Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Should Museums Be Happiness Engines?

What role does “promoting human happiness” play in the mission statements and actions of museums? That’s the question I’m pondering thanks to Jane McGonigal and the Center for the Future of Museums (CFM). Earlier today, the CFM offered a free webcast of Jane McGonigal’s talk on gaming, happiness, and museums. You can now view the video in its entirety as well as the chatlog from the webcast. UPDATE: You must register an account with AAM to view the video and chatlog.

I'm a huge fan of Jane's and have been writing about her work since the early days of this blog, so I was thrilled to learn that the CFM was bringing in Jane to speak live and then opening up the lecture to a wider audience of about 300 online. We had a very active chat-based discussion during and after the webcast, and the chatlog will be available at the CFM site soon.

Jane’s main happiness argument has three points:
  1. Happiness research shows that four things make people happy: having satisfying work to do, the experience of being good at something, time spent with people you like, and the chance to be a part of something bigger.
  2. Games are happiness engines that are designed to support these four things. They provide clear instructions and rules for how to succeed, better feedback on how well you are doing, better community with which to experience the game, and induce more intense emotions of personal pride and accomplishment (fiero!).
  3. Non-game social platforms like museums should use game design techniques to make these institutions more successful at supporting user happiness.
This is not an argument that is specific to museums. Jane believes that introducing clear, intentionally designed gaming structures can make people happier as they work, explore their communities, and deal with tough personal and collective challenges (like climate change, as evidenced in the game World Without Oil).

Many game designers talk about how game mechanics can be applied to functional activities and “boring” topics, but Jane is unique in her argument that game structures don’t just make real life more fun, they help increase human happiness. One of the things that makes Jane’s work so popular and appealing is that her argument can be applied to many industries. Many industries have adopted “serious games” for use in training, but Jane is talking about pervasive gaming, gaming that is integrated into “real” life and work. A recycling bin that cheers for you when you flatten your cans. A workplace in which the path to career advancement is clearly laid out in the rules that come with the job. It’s easy to imagine ways that game structures could make life seem less capricious, more fair, more responsive, and more controllable.

However, I'm wary of the limitations of game structures to support human happiness. Games provide a powerful extrinsic motivation and reward structure via points, levels, flashing lights, slain dragons, etc. For people who receive poor extrinsic feedback in their lives--students who are told they are dumb, workers in unstimulating jobs, people who feel shy and lonely--games may provide an alternative motivational structure that supports their growth and happiness. But the motivation is still external. There are few games that teach you to "feel rewarded within" or appreciate the ways that you are part of something greater, and so I wonder whether games become an assistive technology, a happiness engine, upon which people become too reliant.

For example, consider voting. Voting is a real-life activity that suffers from poor extrinsic structure. People who don't vote (and there are lots of them) don't see the benefit of doing so, and perhaps a game structure could create an artificial benefit, like "citizen points," that would make voting feel more valuable. But would it translate to the citizen/player actually feeling that voting IS valuable? That their voice DOES matter? If not, the game becomes a crutch, a patch on a system that exacerbates our dependence on extrinsic motivation.

Early in Jane's talk, she showed statistics from a "happiness index" of countries that are most and least happy. The people in countries that are most happy--mostly small, incredibly poor countries in Central and South America--may not be as reliant on external indicators, like money and status, to feel valued, connected, and important to their communities. As Elsa Bailey asked in the chat: "Don't cultural attitudes toward the definitions/descriptions of happiness come into play here? Might relate to how to interpret the global happiness findings. Expectations may affect how people judge their ''happiness rating.'"

I'm not suggesting that games don't induce happiness, or that game mechanics are not powerful design agents of change. I think there are LOTS of ways in a society to use game structures to rewire our values and feelings of self-worth. I see games and game design methods as underutilized, exciting systems that museums should add to our experience design toolbox. But I don't believe that games are the only structures we should consider as we try to design experiences to promote feelings of self-worth, connections to community, and value. We need to make sure that we are also using design mechanisms that promote introspection, personal discovery, and intrinsically motivated exploration. There may be ways to marry these; for example, the Exploratorium has created an oxymoronic game called Be Here Now in which you see how long you can meditate on nothingness without your mind wandering.

This long reflection on external motivation relates directly to the core mission of museums. I think one reason museum professionals struggle with gaming is that many see it as a crass external substitute for the elegant, intrinsic rewards of museum-going. But for people who don't perceive those rewards (and there are many), games may offer a powerful connection point to help uninitiated visitors experience the kind of happiness, wonder, and discovery possible in museums.

