Monday, February 14, 2011

Leading the Participant

Remember the last time someone said to you, "this is entirely your choice?" Maybe it was your family saying you could pick the restaurant, or your boss offering you one of two paths forward. Whatever the situation, personal or professional, the choice is not always honestly yours. Sometimes you really are the master of your own fate. Sometimes you're not.

When institutions invite visitors to participate on their terms, it's often tinged with the same lack of clarity about visitors' personal agency. Last month, the radio show This American Life ran a fascinating episode called "Kid Politics," which starts with a long segment about the Air Force One Discovery Center immersive experience at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. Whatever your opinion of Reagan, the segment, reported by Starlee Kline, is a fascinating perspective on what happens when we tell visitors the choice is theirs and then subtly (or not-so-subtly) tell them what to do.

The Discovery Center is a one-hour simulation in which groups of students (grade 5 and up) role play in a realistic, interactive environment. The students are each given roles on one of three teams--the Oval Office, a military command center, and a press room. The topic is the invasion of Grenada. The students are presented with the situation that Reagan faced (1983, a Communist revolution in a small country near other Communist countries, a group of 800 American medical students stranded there) and asked to figure out what to do. You can listen to Starlee Kline's opinionated 20-minute piece about it here. There's also a shorter, more expository (and positive) CBS video about the experience here.

As the students enter the simulation, onscreen actors tell them:
When you walk through these doors, you will no longer be students. You will make history. Lives are at stake. Adult staff members are not here to answer questions or help you. The responsibility is entirely yours.
But that's not exactly true from Starlee Kline's perspective. Starlee follows the group of students who portray Reagan and his advisors in the Oval Office. The simulation is structured to give students information, then a binary choice. Then more information, then another binary choice. Each time the students decide what to do, the young Reagan picks up a red phone and presses either A or B. But it's not a fair choice. As Starlee explains:
Before they start, the kids are told there aren't right or wrong answers. But the whole thing's rigged to make what Ronald Reagan did in 1983 look like the most appealing option. Each time they choose to do what he did, a bell goes off like they've won a tropical vacation to Grenada, instead of an invasion.
The adult educators and onscreen actors reward the group, saying things like "nicely done, that's correct based on what Ronald Reagan did," and "excellent work, President Reagan."

Starlee follows several groups through the Discovery Center experience over the course of a day. It isn't until the last group when Starlee sees a young Reagan who decides against the invasion--and against history. Whenever he enters the "wrong" choice, there's a loud, angry buzzer. This time, the onscreen actors and educator don't say "good job" or reward the students for their desire to avoid invasion. Instead, they get a lecture on what really happened in 1983.

If the point of the Discovery Center is to teach students the facts of the Grenada invasion, it's reasonable to create a program in which there's a right and wrong answer about what happened in history. But walking into this experience, the kids were told that the responsibility was "entirely theirs." It's disingenuous--and makes for a lopsided role playing experience--if there's only really one path to take.

That said, I sympathize with the challenges involved in designing something like this--challenges we faced again and again when I was working on the Operation Spy immersive experience at the International Spy Museum. Mira Cohen, the Reagan Library's Director of Education (and the creator of the Discovery Center experience) told me that the intent was to design a pilot program for 5th graders with a focus on learning historical thinking skills. As Mira explained:
The goal is for students to experience presidential decision making, and then debrief, discuss, and share, utilizing historical and civic literacy skills. The buzzer is meant to show whether or not you made the same choice as Reagan--not whether or not there was a right or wrong choice made. And the intention was for the facilitator to point out either during the experience itself or during the debrief that there are a lot of different choices.
Alissa Whitely, who manages the operation of the Discovery Center for the Reagan Foundation, felt that Starlee Kline misrepresented the whole Discovery Center experience and that it is much more even-handed than was portrayed by Starlee. Alissa told me:
Again and again, our educators tell the students that there are no wrong answers here and that students have a different perspective given their place in history. Yes, the majority of the groups probably choose what Reagan actually did. But when the students leave, we want to make sure they have the right information about what really happened in history. There's a thin line between understanding what really happened and imagining something else based on what the students experienced in a simulation.
Could 5th graders handle a truly open simulation? Maybe, maybe not. In a charming and potential heretical chapter in the book Connecting Kids to History with Museum Exhibitions, Minnesota History Center Museum director Dan Spock argues that for kids, imagining history, even inaccurately, may be more valuable than teaching them what really happened. While I tend to agree with Dan, I suspect that school boards across California may not share our enthusiasm. Imagine how the Discovery Center simulation might be different if kids really had a choice, if the Library worked with historians to imagine and spin out augmented versions of the past. It would be both exciting and confusing.

It would also be expensive. In the case of Operation Spy, we developed a fictitious espionage story, so we felt free to give visitors open choices and spin out different, value-neutral outcomes. But even in that situation, we only gave visitors a truly open choice at the end--it was just too complicated and costly to design spaces, interactive challenges, and media to support multiple storylines throughout the whole experience. Mira Cohen noted some of the practical considerations that kept the Reagan Library team from going in this direction with the Discovery Center, commenting:
From an experiential perspective, if we had true forking paths, it would take more time and more complex facilitation. We had a mandate to be able to put through five school groups per day, which means 45-50 minutes per group. Also, we're working with 5th graders who actually aren't learning anything about 20th century history, so they're coming in with a focus on historical thinking but not a strong understanding of what happened in the 1980s. I absolutely could imagine that those kinds of forking scenarios could be created using more space, more historical documents, greater time for analysis, maybe a different audience, and I think that would be extraordinarily exciting.
This post isn't a question of who's "right" about how these experiences are perceived by visitors. There's no A or B button at the end of this post with a buzzer ready to go off if you agree with Starlee Kline or the folks who work with the Air Force One Discovery Center. This post is here to raise questions: what kinds of choices are you letting participants make in the experiences you design? How honest and transparent are you about those choices? And if you are leading the participant, why?
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