The Game is Up: Game Design as Part of the Interpreter’s Tool Kit

Serious Games in Virginia is this week. Here is the gist of the ideas that I shared.

Why Games?

Games are about experience, interaction, and engagement with ideas while fueled by competition, camaraderie, and humor. Education has tried to capitalize on these elements in games as the ultimate form of constructivist learning.  No other form of content engages people quite like games.

Think of all the ideas absorbed while fighting to win. (Boardwalk is low rent; Carcassonne is one seriously walled town; the Oregon Trail was no joke.) Beyond the facts gleaned, games drop players into worlds where learning the systems and rules was imperative for victory. In a well-designed game, the player’s joy and desire propel them; learning is, therefore, self-fueled and addictive.

So Educational Games are a no-brainer?

What teacher, content-writer, interpretation professional, etc. don’t want people to be addicted to their ideas? But, the challenge is that games need to have an inherent authenticity that can be crushed by contrivances. Putting too many constraints and requirements during game design is a sure way to kill the game. This problem is at the heart of the challenges many people have with the term “edutainment.”  Detractors point out that games are inherently educational, after all as they teach systems and interactions; edutainment is a way of hobbling good games with excessive content.

Truthfully, I am on the fence about edutainment. I like the idea of games as a way to get people into ideas in an entertaining way. My issue with edutainment and any other content-based game is about expectations and design. Games can’t do everything for everyone. Games are darn-hard to design and even harder to perfect. Games that feel easy to play are hard to design. Content-providers and educators must manage their expectations for the game. So, what’s the way to get the best content-based game? Scale back content expectations, increase the time for design, and test the heck out of the game.

What are the decisions you make to create game-based interpretation? How do you think about the audience?

First, when planning a game figure out who is playing this game and what their actual behaviors are. But, thinking about the audience requires nuanced considerations. All people play games sometimes but not all people want to play games all the time. In other words, games seem universal, but they aren’t. Often, content-providers are simplistic in considering who wants games.

Children seem like an obvious audience for game-based interpretation. Sure, games often work for kids, but children often want to play games to exclusion of everything else. Ever had to play Candyland until you consider gumdrop-icide? A family exhibition that needs fast thru-put might not be the best option.

Adult audiences have not lost all joy in life; they are not inherently-game averse. But, some types of games will turn off some adults. Role-playing games draw some adults for almost the same reason that they turn off other adults. LARP lovers want to be immersed, taking pride and joy from all the nuances of language and dress required to get into it. LARP-averse folks do not want to get into it—at all. (And, yes, I know that LARP love isn’t just a binary pro or con, but more of a spectrum.)

Practically speaking, game design is expensive in terms of time and energy. The most logical conclusion might, therefore, be to plunk money into a game that works okay for most audiences. But, designing games for slightly specialized audience slices can be easier and more successful. A good approach is to pick a sizeable chunk of the overall audience, say the largest sector of an exhibition audience, and plan for them.

After honing in on your audience, you need to focus on time, space, and depth. How long will people spend, at a minimum, to play one round? Time considerations should actually be considered before content ideas. If you only slot in 1-2 minutes, you cannot expect players to learn about all the nuances of the 100 Years War. Alternately, if you are creating a game that makes people WANT to learn all the nuances of the 100 Years War, you need to accommodate longer gameplay. Therefore, content is a function of time and space. Have a game where players can sit and dig in? You can go a little deeper with content. Only have space and time for a quickie? Hold the content tight and concise.

Finally, make sure experience goals are more important than content outcomes. In other words, make sure players enjoy engaging with the ideas. Think of that saying that Coco Channel said about taking one thing off before you leave. Scale down your content goals at least once before designing your game, and then be okay with having to scale back again after playtesting starts. It is better for players to really understand a few ideas while playing a fabulous game than being turned off by a whole host of ideas due to a terrible game.

Who should design a game?

Game design is a specialized skill, in certain ways, but also a learned skill. A full-time game designer has years of experience to draw upon. A museum profession or educator has years of knowledge and teaching to draw upon. In my previous museum work, I lead a team that developed games. Creating games bonded the teams and surfaced the complementary skills amongst the staff. Yet, we were often working long, un-competed hours to make our games. We were often unsupported by our institution.

So, the question about who should design a game is a complicated one. Now, as a consultant, with the pleasure of distance, I think game design can be exquisite torture for museum professionals—worth doing for the joy but torturously hard-work. Pairing institutional content people with game design people allows the museum/education people to have the joy of creating the game without the exhaustion of working through design and playtesting without support.

