Monday, April 6, 2009

Something a bit different: The quarters game

I am talking a class with Nina Simon of Museum 2.0 through the University of Washington's Department of Museology. On Sunday we met for the first time at the Woodland Park Zoo and were tasked with creating circumstances in which strangers would talk to each other.

I joined forces with Kelly and Katie and devised a scavenger hunt style game based on a pile of Canadian and American currency. The game was extremely simple: we set a pile of Canadian and American coins on the ground near the Northern Trails exhibit at the Woodland Park Zoo with the following four instructions:

  1. Take a coin.
  2. Find the animal.
  3. Ask for help (if you need it)
  4. Give the coin to someone else!

Some people were confused by the game and asked those around them if they knew what the game was all about and who set it up. Others, particularly children, were totally into reading the rules and selecting a coin to explore the zoo with.

I am still battling with the value of this game. I know it accomplished a few things like helping people explore the Zoo, and prompting social interaction, but it didn't do much for the Zoo's mission: saving animals and their habitats through conservation leadership and engaging experiences, inspiring people to learn, care and act.

We have been talking a great deal about social objects as things that draw individuals together, which is great, but I feel like something is missing. So, let me try to fill this gap by introducing a new concept: the focus object. A focus object is something that gives an individual a reason to do something; the object focuses the individual's attention toward a specific task or activity, like finding an animal or talking to someone else.

In the quarters game the coin itself wasn't inherently social (although currency is a part of many social interactions). Rather, the coin focused the players on a specific objective (find the caribou) which may have allowed for a richer, more potent zoo experience. The social aspects of the game (ask for help, give the coin to another) were secondary to finding the animal. The coin itself is a small prize for achieving the objective, but what is more important is that the player found the animal and (hopefully) learned something because they were focused on completing the game.

Before we set up the quarters game at the Northern Trails exhibit, we tried it out with a family near the Raptor Center. The Raptor Center is basically a fenced-off field in which Zoo keepers handle predatory birds before an audience. We approached a family of four with the new Idaho state quarter and asked if they would help us figure out what kind of bird was on it. We gave the quarter to a young boy who approached a neighboring family to ask if they could identify the bird. Unsuccessful, the boy returned to us and we suggested that he ask a nearby zoo keeper. The boy was nervous, but his parents were really into the game at that point and led him up to te front of the crowd to ask his question. It turned out that the zoo keeper knew about the idaho quarter, and that the bird she was holding, a peregrin falcon, was the bird featured on the quarter. The boy was really excited by his discovery and the parents thought the game was pretty cool. We told the boy that he could keep the quarter and distributed stickers. Everyone seemed to come away from the game really happy.

In this situation, the boy was given a specific task with a variety of avenues for completion. He chose to ask other visitors for the information that he needed, but he could have looked around for signs or looked the answer up on dad's iphone. Once the task was completed, the boy recieved a prize. While the experience could have occurred without the coin, the quarter focused the boy on a specific goal and gave him a reason to interact with others.

1 comment:

  1. One of the things this brings up is the difference between social objects that are the point of the engagement and those that help mediate other social/learning experiences. I think of photos on Flickr as true social objects because people actually care about and scrutinize the photos themselves. Same with books on Librarything. But something like Facebook is full of social objects with no inherent value (i.e. virtual taco) that just help you express social intent towards others. Beer falls into this category, and maybe dogs.

    We probably need a different term to disambiguate social artifacts (where the object is the object) from things that mediate social experiences. Thanks for teasing this out--good food for thought.