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.

2 comments, add yours!:

Anonymous said...

Hi Nina! Glad to see that you enjoyed your visit to the exploratorium and made it through the tactile dome without getting too scared of the dark spaces. In my experience, one of the most rewarding parts of working as an explainer at the ExploratOrium is facilitating visitors in having the kinds of repeat experiences that you talk about in this post. Our philosophy as floor staff "roamers" includes allowing the visitor to interact with the exhibit by themelves for the first few minutes before jumping in with the secrets and secondary uses. Having deeper interactions with an exhibit hopefully might carry over to the next exhibit allowing the visitor to discover another way to use a piece of the museum in a new and exciting way. As a explainer then, it's more important to know the little tricks that spark visitor interest than to have a deep understanding of the physics or chemistry behind an exhibit. By introducing the possibility of different way of playing with the exhibits, we can let them take a little bit of ownership of the experience. Instead of being force-fed facts, they can learn and interact with the museum in more meaningful ways.

Nina Simon said...

More reasons floor staff are so important to the meaningful visitor experience!

You bring up an interesting point, that maybe having a deeper interaction with one exhibit will compel visitors to have deeper interactions with other ones. I think that message could be more consciously expressed to visitors ("Hey, there's something magical in this one too if you poke around a bit"). Then again, personal taste might dictate which exhibits you are willing to stick it out with. The important thing is that the layers be non-compulsory, that is, that they aren't levels you have to progress through to enjoy the experience. Maybe there could be an exhibition that includes fewer exhibits, but all have an intro layer as well as deeper layers. Then, you could find the exhibits you REALLY want to spend time with and dive deep, instead of struggling to "unlock" every single exhibit.

I had a great visit to the Exploratorium... and particularly enjoyed the "Staff picks" sign featuring you. I wish there were lots more of those on the floor. The only negative surprise was the folks in front of us in line, who chose not to visit because they peeked inside and determined that it was a "kid place." How can we create interactive play places where adults feel welcome?