What makes a game successful?

I live in a mixed house-household—Scrabble-haters and Scrabble-lovers. While true, I mention this useful fact because even the most successful games will not hit 100 percent of players. So, firstly, success cannot be measured by the percentage of people who play. Instead, focus on the quality of experience for the people who did engage with the game. Did they enjoy the game? Would they play again? Would they tell friends about the game?

After focusing on enjoyment, then focus on content outcomes. This will be hard for educators and museum professionals, as they are generally focused on sharing information. But think of it this way. If your players were miserable but understood your content goals, you failed and made people unhappy. If your players had fun but didn’t understand your content, you failed but at least your visitors were happy. The best game, of course, helps people engage with content joyfully. And, that is totally possible, as long as you are completely aware that content success only happens when a player experience is at the fore of all decisions.

Content Touchpoints

Often museums preference onsite visitors to offsite ones. But, both types of visitors engage with ideas; and both groups overlap. The numbers can be astonishing.  Art Institute of Chicago has about 1.5 million onsite visitors and 706000 on social media. LACMA 1.2 Million onsite and 2 million on social media platforms. Museum technology, particularly social media, might reach those who otherwise would never even thinking about your museum. Sometimes social media might draw visitors to the site, but that isn’t the point of social.  Thinking holistically about content, and consider BOTH onsite and offsite visitors allows interpretation to implement better differentiation by format for the audience.

For more about digital interpretation, read When Content is Global: Digital Interpretation

Content Considerations by Visitor Segment

 

Museums have a good number of people (infrequent and regular visitors), who have a need for fairly general information. Within that group, you have a small portion that is especially unlikely to know your norms. This small group, infrequent visitors, is incredibly important. In design, they often say design for the extremes. In other words, pay special care to the people who have special needs, and everyone will feel special. So, when you work hard to make sure your labels meet these infrequent visitors, your regular visitors will win.

Read more about Labels in the World of Information Overload. 

Onboarding and Interpretation


Museum interpretation professionals are creating content for people who generally know less than them. Getting the right amount of content requires understanding the visitor. Tools like content mapping can help organizations get their content right. But, all museum professionals need to remember that their visitors have different baseline knowledge levels. Onboarding is a classic corporate word that encapsulates the idea that people might need a bit of aid to get connected to an organization. I always picture a ramp when I think of the idea of onboarding. Some ramps are short, when there is little small between two elevations. Others are long. The ramp is a good metaphor for the onboarding needs of visitors. People who know a great deal about the collection area will need little onboarding. (But, these people are also the ones who are the power users of your content.)  Casual visitors are often also people with greater onboarding needs; they have less pre-knowledge. Keeping the issues of onboarding in mind as you develop content will help you create content that meets the various needs of your visitor-base. Remembering that everyone comes in with different needs and pre-knowledge, also helps center the visitor in the customer experience.

Content Journey Mapping to Hone Interpretation Planning

Content in museums where theory becomes practice. The best-laid plans of mice and curators are exposed to visitors. Then the visitors wander through the installation spaces like pinballs. Anyone who has wasted serious coin on pinball machines knows that winning the jackpot is equal parts skill and luck. Frankly, good interpretation is similarly a bit of both as well.

Hedging Your Bets

First probably, organizations will develop more content than visitors will consume, because visitors are a complicated and varied bunch.  You can use some tools to help you develop the scope and goals for your content, but you will basically still be developing a bigger net than you need. Overall, you are giving more visitors will consume because this approach is the best way ensure there will be something for everyone.

But, producing more content than you need doesn’t mean that you should produce content indiscriminately. Instead, like a good poker player, you need to be strategic about what you need and what is out there. You need to think about what content works best on each platform, and what content is most necessary onsite. Basically, you need to find ways to parse out the idea based on the visitor’s needs.

The map about is an idealized, though fairly common, content journey map. Most people will receive content about the museum on social. (Some visitors might use the website or an app, but they are in the minority). Once they are onsite, visitors will be bombarded with content. There are labels, audiotours, tours, interactives, classes, and catalogs. Most visitors will engage with a small amount of this content. An interested visitor might then return home to engage with a bit more content, like flipping through the catalog or looking at the museum’s facebook posts.

Why do this? 