And this leads to the broader question: are museums fundamentally in the business of promoting human happiness? I think many of us would like to be. As Mary Case put it in the discussion: "The point is that museums can provide satisfying work, help people be good at something, help them spend time with people they like, and be a part of something bigger. If we can do that (some of which we already do), we will all live happily ever after..." But others weren't so sure. Matthew Jenkins commented: "Still don't grasp why is creating sustainable world happiness the primary mission of a museum? What about learning?"

If we can use game design techniques to help people feel happier exploring collections, discovering exhibits, and messing with interactives, then we will help them learn. Happiness is an "enabling" emotion that makes people more open to new or uncomfortable experiences, and games may be a happiness-delivery system that enables people to be more energized and curious about museums.

And we have an enormous and unique opportunity to enable happiness. I think the point is not that museums should be happiness engines but that we can be. Museums are already good at connecting people to friends and letting them be part of something greater--we just have to work on the meaningful work and feedback part. And that's very doable. Unlike many other designed experiences, museum consumers have a great deal of agency in their visits. It is much easier to imagine museum-goers as "players" than to imagine book-readers or movie-goers as players. Museums are flexible, open spaces that support visitors creating their own connections with content. And one of the ways we should do so is via games and game mechanics.

I'll be thinking more about this and hope to play further with the idea of what a museum-specific "happiness engine" might look like. In the meantime, I'm curious to hear your thoughts. I also want to point out that you can find a LOT of game-related posts on this blog by clicking "game" in the tag cloud on the sidebar, or by clicking this link. Happy playing!

20 comments, add yours!:

Anonymous said...

Nina, thank you so much for this post. I was following the chat as well as I could while trying to process the webcast, and kept getting stuck on two points: happiness, and the difference between virtual reality and the real world. Happiness is defined so differently by each of us that I found it difficult to break it into four main themes, or to measure it as in the worldwide happiness statistic shown. As for the difference between the gaming world and the real world (esp. within museums), your summary here of the benefits and risks of relating the two was very helpful. I'm concerned with how virtual communities and virtual social interactions are intrinsically different from real-life person-to-person contact. Still, I do think there are lessons to be learned from the gaming world.

Anonymous said...

"For people who receive poor extrinsic feedback in their lives--students who are told they are dumb, workers in unstimulating jobs, people who feel shy and lonely--games may provide an alternative motivational structure that supports their growth and happiness."

Ouch! This seems like a pretty broad and stereotypical assumption about who plays games - and the kinds of games that they play.

Go back and look again at the data that Jane showed at the beginning of her slides and think a little about what those statistics represent.

While this may be true about some people, a more nuanced understanding of the intersection between museum audiences and gamers may point the way towards museum games that will attract participants.

Jane said...

Hi Nina, this is a very thoughtful essay, but I couldn't disagree more with assumption that most game-induced happiness comes from extrinsic factors. I just can't. It is hard to reduce the five million reasons why into lecture or a blog post, I can only point to the lived experience of millions of gamers worldwide. The real social support you get, the real sense of learning and accomplishment, the real feelings of awe and wonder and curiosity that stimulate your vagus nerve in the ways that religion and great art do, the opportunity to be valued by a community for effort you put forth... I mean, seriously, points and what not, that's feedback, that's just one of literally 100 ways games do a better job of decreasing suffering and increasing quality of life. The lived experience of gaming is the best thing I can point to. I realize I need to do a better job of addressing this, obviously, if this is a such a common perception. So I appreciate the opportunity to address this more explicitly. But I stand by it: Games are 100% intrinsic, renewable, sustainable well-being. Also, Top Secret Dance Off, about which there is virtually nothing extrinsic.

Nina Simon said...


I think you are right that regular folks, even people like me who like to play games and integrate them into my life, don't have the right vocabulary to talk about the intrinsic motivators. For example, for me, sports are the game of choice. I am addicted to team sports. I love how the external game structure creates opportunities for connection with other people, to do my best, have fiero moments. I don't see the outcomes in terms of points or games won/lost. But I do see it being facilitated by an externality--the rules of the game. I can't motivate myself to run the same way I can motivate myself to run after a frisbee in an ultimate game--so I see the game as an external motivator that helps me get into the activity. Nike Plus is similar--an external game that makes running compelling. Is it "good" that it takes a game for me to want to run? Shouldn't I want to run for its own sake? My husband does that, and it makes him happy in a way that's hard for me to fathom, some intrinsic secret way.

