Thursday, April 26, 2007

Game Friday: Games for Lurkers

fresh+new has had a couple great posts recently about the primacy of lurkers on web 2.0 sites. Seb Chan ended one with this comment:
One user contribution should spark the interest of one thousand lurkers, rather than requiring one thousand contributions from other users.
In the spirit of this sentiment, this week we look at games for lurkers, that is, games people watch. Games people watch? Isn’t the point to play games? Why would I want to watch you pass Go? I’d guess, in this country at least, more people watch games than play them. The majority of people who participate in football, golf and poker do it through their TVs, not on the field/table/course. The audience for games is gigantic, and sports fans are some of the most obsessed, energized, and involved lurkers on the planet. In museums, we always assume that everyone wants to get their hands dirty and “do it.” But are there ways to create games in museums that are as exciting to watch as they are to play? What distinguishes games people watch from those they play?

People watch games that have high stakes. Whether it’s soccer or Survivor, games on TV are more intense than games at home. What makes them more intense? It can be the expertise of the players (sports), the shame of failure (reality games), or the extremity of success (game shows).

I was in a bar recently and found myself captivated by “Deal or No Deal,” a show that features the simplest game in the world: a contestant opens suitcases with dollar amounts (up to $1M) behind them. She decides whether to stop or continue. That’s it! That’s the whole game! But the combination of the pressure on the contestant, the personality of the host, and the dollars involved make it an enthralling half hour.

In museums, we’re not going to hand out thousands of dollars or vote people off the island. And the higher the stakes, the fewer qualified contestants exist (qualified either in expertise or fearlessness). But most game-like interactives in museums have NO stakes. I think there could be ways to humorously (and publicly) share the outcome of these activities with others. Even just putting the players in a position where an audience is possible ups the stakes of the game and makes for a more exciting experience for all involved.

People watch games when they can emotionally connect to the players.
At first, I thought that people mostly want to watch experts play games. Watching professional sports games is primarily about enjoying the participants’ level of mastery, watching experts play the game “as it should be played.” No one turns out to watch little league for love of the game; they do it for love of their (non-expert) kids.

But you don’t need experts to put on a great show. People still obsess about those little league games. And game shows and reality TV are all about the enjoyment found in watching non-experts compete. Even when the contestants are experts in another way, they are made fools of on Dancing with the Stars, Not My Job, etc.
The key isn’t the expertise of the players; it’s the potential for us to feel emotionally connected to them. That’s why people root for the home team, obsess over player’s personalities, and swell with pride over our kids’ on-base hits.

How can museums tap into this cult of personality and emotional connection? We can start with pre-existing connections among visitors, developing interactives and games in which cheering and support for the player are encouraged. And in situations where the visitors are watching others “play”—whether in debate, museum theater, or otherwise—we can play up the character of the players. Most museum “players” are presented in a pretty objective light. I wouldn’t mind seeing a little more WWE-style energy and playfulness in the characterization of Sam the Energy Saving Squirrel and his compatriots.

People watch games that are made to be watched. This may sound obvious, but there are specific tricks that make games “watchable.” Poker is a great example. It’s usually an intimate game, and on the casino floor it would be extremely bizarre—not to mention dangerous to one’s personal health—to stalk around the players, scrutinizing their cards and facial expressions. But televised poker lets you do just that, and get inside a highly psychological game.

One of the best museum applications of this concept is quite a simple one. In the Connections exhibit at the New York Hall of Science, there’s an arm wrestling interactive in which you can arm wrestle with someone at another museum via a network and robotic sensing arms. You grab the robo-arm, and at the count of three, you face off against the remote person and their own robo-arm. There’s video of the other person so you can watch them struggle as they watch you struggle.

I had a fabulous time watching kids use this interactive. The Hall has two of these kiosks, so for the most part, kids were getting linked up to play against someone just ten feet from them. But watching them struggle and watch each other—both via video and by turning around, was hilarious and exciting. They were putting their all into it, and we were all having fun.

People watch games that acknowledge the lurkers’ presence and importance.
Ask a fan at a soccer game if their cheering “matters” to the game. They may shrug sheepishly, but deep down, we feel like contributors—even if all we are doing is watching someone else play. Professional athletes acknowledge their fans. Game show hosts turn to the audience. I think it’s fascinating that so many reality games are now going beyond acknowledgement to incorporate at-home audiences in voting for players and determining the course of the game itself. The line between player and lurker gets hazy, and everyone gets more into the experience.

People watch games they get to play, too.
There are so many museum interactives that you approach alone and use alone. If you wait to use them, you wait “in the dark”—without much understanding of what the game/activity is that you are waiting for. I love seeing popular interactives that allow for active watching by people who are waiting in line. It’s a good time to formulate strategies and get psyched up for your “at bat.”

This showcasing of the activity also encourages greater participation. If you approach an apparatus no one is using, you might be uncertain as to how fun or interesting or challenging it will be. But if you get to watch people use it beforehand, you may overcome personal barriers of comfort or readiness and jump in, too. This is what makes social games like charades and truth or dare enjoyable. You watch, you laugh, and then you step up to the plate too.

People watch games that are beautiful and awe-inspiring.
This can be pro scrabble players putting down their bingos, wheelchair basketball, or computers playing chess. Games are about conflict and goal-seeking. Both of these are classic themes that we are drawn to in story and reflect our basic human questions and desires. When we can take real issues in the world and couch them gracefully in the guise of a game, they become understandable, emotional, and deeply compelling. They become something worth watching.

1 comments, add yours!:

Anonymous said...

I will soon graduate with a degree in museum studies from a prestegious university. The program has been interesting, and while I don't regret the time invested, nor the tuition paid, as an African American, I do not see museum employment in my future.

Unfortunately, a look at the staff at mainstream museums shows that they have not been welcoming to African Amereicans. Nearly 50 years ago, in reference to the numbers of African Ameticans employed at mainstram [White] museums, founding director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History,likened the presence of the few of us employed at museums, as being like flies in the buttermilk.
I would love to hear words of optimism, and how museums are changing their attitudes, not only about their audience, but staff.
An anonymous emerging museum profssional