Content mapping is a useful tool for everyone working on content. This tool helps the whole organization understand how interpretation overlaps many functional areas. Visitors don’t see the silos in museum organizations. In fact, when there are disconnections between social media text and labels, this can be confusing for visitors.  The visitor experience is improved considerably when everyone sharing ideas with visitors works together.

Mapping also helps museums understand the role of each type of content. Interpretation is usually focused on onsite content, most often formal tools like labels and catalogs. But, other departments are instrumental in interpretation. Social media, for example, is an incredibly important content delivery device. Social media is often relegated to solely marketing. But, social media also serve important roles in engaging with installation interpretation. Social media can hit a casual humorous tone that can entice and charm visitors. Social media can help onboard people to the ideas about collections, helping visitors learn interesting kernels of information that scaffold deeper understanding.  Social also plays an important role in changing people from casual to regular visitors. Social media is an engaging and regular tool to invite people to continue to engage with the collection after a visit. Also, casual visitors are most likely to share their feedback about their museum experiences over social.

Conclusion

Content mapping is a tool that helps museums understand how visitors actually use content, both onsite and offsite. This type of tool can help different functional areas think collectively about interpretation and their visitors. Tools such as this are essential to creating a cohesive customer experience.

Appetite for Content by Visitor Segment

When planning content, interpreters need to perform a weird type of math.  After they formalize their process and create their goals, they then need to edit their desires to meet the visitor desires. Getting just the right amount of content is challenging to say the least. Part of the program is that the majority of visitors use very little information, but then there are the frequent visitors need a high level of information (partly as they come frequently). Additionally, relative or power users are super keen to access information, and they are often donors. Firstly, go back to your goals documents. Tailor content needs to make sure that visitor desires are addressed in the interpretation. This is a great moment to do research. In almost every instance, museums will still deliver more content than visitors need/want. Evaluation can help organizations get better (over time) at creating the ideal amount of content.

Getting the “Right” Amount of Content

This graphic illustrates the relationship between the museum and visitors content desires. Notice there is an overlap as well as places where the two groups diverge.

Getting the right amount of content is challenging. Firstly, content costs money and time. There is the writer, the researcher, and the editor–those people are all over-worked and underpaid. Content levels are an essential aspect of the visitor experience.  When there is too little content, visitors will feel like they aren’t getting their money’s worth. Too much content can overwhelm and turn-off visitors.

In addition, different audience segments have different needs. General visitors have much lower content needs than Power visitors. Curators will likely want to share more content than even the most intense power visitor. Finally, there will be content needs that visitors will want that museums will not be able to accommodate easily; there will always be visitor questions, for example, for which the museum won’t have the answer.

How do you understand what content to use? Start by understanding the organization’s needs and desires in comparison to the visitors’. 

The Sweet Spot for Interpretation & Questions for the Whole Team

 

The ideal interpretive approach is about blending staff ideas with visitor insights. First and foremost, the team should consider and understand what visitors want from your organization using formal evaluation. Without this information, your organization is working blind.

With that research in hand, the team needs to spend some time working together dealing with big issues. A previous colleague used to call these types of meetings the come to Jesus meetings. While I don’t have that same cultural reference, I would say that these are the courtship meetings. These meetings help you learn about each other and your ideas about your collections. The questions in the graphic solicit anecdotal ideas about visitors as well as input about institutional culture/mores. Organizations often ignore staff input about visitors as being less important than formal visitor research. This move is wasteful. As long as the anecdotal input is balanced with research, this staff insight should not be disregarded. Staff members of all types are experts in visitors; don’t discount this rich source for information.

Ideally, internal staff input, such as the answers to these questions, are balanced with visitor research to develop the sweet spot organization. Each organization will have a different sweet spot. In the end, your team can develop a document that articulates the following:

  • Visitors Want:
  • Visitors will feel:
  • Visitors will understand:
  • Ideal experience
  • Experience limits
  • Ideal content tone
  • Content limits
  • Culture Norms
  • Institutional Limits

Before you start this process, make sure everyone on you have a strong understanding of each how work culture can affect the process. 

The Sweet-Spot in Interpretive Approach & the Politics of Mounting Installations

 

Helping visitors engage in collections is a primary concern for museums. Museum professionals often partner with various vendors, consultants, and partners to do this work, for example commissioning firms to develop interactives for exhibitions. Mounting these installations can be exhausting and rife with interpersonal challenges. Visitors walking into spaces, ideally, have no idea how contentious and challenging mounting installations can be, thankfully.  Even if the customer experience appears alright, the staff experience should not suffer to mount such installations.

