(written as advance thoughts for a talk called "Touch_Start: Designing Interactive Game-Based Elements", given at ALA The Future Is Now: Libraries and Museums in Virtual Worlds conference for on March 5, 2010)
Imagine teaching, or taking, a class on ancient Egypt and being invited to peer close enough to ancient artifacts, from all angles, that you can discern the tiniest hieroglyph on the back of a mask, without having to push your way through a crowd. Think about the ramifications of challenging students to decode the meaning of a tomb wall painting in a certain amount of time, while they are standing in the tomb. Take a minute to picture yourself surrounded by the objects you study, which have been modified slightly to react to your touch and your actions in ways that help you understand, imagine, reflect, or connect better with the subject, and with your learning peers.
In 3D virtual spaces, interactive objects, game elements, and game-based interactivity can make this type of immersive learning a reality. I've been re-reading Janet Murray - especially the chapters in Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace
(MIT, 1997) that deal with interaction, immersion, and agency. Murray, and other scholars who stalk my bookshelf including Ian Bogost (Persuasive Games
[MIT, 2007]), and Edward Castronova (Synthetic Worlds
[Chicago Press, 2005], Exodus to the Virtual World
[Palgrave/MacMillan, 2007]), Chris Crawford (On Interactive Storytelling
[New Riders, 2005]), see immersion happening in familiar places, like the epistolary novels of the 18th century - as well as in virtual spaces that tell stories for historical and educational purposes. Then they take these links one step further, emphasizing that the computer making our connection to these spaces gives us agency (the ability to direct events), and that interactive objects within these spaces both enhance agency and deepen immersion.
The idea of interactive objects is not new in the museum space - the touch-kiosk has been around for quite a bit. But enabling that kiosk to react to a visitor's information - where he or she has already been, what they are able to do - is beyond the simple box. It is not beyond a similar box, or even an artifact, in the metaverse, or virtual, space, however. In fact, a virtual object that does not recognize the visitor and their capabilities in some way is missing an opportunity to make a connection between visitor and virtual space that develops into immersion.
So interactive objects are familiar things - whatever type of space they're in. What about game-based elements? Game-based elements have a challenge or task at their heart. Success or failure is possible, so there is risk. And learning is possible, especially if one can re-engage with the game and try again. Goals and tasks combine with achievements and rewards to allow participants to level up in skill-sets and understanding.
When you combine interaction with games, especially in an immersive environment, you create a learning space that is rich in responsive objects, required tasks, and optional learning activities. Reactive environments with game elements encourage exploration, challenge the visitor on several levels, and promote even more opportunities for learning at different paces, and for different styles.
Two of the interactive game-based environments we've been working on for Rezzable the past several months include the Steamfish project
and new games and expeditions for the 3D virtual world heritage regions at Heritage Key
Steamfish is a steampunk-themed game designed for high school students in order to teach principles of controlled clinical trials. The game element here is a series of adventure-quests tied to building the tools and skills necessary to signal for rescue from a terrible crash; meantime, the students are afflicted by the same game engine with scurvy - and go through the clinical trial pioneered by Dr. James Lind in 1748. Steamfish is filled with interactive objects that provide period-relevant information on morse code and medical theory, as well as clues to solving the quests. These clues only become available once the player has reached a certain level in their quests, so achievement and perseverance is rewarded.
The audience for the King Tut regions, such as the virtual Valley of the Kings (recently profiled on CNN)
, is much broader, but our goal is similar: entertain, challenge, educate, immerse. We're just about to launch the new series of game elements in Valley of the Kings, and are already working on further enhancements and new quests. The Valley of the Kings games trace paths of discovery for Howard Carter and his team as they uncovered the tomb of King Tutankamun; there's a photo tour of the valley; and there is an opportunity to test your knowledge of Egyptian rites of the dead, by decoding the beautiful tomb paintings in a timed challenge. The reward for this last activity is a peek at the afterlife, and some exclusive wearable prizes that make the difficulty of the challenge well worth it.
