My husband is an avid gamer. Consequently, I am a gamer by marriage. If I want to spend quality time with my man, I must understand the difference between RPGs (role playing games) and FPSs (first person shooters), be able to identify a side scroller vs. a top down, know what a “cut scene” is, and understand why Grand Theft Auto 4 isn’t called Grand Theft Auto 6, despite the fact that it is, in fact, the sixth installment. I know what he means when he yells into the mini mic perched over his ear, “I got shottie,” or why he gets so angry when his game is “laggy.” However, I’m not blessed with the ability to actually play these games (with the exception of Wii’s Petz Catz 2 and, surprisingly, I’m wicked with the chainsaw in Gears of War). So I spend many, many hours watching the games. And as he plays through the games, beating the bosses and eventually beating the game, I feel as if I was part of the accomplishment. It’s sad, yes, but, oh, so true. (And, for those of you who didn’t understand most of the above paragraph, I apologize.)
All of these hours of game play watching have made me realize some things about today’s video games. For those uninitiated to gaming, I will expound.
1. Video games are compelling. The very best have storylines more interesting and well-written than many of today’s movie blockbusters. Beyond the main storyline, some require variations of dialogue written for different options chosen as you play along (if you choose to kill someone vs. sparing their life, for instance). A brilliant example of writing in video games is in the overly controversial Grand Theft Auto 4 in which players can watch a myriad of television channels, each with their own created-for-the-game television programming, or listen to 18 channels of radio with commercials and talk shows written just for the game.
2. Video games are beautiful. The craft of video game creation is based in graphic illustration. Look at any of the concept art of literally ANY game and you’ll find gorgeous renderings of characters, places, and costumes that rival any fashion or film illustrations. Even the games themselves are getting more and more life-like, or fantastical, in their nature, becoming more visually stunning with every new big release. My husband is in awe of his current challenge, Metal Gear Solid 4, for making him believe for the first time in a game that he was actually watching live action, when he was, in fact, watching an animated cut scene. My favorite of his games, Bioshock, is so beautifully art directed it makes me sad to think they are possibly turning it into a film. Film could never recreate the richness, fantasy, and eeriness of the animated game.
3. Video games are repeatable. Even after he’s beaten the game, my husband will go back to games to replay levels, change characters, or change the path the character takes. You can’t do that with books or movies as the experience is always the same.
4. Video games require that you learn. This may be a surprising one to those who believe video games are spawn of Satan. Whether it’s a puzzle game intentionally challenging your mental capacity and wit, or just a regular old first person shooter, you have to learn the nuances of the game play, understand the characters you are playing and plotting against, and learn the setting and story. If not, you simply cannot play the game. One of my favorite examples of both writing and mental stamina is Portal. This is a puzzle game requiring you to understand geometry and spatial relationships. I couldn’t even follow my husband past the first initial learning levels as he played through to the final level. This was an entirely new way to look at space and your ability to manipulate the environment. Not to mention the game’s ability to make a steel cube incredibly cute and lovable.
I could keep writing on why I believe video games are beneficial, but this is about exhibit design. So I should get to that.
Remove the words “video games” from the aforementioned list, and replace it with “exhibits” (be it zoo, aquarium, or museum). These are the attributes we strive for in every exhibit. Compelling, beautiful, repeatable, and educational. Every time. What is it that video games do that we don’t?
The major difference is that exhibits tend to be passive, despite the interactives and graphics we infuse them. Visitors follow one path that we’ve designed specifically to experience in a specific order. Just like a movie. We’ve created an emotional journey that we want the visitor to experience, as we’ve designed it, step by step. Sure, we have exhibits that are more free-for-all types that allow you to mingle among the animals, more like an art gallery or art museum. However, even these have their emotional arcs.
Remember the old “Choose Your Own Adventure” books from the eighties? That’s what modern video games are to this generation. You start out on a set path, and along the way you can choose several options, whether it’s actually affecting the storyline or it’s a matter of making your character look as you’d prefer, it’s your choice. You’re in control. Or so it seems.
What if we started doing this with exhibits? Could we plausibly allow visitors to choose their own path, whereby they might or might not see the same animals as someone choosing differently. Could we develop an educational storyline to support our mission within this context? Absolutely. In fact, the story might end up being much more dramatic and effective if the visitor was to take an active role in choosing their own fate. For example, pose the question to the visitor as they enter…Are you a conservationist or a poacher? Two separate paths. Along these paths, the visitor will be faced with more questions and more “doors” to choose from. Eventually, paths will collide and merge, but along the way, choices cause visible effects. This way, visitors would be encouraged to repeat the exhibit to see how other choices would affect their outcome.
Now, pair this with visually stunning settings, designed down to the atmospheric lighting and smells, and well-written graphics, and you’ve got people’s attention. If they are caught up in the environment, caught up in the story, they’re learning. Whether they like it or not.
Designers will argue they already deliver beautiful environments. I have to say, go rent Bioshock and muddle your way through, and tell me one aquarium that’s even half as beautiful and engaging. Then we’ll talk.