What causes interpersonal challenges in mounting spaces and installations?

I have always loved the phrase lock-step and turn-key. Both phrases scream efficiency, ease, simplicity, and replicability. None of these adjectives would be useful in describing the mounting of a collection space. Collections managers and database administrators work had to make systematize collection data. But short of digital systems, most things about collections are complexity and nuance. Objects come to museums for their rarity and complications. Installations are meant to help people with little background knowledge fall into love (like) with an object. Collectively, the work of the people mounting an installation/ exhibition is to bewitch/ bemuse the public.

Getting visitors from 0-60 about collections is a tall order and its one about which every person (either on staff or on contract) feels passionate. Emotions can run high, and the stakes can feel enormous. People on the teams come with different expertise; each person seems the DMZ and faultlines in the process differently and through the lens of their own professional role.  For example, while a curator might understand the nuance between using certain phrases (say artwork vs artifact), others on the team see these as unimportant arguments. Everyone on the team is often placed in the position of arguing their corner, and everyone can come out of the process feeling bruised.

 

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How can these challenges be mitigated?

Everyone on the team is hoping to get an interpretation for installations that is interesting and easy to use without compromising the museum’s reputation. This sweet-spot is a bit of a holy grail. But, diminishing inter-personal challenges and developing better systems is essential to improving interpretation. Sound systems result in superior products, and broken systems result in subpar products. Think of how a broken conveyor belt will not be able to create wonderful chocolates.

The first step in developing a good working process is to agree that ideal interpretation and installations need to be easy to access, understandable, and grounded in research. Like a three-headed dog, these three elements have to work in concert to go forward. Often museums allow their legacy to serve an anchor preventing action towards innovation and excellence. Museums can also be fooled by the newest fads to skew too far away from their core competencies.

After agreeing to collective and balanced actions, teams need to determine more practical issues, such as work plans, sign-offs, and tone. Underlying these practical issues the teams need to decide and articulate the no-go zones for their institution. Every institution has issues that cannot be discussed easily. Donor issues and collection histories often top these lists. In working with teams, I like to put these issues on paper. This process can feel uncomfortable. But, these lists are also freeing, in that one person on the team is not required to be the guardian of these verboten topics.

Finally, any good plan needs some follow through. Often, the best-laid intentions are destroyed because there is no big stick. Museum staff managers are rarely given training on deescalating emotional conflict; a fear of conflict is epidemic in many museum senior staff members. With so much work and so little time & money, who can fault these managers. The result is a culture of conflict-avoiding people finding ways to step around and then crashing into challenging personalities. When I have worked on successful installation and interpretative teams, there is a person who is judge, jury, room mother, and traffic controller. (Ideally, the team has been set up so that everyone is on their best behavior and everyone understands they are in this together FOR the visitor, so challenges don’t bubble up.)

Conclusion

Interpretative work is basically like all human to human communication, prone to emotions and challenges. In installation work, the bigger challenge might be that the people starting the conversations about the collections (the staff) are not actually present with the receivers (the visitors). The installations, from signs to interactives, need to speak to visitors on their own. When the systems create these installations are smooth, the conversations can go singingly.

 

On Thursday, we will talk about questions teams can ask themselves to hit the ideal sweet spot for interpretation. 

This topic also ties in with a previous post about the relationship between interpretation and research.

Content Strategy Matrix for Developing Compelling Content (Graphic)

The best writing is complex. Persuasive text needs to inform in order to convince the reader. Inspiring texts often grow from a kernel of fact. Enjoyable texts are the best way to feed people information. While creative writers have more latitude to move their readers, every writer needs to understand how to balance these aspects of the written text.

In informational or interpretive text, non-specialists have a low threshold for information overload. Entertainment is a wonderful way to engage people information, like a spoon full of sugar. Convincing and inspiring people is much more challenging in interpretive text than in creative text.  Convincing people with ideas is often about arming them with relevant ideas. Inspirational texts are, perhaps, the hardest types of interpretive texts. Inspiration often requires empathy and emotional engagement, a tall order for most interpretive text. But, some of the most successful types of inspirational text balance information, persuasion, and inspiration.

 

 

 

While each text needs to balance the different elements, overall, when working on interpretative content for an exhibition, the writer should be aware that each element has a different weight. Think about reading heavy, emotional text; you can only take so much. On the other hand, humorous or entertaining text can be read by the ream. Therefore, be thoughtful when constructing an exhibition to weigh the various aspects.