2008-10-21

A Mobile Connection Between Museums And Games

In the past 2 weeks, several experiences have converged around one larger idea that I have become pretty excited about - connecting an online game or virtual world to the museum experience through mobile based characters.

So to begin, after visiting the Teknisk Museum (see here, and here, with possibly more to come), I was really thinking about those remote controlled boats in the flooded climate exhibit. The staff person expressed that they were often not used as fully as intended. Children were supposed to use the boats to "travel around the world" viewing the impact of climate change at different parts of the exhibit. He felt that kids were often preoccupied with just driving the boats, and weren't grasping the larger experience. Whether or not this exhibit was succeeding is debatable, but what really intrigued me was this idea of children guiding something around a museum space. It also reminded me of some previous work - namely, the notion of Teachable Agents.

Teachable Agents are avatars, computer characters that children "teach" in order to learn. The idea is that this interaction allows children to gain the benefits of learning by teaching. I also believe that teachable agent interactions are inherently more engaging and fun because the learning is a little more removed and playful. **

So my thinking was, removing children from the role of learner and placing them in the role of guide or teacher may be more fun and engaging, as well as enhance learning in the museum. Then my mind jumped back to my Fulbright project. Mobile Phones!

What about a teachable agent on a mobile phone? A more engaging, learning centered tamogotchi. Or, to put it another way, a more interactive remote controlled boat.

So in my mind was a mobile phone based character that children take around with them in a museum - teaching (and learning) as they experience exhibits, but also providing a narrative for a museum experience (who is this character?) But what if this mobile teachable agent, this character, exists outside of the museum?

This is where my thinking was, when the next day, I stumbled onto a blog from another museum and technology designer - Nina Simon - and read an article called "What Cross-Platorm Gaming is Doing for Books... and Can Do for Museums" about a book series that overlaps with a video game. This is exactly what I had been thinking about! An online game, that extends in to the museum. Great!

But, as if this wasn't enough encouragement, the following day, I happened to find out about a lecture that all of my fellow researchers were attending at the university. The talk was by professor Jay Lemke, from the University of Michigan, and he spoke about something called Transmedia Literacy. Now my understanding of this idea is that we now are exposed to, and participate in, cultural artifacts that span across different forms of media. Lemke's example was Harry Potter - our understanding of Harry Potter is shaped by books, movies, video games, fan fiction, etc - and each of these media contribute to our understanding of who Harry Potter is. Our literacy refers to the ways in which we are able to observe, participate with, and contribute to these media. Lemke ended his talk by asking how education can better engage with these transmedia experiences.

SO, this talk immediately brought me back to phones and museums. I'm imagining a child at home, playing in an online virtual world. Through this character, they're able to interact with other children also playing the game. The child can also take the character with them (through their mobile phone) to the museum. At the museum, the character becomes a teachable agent. The child guides the character around (just as in the game) and teaches them from the various exhibits. As the character (and the child) gain knowledge and interact with exhibits, new skills and abilities become available in the virtual world. In this way, the learning experience exists outside the museum, and becomes more engaging and fun.

-- Rolf Steier

**(Two years ago I investigated the motivating factors behind a particular sports video game. In this college football video game, the player must control all of the aspects of their character's life - playing in the football games, practicing, going to classes, passing tests to remain eligible for the games, etc). The thing that convinced me that teachable agents may be so engaging was that a friend of mine found himself "playing" this game by studying for his character's chemistry test, rather than studying for his own real life exams.

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