SCVNGR: Accidental Learning

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I recently talked with the head of exhibits at a very prestigious museum in Chicago.  He is well known for his candor.  He told me they have three rules for their visitors:

  1. No one wants to read directions
  2. No one wants to read and
  3. No one wants to be educated

Visitors want to have fun.  As I reflected on the time I’ve spent observing museums over the past 20 years–he’s right.  OK, there is a handful of scholars who plow through all the directions and read everything, but the other 95% of visitors want entertainment.

If you talk with a museum, tourism and university marketing people, you will find they have truckloads of information they are peddling and want to share.  However, few people under 40 want to consume this information the old-fashioned way.  Brochures, text-heavy websites, graphic panels no longer engage Generation X, Generation Y and Millennials.  These adults (and kids) are too busy playing with their phones, texting, tweeting and Facebook posting each other.

Instead of ignoring these new forms of communication, how about embracing them?  What if there was a way to let visitors explore your space by playing a game and have them learn about your museum, city, or university because of the game?  How cool would that be?  The tools to do this have been available for a while but now they are gaining momentum.

That’s where location centric social games like SCVNGR are making great strides.  Now you can take that boring old city tour or campus visit and turn it into a game you can play with your cell phone as you walk around.  Now we’re talking engagement.

Most location-based apps like Foursquare, Gowalla, Brightkite and others have a gaming element to them.  Usually the service is tied to social interactions, and the game is secondary.  With SCVNGR the core is the gaming engine and it is easy for local users to create content and challenges.  Basically, you select the nearby places you want to go, accept challenges and earn points that can sometimes be redeemed for rewards.  Since the phone knows where you are, your choices of places to go are limited to your immediate vicinity.

Once you get to your place, you need to check in and then you can easily post your comments to either Facebook or Twitter.  Checking in reveals several possible challenges other users have created such as writing a short description of what you’re seeing, taking a picture.  Once you accept challenges, you can see what others have been doing in the same location.  Also, some challenges can be used to earn rewards such as free food or discounts.  You can gain points by completing challenges to earn a reward you can redeem at the location.  Your experience has now become a very social event and you can easily see how others have interacted with the same space in a gaming context.

Historically, many museums purists have focused their budgets on static exhibits–dioramas, graphic panels, murals, etc.   They look down their noses at interactive media-based presentations, sniff dismissively at “edutainment” and probably haven’t even considered mobile learning.

The problem is that younger audiences communicate and consume information differently from what their parents did 15 or 30 years ago.   Thought leaders like Nancy Proctor at the Smithsonian are challenging the conventional wisdom.  As you consider Nancy’s vision for meeting the needs of museum audiences shared here in a presentation at Slideshare or via Tweets tagged with #mtogo you realize that products like SCVNGR are great tools for meeting the communication expectations of today’s museum visitor.  In addition, there are several conventions and visitor bureaus who are also looking at location-based gaming as a new way to engage visitors and try to extend time and dollars spent exploring their cities. Look at this article on Mashable on historical tours

In the university world, the economy has made it more difficult to attract new students and more admissions people are looking at tools like SCVNGR to connect with campus visitors.

Using today’s technology, rich media, integrating learning within a gaming format, and making the location fun to explore – what’s wrong with this picture?  Not much.  It’s clear that substantial learning can occur with these new approaches, even if the learning seems to be accidental.   Look to see countless refinements of this strategy and innovative applications as participation expands.

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On October 6, 2010
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