Friday, August 31, 2007

Game Friday: Playing in Real-Time

What's more important: convenience or realism? I’m working on a game design project now that involves an interesting experiment: a blend of real-time and on-demand gaming. And I mean experiment, because I don’t have a bias, or even truly, a hypothesis, as to which component will be better, more popular, more compelling.

What do I mean by on-demand and real-time? Real-time gaming is controlled by an external clock. On-demand games start and end when you choose. Of course, most on-demand games are sequential—you move your pawn, I move my rook--and the sequences form an internal real-time aspect to the game. You can’t jump from owning Baltic Avenue to winning Monopoly to debt; you progress through the game as it unfolds. Similarly, in a video game, you are controlled by the time of the game—the time you have until your energy bar goes to zero or all the aliens are killed.

But all of these examples represent time inside the game. All of these games are on-demand, since you decide when to take them off the shelf or switch on the Playstation or abandon the game for dinner. In real-time gaming, on the other hand, you have to be there, ready to play, at the time the game is available. It may be a continuous one-time experience or an episodic one. Whatever it is, it’s in someone else’s control.

On the surface, this seems incredibly limiting. You have to know when the game starts. You have to be available on someone else’s schedule. You have to keep track and not fall behind. Why would you ever want to play (or create) a real-time game? Because...

Real-time games are mass events. There's a reason murder mystery dinners are more fun when they're the real deal than when you take them out of a box. I could write a little scavenger hunt for my friends and we could do it on-demand on a Sunday afternoon at our pleasure. OR we could take part in one of the many all-night or all-weekend puzzle hunts that go on in major cities every year. Similarly, orienteering on your own isn’t as fun as taking part in an adventure race. When there’s a time and a place and an expectation, people have time to get psyched for the game ahead of time. Rarely do I think to myself, “Wow… next week I might get to actually play cribbage!” But I do think, “Wow… next week I might get to play Cruel 2 B Kind.”

This characteristic isn't just good for players who want to be part of something "big," it's also good for game sponsors/creators who are using games as a promotional device. Sponsoring a game that happens real-time captures more media attention than releasing a flash game on your product's website.

Real-time gaming is practical when you want to bring together strangers socially. Of course, sitting down to a game of poker is social. But if you want to play games with people you don’t know, there are two options. There are on-demand games, like chess, that are available in playing environments like Washington Square or Yahoo Games. Or, there are real-time games, like World of Warcraft and other MMOs. You can play WoW alone, but most players end up teaming up with others to form guilds, go on raids, etc. All of those activities need to be coordinated among the players, and the easiest way to do that is via real-time scheduling and play.

When the time pressure is real, the game gets more exciting. If a video game tells you a bomb will go off in 30 minutes unless you pass the level, it energizes you. But that energy is tempered by the fact that you know that a bomb isn’t actually going to go off, that the game won’t totally end if it happens because you can play again. In real-time gaming, that’s not necessarily the case. If you don’t pass a threshold within the allotted time, you may not be able to continue, or the game may be significantly altered. You can’t pause the game or take a break.

Real-time gaming is more realistic.
The external ticking clock serves serious as well as recreational gaming. While some military, fire, and law enforcement simulations do allow time out for discussion and reflection, others require the “players” to move through exercises in real time. They do so not to raise the adrenaline but to create environments more directly related to potential real situations.

Episodic real-time gaming allows for a different kind of casual play. In most on-demand games, the decision to play is binary: either you are playing or not-playing. There aren’t many opportunities to take a break in the middle and let the game continue to flow around you. Episodic or long-term real-time games can function more like TV series: you watch a few episodes, you skip one or two, you get back up to speed and keep moving. Arguably the TV series Lost is a highly successful real-time game in which the viewers/players have the challenge of figuring out what the heck is going on. When real-time games have a long duration (weeks or months), the game designers should be thinking about the ways people can drop in and out (unless they want to restrict the game to the most hardcore players alone).

Ultimately, I’m not sure whether real-time or on-demand gaming is more compelling. On-demand gaming certainly captures a wider audience and requires a lower barrier to entry. And yet, particularly for games with strong narrative, real-time gaming can add complexity that makes the game feel more personal, more real. TV has certainly been successful spinning out stories in real-time, whereas books and movies offer a more on-demand experience. Where do you cast your vote? How do you want to play?

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Where Do We Put It? Fitting the Web Into Museums

Thanks to Kyle Evans, who forwarded me the fascinating, lengthy master’s dissertation .art: Situating Internet Art in the Modern Museum by Karen Verschooren at the MIT Comparative Media Studies program. In it, Karen provides a survey of the evolving relationship of Internet art to art museums. The first 150 pages give a background on Internet art projects in museums, ongoing debates about their value, and Internet art's place in traditional collections. And while there's lots of good stuff in these sections (including an introduction for me to some wild net artists), it's the last chunk that interests me most, where Karen explores the question of how and where Internet art should be exhibited.

Karen separates the exhibition of Internet art into three techniques:
  1. separation (Internet art displayed solely on the web, either through museum portal or links)
  2. sepragation (Internet art displayed in the physical museum, but in its own distinct viewing room/area) (and no this is not a real word)
  3. integration (Internet art alongside the physical collection via computers, kiosks, or more innovative platforms for display and interaction)
These techniques and the related questions about exhibition aren't limited to the display of web-based art. They are applicable to any kind of internet- or network-based experience in the museum, whether that experience draws content from museum visitors, outside data, or the web. Citizen science programs. Networked exhibits that allow you to armwrestle people at other museums. In some cases, the medium is the message, as in globes that display real-time weather data from satellites. But other times, it's not clear where the content belongs.

Let's say you create a magic scoring device that allows visitors in the museum to rate each exhibit on a scale of 1-5. Where do you display those ratings? Alongside the exhibits? At the info desk with the maps? On the website?

How do you decide? Let's examine the case for each of Karen's techniques.

Separation. In her thesis, Karen concludes that relegating Internet art to museum websites is in most cases not sufficient and should be seen as a stepping stone to inclusion in the physical museum. She states that separation means that such art "can be called marginal in the number and broadness of public it attracts and the institution's commitment to the art form it communicates." I was a little surprised at this conclusion; after all, museum websites have arguably a broader, large audience than the physical museums themselves. Then again, many museums still think of their web visitors as second-class citizens, and may be unwilling to put on the floor what they put on the web.

Fear is never a good reason to put things (like ratings or visitor comments) on the website only. Experimentation is better, IF there's an expectation that positive web experiments might bleed onto the floor.