Why are we spending so much time and energy focusing on interactive and game-based elements? Because rich, immersive, and adaptive experiences and activities turn 3D virtual environments into stages for learning. The advantages to virtual environments for education are many - the opportunity to reach geographically dispersed learners, the ability to offer private field trips to exclusive areas at varying periods in time with activities potentially tailored to curriculum, and the ability to connect with students and educators interested in your topic from anywhere on the planet.
So here are a few of the best practices we've developed for interactive game-based design:
- Plan immersive environments, not just objects: the act of moving through a 3D space can be as educational as the interactive objects.
- Develop avatars that are environment-accurate: giving visitors a taste of what it is like to 'be there' by outfitting their avatars allows them to take up roles in the game much faster.
- Have a deep environment - backstories, links to other histories, related items: don't stop with the need-to-know stuff. Put easter egg items in places for visitors who wander off the path - this encourages exploration, and rewards people who look closely.
- Know your goal from the outset: Have the primary goal or goals clear from the planning stage and check that all elements of the 3D environment support those goals, or at least do not distract from them.
- Know your audience: Different audiences have different learning styles, and different abilities to engage and to try unfamiliar tasks. The more you can define your audience, the more you can refine the space for those learning styles and needs.
- Have a rising scale of complexity: You are introducing visitors to a new visual environment, if not to a new technological environment. Giving them simple tasks and challenges at first, and offering simple interactive tools to complement more complex ones throughout, can encourage people to take more risks. Don't give in to the temptation to make everything easy though! Challenging tasks are important too - just as they are in the real world. Those who complete the challenging tasks should be richly rewarded.
- Have mulitple areas of activity: Don't limit your interaction areas to one focal point - Rezzable is extremely good at creating environments with multiple activity areas, and there is a good reason why: multiple areas offer different perspectives, different connections, and move visitors through the region. They also keep a knot from forming around one space.
- Give feedback early and often: Let people know what you want them to do, let them know when they've done it, and let them know what you want them to do next. Offer encouragement and hints along the way, the ability to review instructions, as well as interactive points that reinforce what they're doing.
- Be generous: be generous in your feedback, above - and also with rewards. Wearable items, things that aren't available anywhere else, are great ways to let visitors show their achievements.
- Keep your sense of humor on: whether your subject is serious or silly, or somewhere in between, players are more likely to stay and to call their friends in if you don't take things too seriously all the time. When appropriate, injecting elements of whimsy in your feedback, your rewards, and your activities is key for creating an experience with character, and not just information.
- Plan for synchronous and asynchronous activities: Visitors may come from anywhere in the world, at any time. Asynchronous activities allow people to engage with your space and the challenges you've set on their own time. Having live (synchronous) events and field trips as well allows for visitors to build connections with like-minded people, ask questions, and create learning teams.
- Have a web area for reflection, documentation, and competition: Virtual environments are well complimented by web pages that show what a visitor has done or seen, as well as how they're doing. This gives space for reflection on a task as well as sparks competition among visitors to gain more skills and visible rewards.
- And most importantly - have great content. When you make a virtual space, most people aren't going to come see it just because it's cool tech. People are going to come because you're giving them something they need - a new way to see, and learn, rewards for trying new things, and a community of similar interests. Virtual museum and learning spaces need to provide or have access to the best in content, ongoing content creation, and interactivity in order to become places people want to go to, return to, and learn from. These may augment real-world learning spaces, and they will most certainly provide more access, at less environmental cost, to more learners.
This is how we see the 3D web, the metaverse, and virtual space - as a place where every object and environment is an information source, ready to share its secrets at a touch. This is space in which to forge new connections between learners and subjects, between thoughts and theories, between past and present. We see it growing in flexibility and reactivity. The beautiful landscapes and exciting settings that we are familiar with in 3D worlds today are a beginning. They're an important beginning, especially for museums and education. When you add archival quality artifacts that are interactive, and then push further to tie interactions to tasks and achievements, you've got the makings of a fully-immersive education environment.
Fran Wilde develops interactive and immersive environments for Rezzable, Inc., and was recently Visiting Fellow in Virtual Worlds with The University of the Arts, Philadelphia. She holds a Master of Fine Arts in writing and a Master’s Degree in publications and interaction design, and has fifteen years of teaching experience, from high school to graduate-level studies.