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Social Media, Gaming & Engagement

May 2, 2011

A few weeks ago I attended the Society for Applied Anthropology meetings in Seattle.  I particularly enjoyed the session titled Exploring the Boundaries of Social Media.   One of the more interesting papers in the session was by Kelley Downey, Catherine Chmidling, Patricia Webster and Karol Ezell titled Applied Reciprocal Exchange in Farmville and ‘Ville Games: The Economics of “Good” Friends and Neighbors.  Karol Ezell presented the paper and discussed the Facebook (FB) applications in a way that I had never appreciated before.  Currently there are some 46 million registered monthly users of FarmVille.  I confess that I ‘hide’ FB friends who deal in FarmVille and are always looking for pink cows or whatever.  Karol put this game into a different perspective for me.  She explained how FarmVille can be used to teach anthropological concepts of balanced, negative, and moral reciprocity ala Malinowski’s discussion of the Trobriand Kula Ring.  That is how FarmVille operates.

Can the interactive model of FarmVille be used to explore trade and exchange in prehistory or other aspects of the archaeological material record?  There seems tremendous potential in this area.

The Alternative Reality Gaming Network provides a host of examples of how this direction could be taken in Archaeology and Museums.  Find the Future is an Alternative Reality Game of sorts that will be played at the New York Public Library later this month.  In an overnight session 500 individuals will conduct research and write a book on the subject using the resources available at the library, presumably via digital access.  The project was created by Jane McGonigal an evangelist for gaming as a tool for education and real world problem solving.  You can hang out at her website, read her new book, and spend a good bit of time getting enmeshed in the gaming for good info.

Here are the takeaways I get with from this discussion:

  • Whether FarmVille or Find the Future, an engaged and participatory experience is required for the game to work.  The process brings people together and in community.
  • The actual implementation of such games can be technologically straight forward.  I am not a computer programmer and although the technology of FarmVille is way over my head, I can conceptualize how to actually implement something like Find the Future.
  • This all comes down to a critical point – as Shirky notes in his book Cognitive Surplus, technology does not create the behavior, rather technology enables a better implementation of an existing behavior.  Therefore, as a starting point, can we conceptualize a FarmVille or Find the Future scenario within the tangible resources now in our museums?
  • I suspect that a critical point in so doing is to commit to a radical trust.  I tremendously value the experience I had some 15 years ago with the 5th grade school girl who was allowed to interpret the Poverty Point headless figurines on her own terms.  (I wonder if she remembers that experience as much as I do?).   If we don’t promote and validate engagement at this level, then all of the digital technology in the world will only produce the same old same old.

Oh and here is a bonus from the SfAA session – Karol Ezell reported the revealing comment of one of her students “I am not going to die alone.  I am going to be plugged in.”

How can our museums be truly plugged in?

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