In my mind, the distinction of web-only is useful when:
  • the content provides a personal, repeatable experience. Blogs and social networks fall in this category. Sure, it might be nice to broadcast your blog feed to a screen in the museum somewhere, but the real value is for readers who can visit again and again from the flexibility of their own environment.
  • the website has a distinct enough brand to constitute its own institution. In her thesis, Karen quotes Charlie Gere of the Tate as saying "the website is the sixth Tate site, after Tate Britain, Modern, St Ives, Liverpool, and Tate Store." It's useful that he added the store as one of the Tate "sites." We're already comfortable thinking of museum stores as separate but related entities from their parent museums. Why not think of websites similarly? As web-only becomes a more viable option for all kinds of experiences, the web-only component or site for a museum may similarly grow to adulthood.
  • the content is best-used in concert with other web content. One of the interesting problems Karen raises when it comes to putting internet-enabled computers in the museum is the question of whether visitors should be able to move beyond the Internet art to other websites. We could have a whole other discussion about whether people should be able to check email in the galleries. However, if the general consensus today is "no," then web-based content that encourages further exploration on other sites, links, etc. may be best suited to a web-only environment, where visitors can surf unrestrained.
Sepagration. To me, this is the least interesting model, in which museums provide standard computer stations for visitors to explore web-based content. Why do that at the museum when I can do it at home?

When I stretch my brain, I can imagine this being useful when:
  • most of the museum-going audience does not have regular access to computers/web. Of course, in these cases, I would advocate for museums providing full computer services a la libraries. This is related to the utility of meeting visitors "where they are," that is, couching uncommon experiences in the common experience of using a computer. Again, I think this is only valid if you truly meet them "where they are" and let them email, web surf, etc. while at the computers.
  • the content is presented programmatically. I may not spend much time at a computer in the museum perusing websites on my own. But I might enjoy a "tour" of web content facilitated by a staff member, especially if I could then take home a list of the pages we perused, or, even better, have them automatically added to my or other link set.
  • the museum wants to promote its web content. If web content is new for your museum and you want people to spend a little face time with the resources, that's reasonable. I think this should follow the museum store model, where there are teasers or limited amounts of content available from the museum, with an expectation that the visitor will go to the dedicated (web) site to learn more.
Integration. This is where it starts to get interesting. If content is "made" for the web, what does it mean to recast it in physical space? Karen talks about a variety of methods and projects attempting to break out of the standard "put a computer on the floor" model, the most exciting of which (to me) is the Walker's "revolving door" shown in the image at the top of this post. Users push the door to "open" new pages of web art, thus experiencing both a metaphorical and virtual portal into the content.

Ultimately, I'm most interested in a sub-category of integration I'd call embedment, where the content is naturally part of rather than shoe-horned into the exhibit or museum design. This is challenging when it comes to art, where the original intent of the artist may be distorted if web-only content is squeezed into a non-web-typical interaction. But when it comes to other kinds of web-based experiences and data, embedding the content into exhibits and spaces can help realize its full interactive potential.

In particular, I think integration/embedment is useful when:
  • the content is potentially social. We are conditioned to think of PCs as objects with which we have personal interactions. Any socializing is done through the computer, not around it. Embedding content into collaborative touch tables, large-scale projections, and other multi-person accessible experiences may foster social exchange.
  • the content delivery is flexible. If your content HAS to be seen on a 640 by 480 window, fine. But if not, why not experiment with new ways to design it into the space? Why not devise new ways to touch it, to move it, and to see it? New technologies around web display and interaction are the darlings of Siggraph, TED, and other hipster conferences. Why not explore them in museums?
  • the content requires interpretation. Particularly when it comes to collaborative projects, in which the content is drawn from thousands of data points or blogs or videos, it's useful to have an interface that prioritizes and organizes the content. The interface doesn't have to be web-based as long as it's web-capable. Sometimes, the best interfaces make the web reliance totally invisible to the guest, as in a mountain of beans that grows as the world population does (or something way better than that).
  • the content forms the basis for a great in-museum experience. This is the most obvious, simplest reason to embed. If the content will help educate, thrill, or challenge visitors on the floor, it's worth putting it there.
One of the most powerful things about the web is its ability to facilitate connections among people, data, and ideas. When we intelligently harness and display those connections in museums, we can create experiences that feel personal, relational, and global. This is not to say that everything in the museum should be web-based, but its use and integration is another excellent option to keep in the design toolbox.

Monday, August 27, 2007

The Cirque De Soleil Model: “Entertaining” Doesn’t Have to Mean Low-Brow

Last week, there was a New York Times article about the recently opened Ripley’s Believe It Or Not and Madame Tussauds attractions in Times Square. The author focused on the appeal of the lurid, the sensational, and the devilishly entertaining, and there’s certainly a lot to be said for these attributes. Heck, sign me up for a ticket to the zombie museum. But when I took off my “entertainment” glasses and put on my museum eyes, my reaction wasn’t amusement. It was distaste. I imagined museum folks reading the article and snapping the paper closed with smug smiles on their faces: "See. This is why we have to avoid Disneyfication." But such arrogance is ill-advised. Ripley's is just a small symbol of the growing challenge for museums to compete for audiences in a growing experience economy.

Museums need to be thinking about the competition—and it’s much bigger and smarter than Ripley’s. It’s easy to look at something like Ripley’s and think: that’s what’s the public wants. But that argument respects our audiences too little. Sure, Ripley’s may be the Star magazine of museums, but a lot more people read Time than the tabloids. Look at the most popular shows on television: Lost, Heroes—these are complex, unusual experiences.

Ripley’s is not the ultimate manifestation of what the public wants. Ripley’s is a remake, a B-movie, most impressive for the extent to which it has reinvented itself. The real story here isn’t about Americans’ continued fascination with shriveled heads; it’s about the extent to which we’ve moved beyond them.

Ripley’s is a circus. What P. T. Barnum did for the big top, Ripley did for the public collection on display. But Barnum and Bailey don’t rule the circus world anymore. The public has moved on. The rise of avant garde performances by Stomp, the Blue Man Group, and most notably, Cirque de Soleil, have changed the landscape of the circus—and by extension, the way museum people should evaluate and judge themselves against entertainment venues.

Over the last twenty years, Cirque de Soleil has grown into arguably the most widespread live entertainment experience in the world. They bring in over 600 million dollars yearly from 13 different shows. They have permanent and traveling shows. Their shows have complex and layered stories, music, and visual effects. They take lots of risks, blending gymnastic feats with made-up languages, intensely engineered sets, sexually explicit content, and interaction with the crowd. Tickets are expensive and hard to come by.

It may be easy to discount Ripley’s as a low-brow diversion, inapplicable to the museum world. It’s much harder to do so with Cirque de Soleil. Cirque successfully draws a diverse audience into an experience that is highly visual, metaphorical, and complex. It’s Ripley’s all grown up, and, in growing up, Cirque achieved some goals that museums still struggle with. It’s an emotional, immersive experience. It’s not just eye candy; it’s art that isn’t afraid to pull punches. And yet instead of repelling people by making them feel stupid, it sucks them in.

I was talking to an investor this weekend who told me how much he hates museums. His wife drags him to the Met and all he wants to do is go to the café. When I told him about some of the things I’m working on, he initially couldn’t grasp the idea of museums as immersive experiences. The reference point that finally got him there was Cirque de Soleil. For him, Cirque means excitement, innovative design, content that makes him think—all the positive associations I want him to have with museums are there.

