home gifts to shared rituals. One of my favorite examples of a museum that does this beautifully is the Indianapolis Children's Museum, where they end each day with a parade that goes from their top floor to the bottom, collecting families along the way. Ending the experience can be particularly painful for children, who may have to be dragged from the museum sobbing. In Indianapolis, a shared song, some flags to wave, and a collective snowball of people rolling down to the exit replaces the tears with a celebratory event.


I'd love to hear what thoughts this brings up at your institution, and how you might use understandable challenges, tricky rules, or celebratory win conditions to build deeper relationships with your visitors and members. I know it's a challenge in itself to write a blog comment. You have to find something to say, battle the complicated comment system, and suffer an abstract payoff. But think of it as a game. Every comment that comes in earns you a celebratory cheer from Santa Cruz and all the readers around the world who benefit from your ideas. That's worth trying to win, right?

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