Richard, I in no way meant to belittle gamers with that statement. I see how it could be construed that way, and I'm cringing. I was working off Jane's "I'm not good at life" image and thinking about how game structures can provide useful alternatives for the times that we ALL feel that way.

Nina Simon said...

I guess what I'm really asking is this: If games are the best happiness engines (which I am willing to believe), where are they weakest in creating happiness, and where are they strongest? Where are the gaps? I think it's useful to explore the limitations so we can use any design tool to the best of our abilities.

Jane said...

It's a great question Nina -- one I'm grappling with in a book chapter I'm writing now on gamers' collaboration superpowers... the tension between how much fiero and flow is induced by a strong human competitor, both extremely positive emotions, and the potential negative emotions that come along with competition (whether you win or lose) is a big issue for game developers in any medium or forum. I am optimistic that certain technologies and genres -- like sophisticated AI directors in Left 4 Dead, or collab creation games like Spore and Little Big Planet -- are doing really important work in the area of creating more flow and fiero in non-competitive environments. That's what I'd identify as the potential deal-breaker. It's a great question Nina. Thank you for asking it!!

johnmaccabee said...

It is not that I find much to object to with the happiness vernacular, and it is an agent of change, but it does seem to unhinge happiness from our experience of it. Maybe because it is not happiness itself that was made manifest to us, historically I mean, it was the pursuit of it – with pursuit belonging in any discussion of games. Games are processes of pursuit signified by their own sets of rules, experience brackets, like jokes or stories. Museums are brackets waiting to happen; accumulators of theatricality and agenda. And if what is needed to understand the link between museums and games is a statement of affinity, what seems to result from both is improved pattern recognition, with games sharpening these skills, and considering that one of the first results of improved pattern recognition could be skepticism, I feel compelled to offer the following buzzkill: social engineering (with its concomitant questions about free will) often accompanies progressive political movements. Thank you, Nina, for providing the space for thinking out loud.

Anonymous said...

Hi Nina,

Not personally offended. It often seems that conversations about games start out that way, and you have to work past the stereotypes to have real conversations about what games and play can mean.

More later, I'm being motivated to watch LOST! ;)

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed the whole concept... but my only issue is that museums need to leave space for creating unhappiness, anger, and all the other range of human emotions.. and beware of creating a 'prozac nation'. Anyways I also reviewed it on my blog, and posted a link to this review... which is, as ever, interesting to read.. nice one Nina:

Anonymous said...

So watching this whole thing unfold with senior staff and some nay sayers, I had to say I was a little underwhelmed.
If you are speaking only for 45 minutes lets stick to one metaphor and are we are going to suggest that we now have to not only find the funding to actually keep our doors open, but change humanity and make everyone happy????
Despite skirting the edge the good doctor (I think) was helping to demonstarte that this amazing conectivity that exists on the web and in virtual worlds can be applied in our very real world on a daily basis. It took me a long time to convinve my boss of this and get him off the kick that soon we were going to have to start making dogs AND people happy!

Unknown said...

Nina...thanks for the nice synopsis. I'm still processing much of yesterday's discussion and, as always, I appreciate your thoughts on the topic.

Anonymous said...

First of all, thanks to Nina for posting the links to the presentation and slides for those of us who missed out on the live webinar (much of the Midwest was covered in snow and COSI was closed for the day).

This is an intriguing conversation that relates to some brainstorming I have been doing as Web Manager regarding website structure that can respond to, interact with, and adapt to the needs, wants, and values of its visitors. It seems that value, desire, and effectiveness are all extremely difficult to quantify in users/visitors no matter what methods you use (raw visits, ratings, rankings, etc).

My biggest hangup with both game scoring systems and "measurable interest" is that there are always people who will seek (and find) a way to cheat the scoring system, resulting in scores and results that don't TRULY reflect the intentions of the creators. In video games and in real life, this can often have serious negative effects for those who try to "play fair" and seek out the true intention of the game or experience. These well-meaning players often feel themselves cheated when they put a lot of effort into being truly involved only to see others who cheat the system surpass them on the scoring sheet.

I am encouraged by the fact that a company like Google constantly refines their algorithms and scoring systems so that those who attempt to cheat the system not only lose the effect of their devious ways, but actually get penalized for such methods. It is that kind of constant adjustment that keeps them on top by providing their users the service they promise (providing the highest quality, most relevant links) and in the process rewarding those who are providing the best content.