Maybe Ripley’s isn’t the reference point that excites you when it comes to reformation and revolution in museums. Maybe it’s the Creation Museum. Maybe it’s Cirque de Soleil, or street performance, or farmer’s markets. But the point is that all of these have valid and interesting lessons to teach us about how to reach out to audiences. Sometimes exhibit designers do site reviews when planning major building projects. It always seems most valuable when they venture outside the museum to retail venues, web venues, thinking to themselves: “How would Sephora do a museum? How would YouTube do a museum?”

How would Cirque de Soleil do a museum? Maybe it’s time to slap on some leotards and find out.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Game Friday: Lovely, Quirky Amanita

This week, Game Friday pays homage to Amanita Design, the funky game and animation design firm behind the award-winning Samorost series and several flash-based corporate games that blend lush imagery, surreal storytelling, and surprising little puzzles.

Amanita is one of the few design firms capable of creating "game other," game experiences that stretch and change expectations about what it means to play. They are leaders in the point-and-click casual game market, but their innovations stem from wild environments rather than particularly tricky puzzles.

I often treat games like this as interactive art and use the cheat sheet walkthroughs as a way to explore the world of the game. I'm not too concerned about the competitive or addictive elements of the gameplay; most is based on an other-worldly if-then relationship between toads and flowers, carrots and carriages. This willingness on my part to abandon reliance on narrative or gameplay speaks to the power of the visual design and wonder inherent in the experience Amanita creates. There's no magic formula for what games "must" be to be successful, and the Amanita games delight with experiences and pleasures from roads less traveled.

Play to win or play to explore; either way, it's a lovely Friday sort of dream.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

City Museum Video Contest: Cool Idea. What Happened?

A couple months ago, I read with great excitement about the St. Louis City Museum's amateur video contest. Unfortunately, you can't read the press release I saw; it isn't on their website anymore. And therein lies an essential problem with this and other similar museum forays into Web 2.0: follow-through.

It sounded like a great project from an innovative, creative place. For those who haven't visited, the City Museum is part obstacle course, part art city, part shoelace factory. They have a two-headed snake and a bar , Beatnik Bob's, where you can drink a beer in the museum. They have some strange quirks (no wayfinding signage, for example), but lots of energy around letting their visitors define who they are.

And they've been making some movement into Web 2.0. They have a MySpace page, complete with music from the Talking Heads, and a blog (though it's not RSS-friendly). And in June, they launched a creative user-generated content contest. They invited videographers under 18 to create a 70.1 second video shot entirely within the City Museum. The videos would be submitted into a contest, and the winning submission would be posted on their MySpace page and featured in a film festival. They wrote about it (and teased it... scroll down to the June/July entries). Other St. Louis film blogs and websites picked up the story. I was waiting for this week to write about it, as they had broadcast that entries would be voted on, and the winning entries would be shown this Friday, Aug 24. And then... nothing.

Now, if you go on their MySpace page, you can see the winning video. As of today, its had 18 views (and I'm three of them). It was added a week ago, but there was no announcement on the museum's website, blog, etc. There's no mention in this week's calendar of events at the museum. And frankly, though I don't want to slam the kids who made it, the video is not quite woo-worthy. In the original announcement, the museum had solicited works of fiction, non-fiction, comedy, drama, etc., but the winner's is a very simple documentary of a toy exploring the museum. It's a promotional video as shot by visitor/fans. And while that's okay, it's not exactly about to go viral and establish the City Museum as a place for hip, edgy, irreverent, user-generated fun.

What happened? Why wasn't this a huge success like the Oreo Jingle contest? People love the City Museum for being weird and funky. Why didn't their ardor translate into a big win?

Lurking and Creating are two different animals. Seb Chan of the Powerhouse Museum has written convincingly about the overwhelming dominance of "lurkers" in the Web 2.0 space--people who read blogs, look at YouTube, but don't actually create anything themselves. Consider yourselves. About 1000 people will read this post this week, but maybe one of you will comment... if I'm lucky. The amount of output one can reasonably expect from a group of interested visitors is fairly low. I spoke with some museum folks recently who are tentatively launching a blog as a user-gen part of a new exhibit. They're concerned about inappropriate talk--I'm concerned about whether they'll get any comments at all. And commenting on a blog is a relatively easy action to take. The City Museum contest required a lot of their participants--not just interest and will, but a video camera and some editing equipment. Which leads to...

To inspire participation, you have to provide the tools. How many visitors were psyched about the contest but didn't have the resources to compete? Lots of people bring cameras into museums, but few bring video cameras. And even the basic setup of the City Museum, which involves slides, pokey things, and aquariums, might not really motivate parents to hand over pricey equipment to their kids. What if instead the museum had rented out cameras, or had set up a video kiosk where you could record your video and submit it? Sure, it wouldn't enable creative roaming around the museum, but it would get more people involved with the contest generally. Which relates to...

Provide different ways to participate and spread the content. I was excited to vote on the submissions. Either I read the original announcement incorrectly, or the museum decided not to allow the masses to view the submissions or the finalists. I'm not in St. Louis. I can't be there this Friday for the screening which may or may not be happening. But this is on the web. Why can't I participate? This isn't just about including more visitors in the experience; it's also about tapping them as marketers. I'd like to see a video contest in which each submission (unless truly offensive) is posted on the website and is emailable to friends. That way, if I made a video, I can post it on my MySpace page, tell my friends to vote for me, and generally spread the word. And if I'm just a long-distance vicarious viewer, I can share the event with other remote people as well. Letting people self-promote in contests generates buzz and interest. Which brings me to...

Keep up the buzz, and provide great rewards.I think the biggest mistake the City Museum made was not continuing to promote the contest once the submission deadline had passed. They did a great job encouraging people to submit, but didn't follow through with ways for people to get excited about the final decision and the big winner. Winning a spot on the City Museum MySpace page is cool, but it would be a lot more cool if either a. the museum promoted the MySpace page or b. the video was also shown in places that matter to the contestants, most significantly the museum. Is the winner being shown right now on a screen in the museum lobby? I don't know. I sure hope so.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Tech Tools: Can IMing Make Your Museum More Efficient?

LOL. np. On first glance, instant messaging (IM) seems like a teenage distraction machine, churning out bad spelling and constant interruption. Many businesses block employees from using IM clients during work under the assumption that it is used soley to spread gossip, plan lunches, and avoid work. But there are other businesses—significantly those in the tech sector—that not only allow but ENCOURAGE instant messaging. Are these businesses run by teenagers? Are they nuts? What value does IMing bring to the workplace?

Like any communication tool, IM has to be judged for its ability to do three things:

1. connect one person to another
2. transfer content between communicators
3. perform 1 and 2 in a way that minimizes disturbance to daily workflow and other

For example, face-to-face meetings are very good for 1 and 2, but less good for 3. Twitter is great at 1, arguably good at 3, and lousy at 2. Email is bad at 1 (never sure if the other person will see your message), but good at 2 and 3.

Where does IM fall in? Let's consider each of these points separately.

Connection. Yes, IM is another thing to download, another thing to have running on your computer. It relies on people being in front of their computer most of the day. But unlike any other communication medium, IM provides a guaranteed way for the communicator to know whether the communicatee is available for discussion. Lists of contacts, with their "available," "busy," and "away" notation let you know whether the person you are trying to reach is at their computer. There's no concern that the person will never read the email or pick up the message--IM is primarily a real-time activity. And, unlike face-to-face or phone meetings, which are also real-time, you don't need to preschedule; you can find out at a glance whether the person is available or not.

