Monday, March 19, 2018

You gotta put down the duckie

It has been an interesting semester in my undergraduate game design & development studio. I am sure I have already forgotten more than one story that I intended to blog about, but that's just how it goes sometimes. My teaching load is actually reduced by one this semester as I work with a small team on a re-release of Collaboration Station. An unexpected result has been that all of my research time (and more) has gone into that project, and so I haven't written as much as I would otherwise like about some of the amazing things happening this semester. However, something happened in my game development studio last week that I thought was particularly notable, and so I want to quickly frame the story and share what happened. [Edit: "Quickly", you know, for my writing. I've been working on this post for some time now...]

This semester's studio follows last semester's collaborative exploration with Minnetrista, and my team is working on a game that is fundamentally about finding fairies on Minnetrista's campus. We're building on a prototype that was created by a student in the Fall: she designed a single-player mobile game in which a player finds characters on the grounds. Her game was based on the theme of imagination and creativity, inviting the player to either accept or reject fantastic elements. I worked with Minnetrista staff and my student team to adapt this into a very different kind of game: we are designing an experience for groups rather than individuals. In particular, we envision groups of explorers led by a facilitator; we are making an app that the facilitator would use to help create a great experience for those they brought to Minnetrista. These visitor roles come from a combination of existing museum theory and the particular psychographic work of our partners at Minnetrista.

We captured some of these ideas in the Spring team's vision statement, which we have hanging on a very large poster in our studio:
We are making a geolocative, narrative-rich mobile app that helps facilitators engage with explorers at Minnetrista—an app that features the varied grounds of Minnetrista's campus and the early 20th-century fairies beloved of Elizabeth Ball. The app will bring people together to be creative and engage the group in imagination and reflection.
The wall-mounted vision statement
I want to take a moment to point out how very strange this design space is. One person has the app, but that person is using it to direct the experience of other people. It has taken my student team weeks to wrap their heads around this, and indeed, I think some still have not. Essentially, the story I want to tell is about how one student finally did.

For essentially the whole semester so far, we have been working on the experience of meeting a single fairy. I explained several times that we can sacrifice scope, but we cannot sacrifice quality: if we cannot make one good fairy-finding experience, then we cannot make three, or five, or ten. The team built a minimum viable product—a proof-of-concept to explore the technology stack, essentially—and we have completed two sprints. Unfortunately, each sprint, the team dropped the ball with respect to end-user playtesting; fortunately, I think they have finally learned their lesson! The point of this is that we had a fundamental design but no authentic testing of it.

This design involved having a group of people sing for the fairy at a particularly fantastic location, and the fairy would emerge in response to the singing to befriend the players. The team has considered using the microphone to respond to singing, using a timer, or relying on self-reported completion in order to know when the group was finished singing. Paper prototyping of this idea worked fairly well, although that's a story for another day (one of the many stories I want to capture if I can push other things off my plate long enough).

On Wednesday of last week, I was sitting with a student who has been actively involved in much of the lightweight prototyping process. He was wrestling with the scenario and whether or not it met our goal that it would "engage the player in meeting" a fairy. This led him to an epiphany. He realized that perhaps the app was more like tabletop roleplaying games than like conventional videogames: the facilitator was the dungeon master, and their group was the party. This gave him a new lens to consider the problems of experience design—a new, useful metaphor for framing the process. It seemed to me he had hit a point where he could now productively move forward. The fact that this took half a semester for the student who has done the most prototyping and design work on the whole team is further feedback about the strangeness of the design space, and it's also based on this that I think many members of the team may still harbor unproductive understandings of what the vision statement actually means.

That brings us to Friday of last week, when I sat with two students as they worked on design—one of them being the student mentioned above, who had been sketching screens based on the "dungeon master" metaphor. For a variety of reasons, we were looking at the fundamental group activity, replacing singing with something more like dancing. We talked about skipping as a whimsical and fun activity, and as we tried to describe the scene, the question came up, "What is the facilitator doing?" One of the students explained that if they were at the park with their mother, and they were skipping but their mother was not, they would stop. How, then, do we get the facilitator to participate in the activity as well, so that the whole group is enaged together?

Hoots knows the answer.

You gotta put down the duckie if you wanna play the saxophone.

You gotta put down the smartphone if you wanna facilitate group enjoyment.

Our design space just got even weirder. We are now investigating and designing ways to encourage the facilitator to put their phones away and join their group in fun and creative activities. I pointed out that it was sort of like pulling the trick that Undertale popularized, where the game should react to the fact that it is closed. In fact, we don't just want to react to someone turning off their mobile phone screen: we want to encourage and reward it. We're moving forward on two fronts: incorporating putting away your phone as part of meeting the fairy, and also finding ways to feed-forward the idea that, yes, this app is aware of and responds to its being closed.

Regular readers may remember the end result of last year's game design & development studio was Spirits at Prairie Creek Park [game site, blog post]. That is a game in which groups of people go to different locations at Prairie Creek Park and engage in real-world sensory activities such as touching, listening, or smelling. In that game, we have one person holding the app and directing the others—likely children—in what to do. There is a 30-second countdown during the activity, after which the smartphone-wielder enters the data about what their group found. In our (admittedly-limited) playtesting, we saw that the one with the smartphone would stand and watch the timer go down while their group engaged with the activity. At the time, we didn't talk about what that one person was doing, but you know what? Watching a timer is not really much fun. We didn't recognize this in our design analysis then either, though, that there's an opportunity for the facilitator to improve the overall group activity by pocketing their smartphone and joining in. It is fascinating to me that we never noticed this, but then again, that team also had other problems to deal with, including some significant technical hurdles to overcome.

If you know of other games that explore this design space, please share in the comments. My team and I would be glad to see how others have approached it.

Thanks for reading!

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