It is an interesting discussion for sure though... I look forward to taking some time later today to sit through the whole presentation :)

Jane said...

John, I know from your blog that you believe that museums should be in the business of "caring" about visitors and providing comfort in tough times. To me, making a commitment to care about well-being and improve quality of life isn't really a stretch from that! And it has nothing to do with funding and everything to do with asking different questions and applying different criteria when decisions about what to make, for whom, when, and how to offer an experience of it.

John Buchinger said...

Jane, first off I need to make a rule, no more beer and blog posting.
I did really enjoy the session and have sent the post on to all my usual oulets including the museum studies program my institution is associated with. The webinar and info you provided was thought provoking, fun and pushes us into some kind of action.
The staff at my institution has also begun an inhouse online discussion to process the grenades. I struggle with my people who focusses in on the the guy in the audiance asking about dog happiness. So they get stuck on that and miss the beauty of your four principles, or the implications of how collections can be interpretted and elevated by on-line or real life gaming.
Other people think we should insert Ms.
So I don't know if there is a way to put on training wheels for peoples thinking?Or is this even a good idea?

Nina Simon said...

Tip for sharing this with future staff members: hit STOP before the questions from the audience begin, and you can avoid the dogs. That guy was bizarre, IMO.

Also, what is Ms?

Jane is talking big picture vision stuff. There is definitely a "training wheels" introduction to gaming that does not include the happiness argument. In that case, you can talk about gaming as a design mechanism to deliver on your core mission, without having to have the additional discussion about whether your core mission is about happiness. I recommend references like Amy Jo Kim's Putting the Fun in Functional for that kind of introduction.

That said, I think that for those who are skeptical of games' benefits to visitors, the alignment with happiness/self-fulfillment experiences is useful to demonstrate gaming isn't just a marketing ploy to bring in the young'ins.

Elizabeth Trever said...

even without beer I botch things. I was going to go on a tirade about people wanting to insert Ms. Pacman into virtual paintings to point out how some folks are really trying to get it but just really missing the forest and then didn't delete the whole line...

Anonymous said...

I guess this debate about gaming in museums is emerging because of the new technologies involved...?

But haven't we had games in the museum for years? Every education department uses games at one time or another..."I Spy" being the age-old favorite.

Look around the museum --- notice that visitors quite often treat interactives as games, looking past the content and pushing buttons willy-nilly trying to activate the "reward." But the games we've been offering so far spring from the foundation of the museums' collections, not from the idea that museums need to "happy up" their visitors. This is a bit of a shift. It seems to set a specific emotional response as the target. I'm not sure I'm at all interested in manipulating visitor's emotional responses - I don't want to look out the front door in the morning and think, "how are we going to make all our visitors happy today?" Nope. I guess I'm more interested in finding ways to engage with the people who come to the museum (and more specifically - the collections) for cerebral and/or social reasons...? I don't want any responsibility for a visitor's happiness quotient.

Anonymous said...

I guess my takeaway from the webinar was that it was very forward-looking in getting museums to destygmatize the idea of gaming in the virtual world as a way of reaching masses of people. As always, there is more to consider: namely the need for dialogue with our communities (the major games referenced - like WoW - are driven by their hosts, not by the audience); and more conversation about the basic creativity of many people and the ways in which gaming can release that drive to create.

I particularly liked the notion of "Applied Imagination" but we need to be clear that we are not applying our imagination onto our audience. My question would be, what games allow for their users to imagine and create their own means of achieving a goal? And what role should they play in determining what that goal should be?

In sum, there are several issues at work here: gaming to promote happiness, the role of technology in creating scalable experiences, and the value of full participation in the creation of content.

Anonymous said...

I'm against this notion that museums must make feel us happy. It is a nice field of research but should not become a must for every museum. I can go to a museum to understand something, feel mixed emotions,...Also, games can generate a much diverse range of emotions than happiness: anger, violence, a feeling of strangeness. And all of this is fine, valuable. Please, don't make museums a feel good experience looking like some Coca-Cola ads. This is not the reality and I don't want to live in a cocoon or illusion.

Tricia said...

I think the term "happiness" is used much more broadly today - if you check out Happier by Harvard professor Tal Ben-Shahar (or other authors on the subject), they don't mean that happiness is a "warm puppy" (like Jane said). I'm going to butcher it by trying to explain, but the new way researchers are using the term is to describe focusing on what makes you want to get up everyday -- learning, laughing, having strong emotions, whatever that is, and whatever that combination is...