The second part of "connection" has to do with platform versatility. If you call my home and I'm out with my cell, or vice versa, you might not get me. If I email you at your work address, and you don't check that one on the weekend, I'm out of luck. I may be available for discussion, but you've chosen the wrong platform/location to find me. IM shares this problem; if you don't have an IM client, I can't IM you. However, fortunately, the secondary problem associated with this (you use AIM, I use Gchat) is ameliorated if you use a global IM client like Trillian or Adium. These (free) IM clients combine your contacts from AIM, yahoo, ICQ, all kinds of clients, so you can universally IM. Of course, for IM in the workplace, it's sometimes useful to encourage staff to all sign up for the same client, so that this is a non-issue; at other, more tech-savvy institutions, universal clients allow people to connect with the usernames they already have.

Content. IM is not used for dissertations; its primary use is for short queries. Every communication medium has its own etiquette, and IMing is more permissive of curt, quick messaging that the phone or email.
IM supports low-context, straightforward transfer of information. If I need to know what our visitorship was last week, I don't need to make it into a multi-sentence email or call for a chat. I can just IM you the question, and you can send me the number.

IM also has an unusual capability to transfer large files, a task that is sometimes onerous over email or FTP sites. I worked with a composer who transferred almost all of his audio files to me via IM. Yes, unlike email or FTP, it required a real-time transaction between us, but the files downloaded faster and with fewer crashes than email or FTP would allow.

Distraction. Is IM distracting? Potentially. But unlike voice-based communication, it does not distract those around you. Like email, IM is something that can paralyze your computer-based work or not, depending on how you manage it. You can set your profile as "busy" or "away" if you don't want to be disturbed. And if you are thoughtful about when to use IM and when to pick up the phone, it can save a lot of time. The same composer who sent me files would often IM me to ask a quick question. Occasionally, those quick questions turned into larger discussions, and we would immediately switch over to the phone. When IM was sufficient, it was the fastest way to make a quick decision. When it wasn't, we upgraded.

But the main distraction positive of IM has to do with regard for coworkers. Many of us work in open offices with lots of people around, and all that brainstorming and phone calling in close proximity can make focused work challenging. I had a boss with an office adjacent to a room in which 8 of us worked. When she had a question for someone, she would yell his/her name repeatedly until that person responded or someone else yelled back that that person was not around. It was efficient for her (she made the connections she needed), but a mess for the rest of us. IM could have given her a continual beat on who was and wasn't available, and a way to grab them (quietly) when she needed them.


All of the above arguments apply to all kinds of computer-based workplaces where the majority of employees sit at computers for most of the day. But what about the unique challenges and opportunities of museums? Are there specific ways IM could be applied in these institutions? Here are some creative ways I could imagine museums using IM:
  • Direct Line to the Info Desk. Frequently, staff at the info desk have to put guests on hold while they contact the appropriate staff member to answer the guest's question. If museums use IM, info desk staff could get the answer quickly without making the guest wait too long, or could see that the staff member in question was not available (and not have to put the guest on hold at all).
  • Visitor to Staff IMing. While this may not often be desirable, it is possible to offer guests "live chat" with a staff member via the museum website. Big retailers like IKEA offer these services as a more efficient (for them and the customers) help line. Live chat could be used as a way to ask basic questions about the museum, or the museum could offer special chat hours with experts. If the museum did not want to make such chat available to the whole world via the web, it could happen inside the galleries themselves. Visitors could type their questions into computers in exhibits and receive answers from the curators/experts during live chat hours. This could be a way (albeit less personal) for staff to do some visitor outreach while still working on other things.
  • Working with contractors and remote teams. This one is not specific to museums, but to the frequent museum experience of working with remote teams. IM can be a quick way to check in, send reminders, pass photos, etc. I'm working with one company now where everyone is virtual, and everyone is constantly on IM. IM is used as a back channel to pull people into meetings, send out quick links and opinions during conference calls, and generally conduct business.
Do you use IM at work? What are your brilliant uses for it, why did you abandon it, what possibilities can you see for its use in your own institution?

Friday, August 17, 2007

Game Friday: Exhibits that Emulate Casual Games

I visited the Exploratorium a few weeks ago and saw their new exhibition Listen: Making Sense of Sound. It's summer; the museum and the exhibition were hopping. But there was one interactive in Listen that was clearly the rock star among amateurs. Over four hours, there was a steady queue of folks waiting to use it, and we didn't even get a chance to enter until the staff had started tolling the closing bell.

The hot exhibit in question is an interactive in which you play a simple game. You walk as quietly as possible across a tray of stones, towards a small screen that records your increasing "noise score." The louder you are, the higher the score.

That's it. No fancy materials or phenomena. Just a simple feedback mechanism that turns casual play into a game.

People were waiting in line to play, burning their eyes into the rising score as they stepped tentatively over the stones. Some people played to win; others played to get as high and crazy a score as possible. People waited, played, and then jumped back in line again.

Would this exhibit be as popular if there wasn't a score mechanic? Would it be more popular if your score was saved, or if the top five quiet walkers of the day were displayed? What's the balance that makes for successful integration of game mechanics into an exhibit?

I think this exhibit hits the sweet spot by emulating the simplest of casual games.
Exhibits, like casual games, strive for a neglible learning phase to precede user action. No one reads the full instruction book for a board game; no one reads the full label for an exhibit. Likewise, a reliance on registration or setup turns off potential player/users who just want to jump in and have a good time. This exhibit literally only requires you to take the first step to get started. The time it takes to engage (about 15 sec to walk across the stones) is short, so replay is an attractive option. Plus, the fact that you wait in line to play creates a natural voyeuristic preparation phase in which you watch others play and plan your own strategy.

Finally, this exhibit exploits the most powerful of game mechanics: personal feedback. My highly unscientific observation is that this exhibit is much more popular than a similar scoring exhibit in which you experiment with materials to make a little car that races down a track. It's more fun to see how good YOU are than how good your invention is. And in the case of the quiet walk, the emphasis is not on how good you inherently are (as in some "test your reflexes" exhibits) but how good you can be. There's an easily identifiable skill involved, one at which most people think they can improve. And the feedback makes you feel that someone cares whether you will.

There are many exhibits, especially in science museums, that focus on encouraging visitors to develop skills. The more obvious those skills are, the more obvious the potential path to improvement, and the more immediate and simple the interface for feedback, the more likely a visitor is to keep trying. Which means getting in line. Buying a ticket. Coming back again. And isn't that the feedback we're looking for?

Thursday, August 16, 2007

What’s So Funny? Humor in Museums

I’m working on a virtual museum project these days, and one question that often comes up is “What is the most fun thing we could let visitors do here that they can’t do in the real world?” Inevitably, the answer involves irreverence, whether in the form of interpretation (the comedian’s tour of the museum), instruction (how to guides for not looking stupid while talking about art), or downright destruction (smashing valuable objects). Every time one of these ideas comes up, a guilty silence spreads around the team. Can we really do this? Will the establishment support it? What risks do we run by casting our nets for humor?

