Friday, October 26, 2007

Game Friday: Games as Gateways to Open-Ended Experiences

This past Wednesday (October 24), CBS aired an episode of CSI: NY in which a killer uses Second Life to attract and hunt down her victims. The episode was a cliff-hanger, and viewers were invited to log on to a special CSI:NY-themed island in Second Life to continue the hunt for the murderer. The mysteries—and killings—will continue in Second Life until players find the murderer, at which point she will be “turned over” to Gary Sinise and the rest of the “real” CSI:NY cast for resolution on air.

I’m one of many people associated with The Electric Sheep Company who have worked on this (free, still available) cross-platform experience, and I was lucky enough to write the narrative games that weave through the Second Life experience. As we designed virtual CSI:NY, the constant mantra was to address the “What do I do now?” question that plagues many newcomers to Second Life. Second Life, and virtual worlds in general, with their infinite opportunities for exploration, socializing, and creation, can be overwhelming and unappealing to people who are not specifically seeking a “liberating” experience. Most of us get stressed out by total freedom. We’re in a consumer culture. We want schedules and missions and assignments and grade breakdowns. We want the lights to go down, the music to swell, and the experience to sweep us away.

For that reason, virtual CSI:NY is an intentionally atypical Second Life experience. Everything from orientation to the downloadable toolbar/HUD gives you clear suggestions for what to do and where to go. Rather than “liberating” people to the whole virtual world, we constrain them to a world of directed content and clear goals. Operation Spy, the narrative immersion experience at the International Spy Museum, does the same thing. There, we combined the constraints of highly themed, intimate environments, timed challenges, and specific missions with a sense that “you control the experience.” It’s not surprising that the ad campaign for Operation Spy: “like the most intense movie you’ve ever seen, except you’re in it” is similar to that for virtual CSI:NY: “you’ve seen the show… now BE the show.” In both cases, the focus is on taking a more active role in what is typically a very directed experience, not as a creator, but as an actor.

There are many Second Life and museum purists who bristle at these kinds of projects. If the whole point of Second Life (or a museum visit) is for people to have an exploratory experience free of consumer B.S., why push them into a didactic mode of interaction? The answer is that in most cases, it makes for a less stressful user experience. We didn’t create the virtual CSI:NY games to limit people; we did it to offer clear activities with clear rewards. Over time, we hope that people will use virtual CSI:NY, and virtual worlds in general, in a more experimental, freeform way—but some people aren’t ready for instant liberation. They need to work their way in from interactions that make them feel comfortable and successful.

Similarly, one might argue that a simple museum game, such as a scavenger hunt, could be an entrance to museum-going that takes the stress out of meaning-making by transferring visitors’ energy to the game. But here the tension rises. Won’t we cheapen and distort the wonder of museums by shepherding visitors into fill-in-the-blanks, crossword puzzles and bingo cards?

Maybe not. Ultimately, this is about overcoming threshold fear. I don’t have threshold fear when entering museums, but I do when it comes to Second Life. Still a newbie, I’m uncomfortable jumping in-world without a clear destination. Working on virtual CSI:NY was deeply satisfying because we were always focused on that new user (with whom I identify), on answering the question, “What do I do now?”

The barriers to entry in Second Life are perceived as huge, so they have to be addressed in design (and games are considered an acceptable approach). But the barriers to entry in museums are also significant: we museum professionals have just grown inured to them. While we advocate for visitors, we rarely advocate for newbies to the museum experience. We expect a certain level of interest in the open-ended interaction offered, and if people don’t have previous experience with such interactions, we expect them to rise to our level.

Imagine a museum dealing with the same skepticism and fear that accompanies virtual worlds Second Life. Imagine news reporters probing unpopulated galleries or castigating science centers as places for hordes of zooming campers. Imagine if every article about a museum was written from the perspective: “Why would you ever go there?”

It’s been a privilege and a challenge to tackle these questions with virtual CSI:NY. We used games as one way to provide a gateway across a vast and confusing threshold. But the games are just an entrance. We can’t hide forever behind directed experiences, nor do the core users (either of museums or virtual worlds) want people to. At their best, these games and other tricks are early steps on the path towards understanding and appreciating the essential openness of virtual worlds (and museums).

What other games or non-gaming techniques could be used to usher museum “newbies” across the museum threshold? And how can these techniques help reveal the essential, delightful nature of exploration rather than masking it?

3 comments, add yours!:

Eric Siegel said...

Very insightful and generous post, as usual. Providing some organization to get people over their "threshold fear" is actually something that I think art museums have been intuitively handling for years. Art museum's range of options for the visitor are physically more limited...should I go look at work in gallery A or gallery B? But intellectually, they introduce an experience (stand still, concentrate, look, and open yourself to aesthetic responses) that is virtually unknown for many of their visitors. Therefore, the museums provide...what...little printed brochures, introductory text panels, curatorial comments in audio tours. Sophisticated art museum goers might consider these offerings superficial, but they help the visitor over the hump. I think that the maligned scavenger hunt might work similarly for visitors to science centers who are expected to do something that also may be unfamiliar to ended exploration.


Anonymous said...

Hi Nina,
open-ended learning is the realm of constructivism, but as Seymor Papert would say there is a wealth of knowledge in the objects around us-- objects created by others that we study, those we have created and those created through collboration. When I play games I can't help it-- guns make me want to try shooting things around me while anti-gravity devices male me want to lift and move things around. These objects influence my behavior along with the environments reaction to these objects or my use of these objects. For example, a gun that tickles instead of blowing away is much more likely to be pointed at allies. This relationship we have with the things around us in a virtual world can be leveraged to guide behavior. The challenge is not only the players but the designers. Some games that have done this well are Half-Life, Thief, or Hitman.

David K said...

Nina et al. --

I don't know how many of you had a chance to read Barry Joseph's recent blog musings on CSI and The Office in SL, but I thought they were worth sharing. Check it out at --