After all, most of our ideas don’t require a virtual landscape; any museum could commission Kid Rock’s tour of the galleries. What they do require is a willingness to explore using humor in the museum.

There are plenty of good reasons that most museums are laugh-impaired. Some are cast as temples for objects to be revered. Others explore subject matter that is patently unfunny. Others believe any nod to becoming an “entertainment venue” is a topic for concern (though many are headed that way). But the biggest reason I think museums avoid humor is humor undermines authority. To make a joke about something, you have to feel comfortable playing with the item, with visitors, and with your own role as an “expert.” You have to be okay with the idea that someone might laugh at you.

So why do it? Because humor is a design tool that can be employed as powerfully as a skillfully placed light or a fabulous slice of audio. It can break up and lighten an oppressively intense experience. It can provide connection points among strangers. And educationally, it can be an open hand inviting novice museum-goers to have a comfortable and enjoyable museum experience.

Let’s start by talking about design. As more museums move towards narrative presentation of content, the bank of useful design tools grows to include those used by other storytellers. Consider television. I was watching an episode of CSI recently with audio commentary from the director and many times, he pointed out humorous touches designed to “lighten” the tone of the show. Amidst dead bodies and gore and weapons and test tubes, they’re telling jokes. Lots of them. The sarcastic puns, the gallows humor—it’s all over the show.

Sure, it’s entertainment. But it’s also about murder. The topic is not exactly levity-central, and yet they still find opportunities to crack jokes and try to make the audience smile. The show’s creators, like most entertainers, want to create a positive experience for their audience. And humor is a big part of that. As more museums seek to diversify beyond the intellectual experience of objects and ideas, humor should sit alongside emotion, spirituality, expression, and other newfound palettes for experience design.

But what about the fact that humor often feels silly, like a grab for something profane? Real humor isn’t about knock knock jokes (unless you’re eight). It’s an emotional release valve. Does humor lessen the impact of an intense experience? No. Humor provides comfort, whether in the face of death or potential disaster. It humanizes the experience of stress. It also can encourage people to keeping going or try again.

Consider its use in games. Game researchers have shown that humor contributes to players’ investment in the game, comfort with failure, and general enjoyment. When you see your last ten minutes of agonizing moves go up in smoke, the cosmic funniness of seeing lemmings jump off the cliff or your character get swallowed by a giant toad softens the blow.

It’s also a decent (though debatable) educational tool. Museum professionals know to lead with a joke when they speak at conferences; why not do the same in exhibitions? Punctuating serious presentations with humor keeps people engaged. One of the strangest ways I see this employed is in the ride safety videos at theme parks. These videos, about how to survive a roller coaster, used to be dull and practically unwatchable. Now, they’re full of slapstick—crash test dummies breaking the ride, crazy things you shouldn’t do—and by extension, fun to watch. The theme parks found a way to turn an onerous requirement into a useful piece of entertainment, and I imagine more people are aware of the safety restrictions now than previously.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, humor can be used as a way to connect with visitors who are unfamiliar, uncomfortable, or wary of the museum experience. For that large part of the population, museums are foreign landscapes. The visitors don’t know how they should act or what to expect. Making a joke out of these overwhelming first experiences, whether by modeling silly behavior as in the theme park example or making fun of traditional models of museum-going, releases the pressure valve on uncertainty.

But it’s not as easy as throwing a couple puns on the wall. The biggest challenge inherent in the use of humor is its power to alienate. A lot of humor is about us laughing at them—and the identity of us and them are different in different situations. In museums, it’s important to be clear about who these groups are. Probably the safest way to use humor is to make jokes about ourselves, about the museum, and let them laugh at us. What jokes are you willing to tell?

So a priest, a rabbi, and a duck walk into a museum…

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Museum Inside Out: Taking the Collection Out of the Closet

Inventory isn't a museum activity that inspires curiosity in many visitors. This summer, the Austrian Museum of Folk Life and Folk Art (Österreichisches Museum für Volkskunde) is trying to change that. Since June 15, they have been hosting museum insideout, a "discourse and exhibit" project in which they are moving their back-of-house registration, classification, and conservation work out onto the gallery floors. (You can read more here in German.) Their goal is to "break through conventions" and create opportunities for dialogue with visitors about objects and their value that are not dictated by the museum's terms of exhibition presentation. As their director, Margot Schindler, put it:
In spaces and places where objects can be seen without benefit of specific settings or pre-ordained interpretations, it is easier to ask questions about their meaning, or their topicality, or even how one perceives them. The museum itself would like to build on this dialogue for its own future, whether in terms of exhibit contents, programmatic plans, or organizational mandates.
People often talk about non-collecting museums as the museums of the future. This is a great example of a collecting museum that won't accept a back seat on engaging visitor experiences. How does a place that fundamentally collects and cares for objects innovate the visitor experience? By opening up their practices--not just their content--to dialogue and interaction.

Collecting museums are full of secrets. As museums went from collections to designed spaces, most of the collection went behind the scenes. In my experience, non-museum professionals are constantly astounded to hear how many pieces of the collection are NOT on view to the public at any given time. Some collecting museums have integrated open collections storage into their public offering, so that visitors can browse the collection as they might books in a library, and others have opened up their conservation labs so that visitors can watch and understand the work involved in object care. And while both of those opportunities open up the visitor experience, they do so in the context of the visitor as a consumer, not as a participant. Yes, you get to look behind the scenes, but the experience is still largely a passive one.

The museum insideout experience is active, and potentially collaborative. Their emphasis isn't on museum professionals teaching skills or demonstrating actions; it's on discussion about these skills, actions, and objects. It's important that they chose to put the experience out on the exhibit floors rather than welcoming visitors into conservation and registration areas. This may be a logistical choice--galleries may be generally better-suited for public engagement--but I also like the philosophical implication that the dialogue between visitors and staff IS the exhibit experience. This isn't "take your visitor to work" day. It's "take your work to the visitor" day. The museum is privileging the visitor's space, rather than their back offices and labs, as the place where the dialogue will happen.

This may sound like a simple distinction, but it's a big step towards being comfortable with other kinds of risks and experimentation on the exhibition floor. It's a project in the same vein as the Ontario Science Centre's rapid prototyping sessions, which take place on the floor, or any museum's willingness to put out unfinished exhibits or labels for visitor use and review. These kinds of experiences break down some of the museum's authority that emanates from heavily designed spaces and exhibitions. It's the ultimate "open architecture," where the work of the museum is the experience of the visitors, rather than visitors experiencing some output of that work.

I've heard people from collecting museums talk about themselves as "stewards of community property." I think there are very few visitors who enter collecting museums and feel like part-owners of the objects or the experience. The museum owns the stuff, and the visitors get to look at it. That's it. It's projects like insideout that can help visitors feel like they are part of the experience of defining and evaluating the objects, of owning the objects and, ultimately, the museum itself.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Game Friday: Hitching a Ride

Gamelab, the people behind Diner Dash and other casual games, have posted a contest on their forum, the Subway Scramble Commuter Contest, in which they are soliciting stories of games people play while commuting by train, car, bike... you get the idea.

Reading through the entries already present, I'm struck by how little the games are about fun and how much they are about engaging specific parts of the brain. Some people are creative, inventing stories about other subway travelers by looking at their shoes. Some people are competitive, following elaborate rules to try to "beat" people in neighboring cars. Some are pattern-watchers, some are obstacle course devisers, some are counters and hummers and candy-kickers. We all have these games--whether played from school bus windows or bicycles built for two. I'm a particular fan of the physical challenge "see how many pull-ups I can do on the subway bar" game, as well as the emotionally creative "stare down every car from my bike and imagine them not killing me" game. And the ones that become social ("How many pull-ups can I do... how many can you do?" is a multi-player favorite) are the best of all.

This dovetails nicely into last week's post about the idea that games may be a part of our cultural experience that is more general than just having fun, that making up games in the subway is as common as listening to music or rereading the ESL advertisements again and again.

And traveling, which provides rapidly changing content, is particularly well-suited to gaming. Many commuting games, traditional and non-traditional, are based in the experience of motion. You move past cows and cars to count. You try to stay balanced as you rattle and shake. Commuting continually provides new challenges to overcome, items to collect, characters with whom to interact.

Stasis provides a different kind of game environment. When things don't change, or change at an imperceptible rate, there's less fodder for comparisons and quests. If your environment is static enough that you can focus intently on one thing--a book, for example--you are unlikely to seek out diversionary experiences like casual games. Unless of course it's a really boring book, in which case games like "how long until the end of this chapter" become compelling. When the static environment is dull, the content therein--other people sitting in church, pamphlets in the doctor's office, tiles on the bathroom floor--becomes fodder for gaming.

All this leads me, naturally, to wonder what kinds of random, private, inadvertent games people play in museums. The museum experience can be both motion-based and stasis-based; there's stuff static in rooms, but you and others move through and interact with it. Are people playing "how many dead birds are in this room?" or "how could I travel from this gallery to that one with the fewest possible steps?" or "what's the relationship among that group of people?" or "how many times will this tour guide say 'zeitgeist?'"

One of my favorite museum games is to follow other visitors and try to see and do what they see and do, to stand in front of the same sculpture, to shake up the same mini-tornado, and try to imagine why they like certain things or stick with them for awhile. And a perennial favorite in art museums is "see how close I can get before a guard comes," which is made more exciting by new innovations in invisible barriers.

What are your favorite casual museum games? How do you see visitors "playing" in the galleries?

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Tools for Talking to Strangers

Rock climbing (safely) is a two-person activity. One person holds the rope, the other ascends the rock. For that reason, going to the climbing gym doesn't just require interest, it requires friends. My climbing gym addresses this obstacle with a wipeboard near the front that reads: “Write your name here if you need a partner.” It’s a very simple nudge towards encouraging users of the gym to meet each other. The gym staff aren’t offering instruction or serving as users’ partners; instead, they facilitate connections among the users.

I got thinking about this the other day with regard to museums. More and more museums are putting resources into floor staff who are trained to connect visitors with content, to serve as interpreters and informal teachers. But I don’t know of any programs or staff whose role is to connect visitors with each other, to instigate discussion among strangers.

And while the barriers that prevent strangers from talking to one another in museums may be high, the potential rewards of such programs are great. Floor staff are limited by time—they can’t possibly interact with all or even most of the people in the museum at any given time. While they can expand and enlighten visitor experiences with content, they also add to the perception that the museum authorities—curators, designers, and now staff—are the ones who dictate what the visitor experience is about.

Programs to encourage visitor-visitor interaction, however, don’t suffer these challenges. If they rely minimally on staff, they can be scalable to all visitors in the museum at a time. And since visitors are speaking to each other, they are less likely to feel that they have to be “right” and may feel more empowered generally to share their comment, critique, and enthusiasm—thus deepening their museum experience. If done right, it can be a financially light way to make visitors feel that the museum is an active, social place.

It’s worth mentioning the obvious: this happens on the web all the time, and if people online are willing to talk about their diseases, fears, and pets, why not in the museum? I’ve written before about ways social networking sites do this; today, some concrete ideas for how museums might as well.
How could this happen?

Retrain floor staff to be party hosts. Floor staff already have the onerous task of interpreting whether a visitor is interested in being approached for discussion. It’s not too far a step from that to approaching two visitors, engaging them in discussion, and then walking away. In the same way the staff at my gym are more matchmakers than short-term matches, floor staff can get people together, and then move on.

Use simple low-tech signalers to allow visitors to “opt in” to discussion.
This can be a wipeboard at the front—although it’s not entirely practical (or likely) in a winding museum space to have visitors trolling the halls, calling out the names of those listed on the board. One colleague suggested a wipeboard where people can post their cell numbers, and then call each other in the museum (potential privacy risk?). But I think the easiest way is to offer visitors a signaler at the admissions desk. Many museums require visitors to wear stickers or pins in the museum to signal that they have paid. Why not offer a second sticker that says ASK ME WHAT I THINK or WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE PART OF THIS MUSEUM? Some people might look at it suspiciously, others might slap it on without a thought, and maybe someone will muster the courage to respond.

Make explicit invitations in label copy for multi-person exhibits.
At the Exploratorium recently, there were a few “partner” exhibits I wanted to try in the psychology section—but my husband was lost somewhere in physics. Yes, the labels said “You will need a partner for this one.” But it might also be nice if they said, “Find a friend or ask a stranger to help you with this one.” I realize as I write this that I’m advocating for museums to explicitly encourage visitors (and children) to talk to strangers. Frankly, my experience at most children’s museums is that kids are ready to talk to and engage with all kinds of strangers; it’s the adults like me who are afraid to approach others for propriety’s sake. But the point is, if I had a label to point to and say, “Hey, excuse me, would you help me out with this exhibit?” it might help me get over my initial discomfort asking someone else to engage with me.

All of these are no-tech, dirt-cheap, and at least in the case of the stickers and floor staff, could be implemented in an experimental fashion with little planning. What other ideas are out there? When have you seen strangers engaging with each other in museums?

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Book Club Part 8: Time to Change

This is the final installment of the Museum 2.0 book club on Civilizing the Museum; The Collected Writings of Elaine Heumann Gurian. For me, this has been a valuable exercise in attentive reading and exploration; I hope you have enjoyed it as well. I would like to thank Elaine for her generous involvement and contributions over the summer. The whole series will be available soon via its own link if you would like a companion as you read this excellent book. I’d like to do more book clubs in the future; please let me know if there are any particular books on museum theory, design, innovation, etc. that you would recommend for Museum 2.0.

And now, on to discussion. This week, we’re looking at Chapter 8, Turning the Ocean Liner Slowly: About the process of change in larger institutions. Presented in 1990, this essay is one of Elaine’s most impassioned, written from her vantage point of deputy assistant secretary for museums at the Smithsonian, a sort of unwanted helmsman for a wild ship in the eye of what she saw as an international storm. The essay focuses on two points: first, that outside pressures of multi-culturalism, relativism, and global instability are forcing change in museums, and second, that change is very unpleasant for large institutions, which will push back with all their might.

I’m most interested in this second point about the change-adverse culture of museums. There will always be outside forces pushing museums in one direction or another. Where in 1990 the need to diversify staff, to reconsider ownership of cultural objects, to grapple with the end of the Cold War may have been paramount, today we have another, equally long and ponderous list of pressures for change. The need to compete with commercial businesses offering similar services as museums. The need to respond to audience desires not just to be included in the museum experience, but to help create it. The need to set a reasonable tone in a time of fiery wartime rhetoric.

The question is not what pressures currently exist, but what we are going to do about them. As Elaine states in her essay:
Change by itself is so uncomfortable that institutions do not do it voluntarily or for noble reasons alone. They change because they fear the consequences of not doing so, and only then are willing to override the cries of anguish from the discomforted.
But the "cries of anguish" are not always consistent, which exposes an underlying problem with pursuing change out of fear of consequences. In 1990, one of the outside pressures Elaine identified was a rise in global instability, ushering in a new age of uncertainty. How can museum leaders chart a certain path through uncertain waters? When the pressures change, the fears change, and change never comes. In an afterword written in 2005, Elaine comments,
The most striking thing I did not anticipate was losing… I did not predict that the pressure to change museums would waver and die down, even as the conversation would continue. I did not preduct that the changes that were made would be fundamentally small except in a few places. And I certainly did not predict that change could be eroded and stepped back from. I should have anticipated the possibility of failure.
Elaine’s honesty is both arresting and depressing. Can museums change? Perhaps the pressures being felt now—which are more financial than cultural—will spawn greater action. But I think we fundamentally need to remove ourselves from fear-based action to get anywhere meaningful. If change is a response to (changing) outside pressures, as Elaine noted in 2005, it “remains episodic and sporadic.” We need to change without pressure, continually, because it is the best way to move forward. One of the reasons I am so fascinated by the tech world is that it largely comprises institutions, small and large, that promote a culture of change. Tech businesses are constantly reinventing themselves, creating new products, reaching out to new audiences. It’s exhausting and risky and potentially wildly successful.

When I was working as a performance poet, I had a fabulous coach who told me, “The only way to improve is to change.” It was a statement I resisted at the time but have continued to attempt to integrate into my mindset. At the time, I was a successful performer. Why would I change my “signature” style away from the tried and true? Why would any museum abandon its core audience, its core way of presenting content, its signature style? We are under the erroneous (and comfortable) impression that great art comes from consistency rather than experimentation.

Elaine concludes her afterword with a nod to the future, saying, “Perhaps I must look to my younger colleagues with fire in their bellies and a mixture of naivete and idealism to take up the cause. I am ever hopeful that they will succeed, and I am ready to support them wholeheartedly.” I hope that Museum 2.0 can be a place for us to share and explore that fire. Remember that there are museum leaders like Elaine out there ready to support your quest for change.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Game Friday: Do Games Have to Be Fun To Be Good?

Two very interesting articles today by Ian Bogost, courtesy of Gamasutra, about the potential of games as a more generalized medium for interaction with content. In the first article, Why We Need More Boring Games, Ian argues for a wider application of gaming to our daily experience. He notes that film, music, visual art, and literature have evolved as media that are used in all kinds of environments, from the mundane to the profound. It's not disturbing to us that films are made for personal documentation, for training purposes, and as art--few people argue that it is some kind of cosmic distortion to use the same platform for Casablanca as that used for My Trip to Cincinatti.

Ian comments:

Very few video games set out to tackle mundane applications akin to the home movie or the airplane safety video. And really, is it very surprising? Who would set their sights on these mundane aspects of human experience, things that recede into the background, given the glitzy alternative of commercial games?

Serious games offer one example. These are games whose mission includes applications of video games outside the sphere of entertainment. These are games that train soliders and corporate employees, educate middle-schoolers and technology certification hopefuls, help diabetics manage their blood sugar, try to persuade consumers to purchase products and services.

Certainly many of these activities seem to be just as banal as pointing out the exits on a Boeing 767. Serious games thus have an important role to serve in video games’ attempts to mature as a medium—not because they train or educate or inform, but because they help make games more boring.

By becoming more "boring," Ian argues, games will become a more pervasive part of our lives. The second article continues this argument, talking about ways that games--if we let go of strict expectations about their use--can be applied in "mundane" (universal?) situations. He cites editorial-style newsgames, workplace training games, and casual mobile games as breaking into both new markets and new expectations of the concepts and content that video games can express. Talking about educational games, he discusses the way that "educational" is always pitted against "fun," as if all games must have the primary objective of providing enjoyment. That expectation, however, limits games from being a medium--like film--to being a particular kind of user experience.

Scott McCloud makes a similar argument for "sequential art" in his excellent book Understanding Comics. As Ian does with videogames, Scott argues that comics have a fundamental value as a medium that is unique and applicable to far more topics and environments than Gotham City. And there are other links between the two media--both burgeoning in the last 30 years, with tightly controlled industry leaders producing predictable content for a mostly young, male market. Both have strong indie movements pursuing other goals and uses of the form, trying to move from pigeonhole to platform.

In this week's book club post, Elaine Gurian commented on the failures of NMAI, and of many museums, to find new palettes for interpretation and presentation of museum content, especially when the intended result is an emotional, spiritual, or non object-focused experience. I was struck, reading these articles about games, by the idea that introducing games, or comics, into the museum experience does not necessarily imply dumbing down or funning up the experience. At their core, these are fairly new, interesting platforms for expression and interaction. The kinds of connections people make when playing games or looking at comics are different than those made with film, text, or any number of more traditional media used in museums.

The problem is that it's very hard to separate the expectations we have--about what games or comics are--from the blank slate potential of the media. This is true both for we the designers, who think we have to make games fun, and we the visitors, who expect the gaming experience to be fun. But what about games that are "interesting?" Or "enlightening?" Or "useful?" Those words aren't part of our gaming vocabulary, or if they are, as in the case of educational games, those games are often considered traitors to the "real" nature of games.

But who defines the traitors? As in comics, it's the big industry--which relies on the expectation that games are entertaining experiences. It's a short-sighted but familiar perspective; I can imagine early movie execs arguing that no one would go to movies if film was debased by use for mundane or unentertaining purposes. But ultimately it comes down to semantics. The same way everyone knows that a book is different from a magazine is different from a memo, someday everyone might know that a video game is different from a home game is different from a work game, etc.

Recently, some games have successfully started to open up the medium to extend beyond "fun." Mobile casual games, played by commuters, could arguably be considered "time fillers." Is it fun to read a magazine on the train? Is it fun to play Bejeweled? The goal isn't to have fun as much as to pass the time--and games can fill that role as easily as books, ipods, or dropped cell calls. Similarly, the enormously successful casual Brain Game, which is essentially a repetitive IQ test experience, isn't popular solely because it's fun. Supposedly it improves your brain function. And Wii Fit is the new hot thing--a game to help you exercise.
World Without Oil, a "serious" ARG, is less about fun than about figuring out collectively how to save the world. I play my own un-fun games: beat the last tank's fuel efficiency, guess the number of eggs in the coop, bet on how long I have until the laptop power dies. Would I like a real game interface for these experiences? You bet--and I wouldn't complain if it wasn't "fun."

The trick is to find the unique ways that these newer media fit into the total palette of what a museum--or any cross-platform experience--offers. There are lots of experiences in the museum that are "boring," or, to use a less incendiary word, typical--reading text, watching film, listening to audio. It's the content and the connections that create a great experience out of those media. Which stories would best be told by games? Which by comics? Which on the web? Which through dance? Which through media we haven't yet invented?

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Treasure Hunts, Tactile Domes, and Other Layered Beings

Last week, I met a woman named Ellen, an orthopedic surgeon, who hunts for treasure. I'm not kidding. She was telling me the story of how she ended up in Santa Cruz. She had a high stress job in clinical trials, and finally needed a break. She found a great opportunity to join a practice here in Santa Cruz, but first, she narrowly avoided a mid-life crisis by taking four months off to go treasure hunting.

At this point in the story, like most reasonable people, I stared. She was already talking about spine surgery and I had to go back. "What do you mean, treasure hunting?" It was as if I had finally met a real pirate.

Ellen explained that in 2005, when she quit her job, she discovered A Treasure's Trove, a children's book by Michael Stadther, in which fireflies and grasshoppers coexist with layered puzzles and mysteries. At first listen, the book sounded like a childhood favorite of mine, The Eleventh Hour, a lavishly illustrated whodunit riddled with ciphers and a solution in a sealed envelope.

But A Treasure's Trove is far more than an armchair adventure. When the book was released in November 2004, Stadther announced that he had placed 12 gold tokens--one for each creature in the book--in twelve locations throughout the U.S., and that each location was indicated in some way by the puzzles in the book. Since then, Ellen and tens of thousands of other treasure-seekers have engaged with A Treasure's Trove and its sequel, gallivanting all over the states looking for various tokens and symbols hinted at in the book. A few may do it for money (the treasures, when first found, are redeemable for valuable gems), but most do it as a way to bond as a family and take their love for puzzles on the road. Ellen, for example, connected with her gruff Korean father when they went on a wild expedition that involved a car breakdown, no jackets, and a lot of snow--but they overcame all their frustrations cracking puzzles into the night in a Motel 6. Similarly, in the bulletin boards and forums that have risen up around A Treasure's Trove, people tell stories of whole families devoting evenings to puzzles instead of TV, and spending vacations on some serious adventures. It's so wholesome I half-expected Ellen to morph into a Pound Puppy.

I was enraptured by her description, not because I wanted to revisit cryptography class, but because Ellen and thousands of others had been spurred into hours and hours of engagement by a single children's book. It was the most extensive, dedicated "post-visit" to a book I can imagine. It changed the way I think about narrative game design.

Here's the problem I see with museum-based narratives and games: people don't revisit exhibits the way they revisit games. When I get a new board game, I expect to play it many times (if it's any good). I expect it to take a couple tries before I have a handle on the basic game mechanics, and then I expect to keep enjoying it on repeat experiences. If it's a computer- or web-based game, I expect that there may be a narrative that keeps me coming back again and again to progress (even if that narrative is as simple as "save the princess" in Mario). If it's a book, I expect to move on to the next one in the series, or, to glumly accept that it's over and move on to other parts of the library.

Not so with museums. If an exhibit asked visitors to come back next week for level 2, it's highly unlikely they would ever see people progress through the ranks. This is even true of museum programs--in my experience, while you can certainly attract repeat program attendees, it's hard to fill programs that progress from 101 to 201; not enough people think of museums as places where the experience evolves over time. This is also a challenge for Web 2.0-style design integrating evolving visitor content--people aren't visiting the museum with enough frequency to be part of a meaningful dialogue happening there. Sure, they can offer a comment, but it's a one-off, not a continuing relationship or engagement.

And herein lies the beauty of A Treasure's Trove. All the content and the tools to unlock it are preexisting in a book. There's no gradual rollout of more complicated levels or additional puzzles. It's all right there from the beginning, and it's up to the reader to read in deeper and deeper to access more content. And readers have created their own structures outside the book to connect with one another and "continue the story" by sharing their own adventures. It's generously, delightfully cross-platform, and the core experience is fairly concise.

What if museum exhibits were designed this way--to encourage visitors not to see the new thing but to find more things in what they already saw (and to find those things both in and outside the museum)? I had a little of that experience last month at the Exploratorium in the Tactile Dome (a pitch-black walk-through dome), where, to my initial surprise, they let you go through several times in a row. Each time, you find something attached to the walls you didn't feel before. The base experience is short and simple, but there's complexity to uncover on successive trips through. Instead of creating an hour-long program that builds up to or begins with the Dome, the Dome itself is the hour-long program, iterated over and over. It's a very efficient way to use real estate and to engage visitors for a longer time.

Every time we found something new to us in the Tactile Dome, we were excited to tell everyone around, "hey! I found a broom." And then all these people would shuffle over in the dark to feel the broom. The darkness created layers of discovery that weren't present in the well-lit, well-labeled parts of the museum, where it seemed like everything was on display for easy access (and appeared to hold no mystery nor layers).

A few years ago at ASTC, some Exploratorium exhibit designers gave a talk on dos and don'ts of interactive design. One of the things that kept coming up was the idea that you need to make the "primary" phenomenon totally achievable and self-evident so that people don't get caught up in secondary, unintended phenomena. For example, if you have a big thing that spins and moves around some water (and the water is the "important" part), you want to make sure that spinning the big thing isn't so cool that it overwhelms the water's motion. This leads to confusion and to visitors feeling let down--"why did they just make a big thing to spin? I don't get it."

One solution to this problem is to streamline design to totally focus visitors on the primary phenomenon, concept being that visitors only approach exhibits expecting to learn or interact with one thing. I do it, I get it, I move on. But it doesn't have to be that way. I think we can design exhibits with clear primary objectives/elements and equally clear secondary, or deeper layer ones.

Of course, many exhibit designers might argue that this is how all good exhibits are--there are deeper, special kernels that can only be accessed and or appreciated over many visits and much reflection. Well, there may be lots of fascinating layers to a painting or a phenomenon, but if it's not clear to me how to start unlocking that content, I'm unlikely to dig deep enough. And these revelations still have to happen at the exhibit, in the museum. How can I keep unlocking the content once I'm back at home?

Many museums are working on using technology to personalize and connect various parts of the museum experience. Self-generated webpages, emails back to you from the museum--all these things are good, but the visitor response to them is often low. What if, instead of getting to mail home the content from the exhibit, you got to take home the secret parts, the parts you couldn't figure out or get to in the museum? What if an exhibit explicitly started a story, a mystery, or a discovery that was so compelling it sent you home thinking about the solution?

This relates to the question of "who owns the museum experience." Too often, we think about exhibits and programs in terms of outcomes instead of instigations. We ask, "what did you learn at the end?" rather than "what are you going to do with this information when you leave?" It's a good question. And maybe a mystery, a set of ancient museum coins hidden out in the world somewhere, is a good place to start.