Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Movie Theater Games

An anthropological view on game design

Game Anthropology
There is a concept in product design called product anthropology that can be usefully applied to game design.

"Plain anthropology is about watching how remote tribes go about their everyday lives and joining in with them eating nasty things. Product
anthropology is about watching how ordinary Westerners go about their lives;
what sort of things do they do, what do they want to do, how do they use the
things they have?" - Lon Barfield
I asked the same questions and applied that information to the design of a simple game that crowds can play while they wait for a movie to begin.

The basics of game anthropology are straight forward. First we examine the day to day life of a potentially underserved market. Perhaps it is women who do not game. Perhaps it is 60 year old baby boomers living in suburban situations. Then ask some game related questions...
  • When might games played?
  • How long can the games be played?
  • What is the social environment?
  • What are the cultural elements that influence the game?
  • What are the psychological needs?
Example game designs built using game anthropology
There are numerous examples that fit this mold:

  • Nintendo Gameboy: The stunning popularity of the GameBoy platform stems from the anthropological insight that Japanese boys spend quite a bit of time waiting for parents and riding on trains with nothing to do. They are bored and would react positively to a quick gaming fix. The product design solution resulted in games that offer rapid loading times and came bundled in a small easy-to-carry form factor. Recognition of this niche explains much of the longevity of the Gameboy platform.
  • Sony PSP / Gameboy Micro: There exists the same basic cultural environment for adults. They too find themselves on buses or waiting around. However, they also demand style. A gadget demonstrates an adult's social status. In mainstream American culture, childish gadgets are less popular with adults. The Gameboy with a product design focus on meeting the needs of children fails at this. Enter Sony with their style-heavy PSP. (I worry that they still don't understand the benefits of quick games and this may hurt their product long term.) Nintendo is countering with the Micro, a stylish Gameboy Advance product extension. They seek to fill a niche in their product line by offering a status symbol oriented version of their Gameboy that also appeals to adults on the go. From a game anthropology viewpoint, the Gameboy Micro and the PSP are direct competitors where a DS and GBA are not. It will be interesting to see the results in the market.
  • Financial Gameboy: I postulated a 'financial gameboy' that let you control your money supply using a PDA-like handheld. The cultural insight is that many people have difficult managing their money due to the poor feedback cycle created by our current system of purchasing and bank account reporting.
  • Serious Games: All serious games are examples of game anthropology in action. We may call the process of identifying needs a 'business case', but in reality this is just game anthropology applied to a business environment. Typical questions that might be asked are "In your daily training, what is the environment you are in?" Game designers come up with interesting solutions like a tablet PC that let repair men wirelessly get a repair code from a damaged aircraft and then play a game that teaches how to fix the particular defect before the plane lands.

The Movie Game
Let's put this into practice. This naturally occured to me was when I was at the movie theatre waiting for Star Wars to begin. We had a good 45 minute wait and the only thing to do was listen to painful pop music. Blech. Wouldn't it be nice to be entertained in some fashion?

So I invented a game that fits the cultural environment. Some details I latched onto:

  • We have big crowds of bored people.
  • Everyone has a cell phone and reception is quite good considering how much people are chatting up a storm.
  • Very few people are game players so complex control schemes are undesirable.
  • In many crowd situations, people play a variety of games such as chanting, the Wave and shout offs.
  • Theaters are culturally seens as 'quiet places' so these crowd games are not typically played here.

The interface
Imagine a computer hooked to the movie screen. It displays a phone number that anyone in the theatre can call. When they call the number, they are automatically logged into a massively multiplayer rhythm game and their avatar is displayed on the screen.

For control they have access to one button. Press a button on the cell phone and the character on the screen yells out a phrase. The character also flashes. Press short, long, short and the character flashes in this pattern. Even in a crowded screen, it is very easy to find your player by 'messaging' to yourself.

The games
The first game people play is shout off. A shout off is very simple. The screen is divided into two sides. One side says 'Pepsi' or some other phrase and the other side says 'Coke' when the button is pressed. The left side flashes Pepsi with a graphic for pushing the button. The more people who push the button in rhythm with the flashing, the louder the chant. There is full polyphonic sound so people can use their natural timing to synchronize the chanting. After period of time, the side gets a score.

Now it is the other side's turn. They try to shout louder than the previous team. Back and forth it goes for X rounds and then all the scores are tallied. The team with the most points wins and random people get an SMS giving them a free Coke. Of course the theater benefits because people never buy just a soda when they go to the concession stand.

The Results
We just trained a large group of people on how to play the game. We gave them a tangible reward. We increased theater revenue. And we made the theater going experiance both more enjoyable and unique. You'll never be able to do a digital 'shout off' in your living room.

The cultural trick we are playing here is that no one is actually shouting. Real shouting would break the cultural constraints of being quiet in a theater. That would be embarassing. What you are doing is performing a waiting activity endorsed by the establishment. This is an entirely different social proposition and lets you entertain yourself in an otherwise sterile, boring environment.

You can easily extend the system with games like the Wave, group chants and rhythm games. You can also add a huge variety of advertising and promotional elements that offer high impact advertising opportunities to the theaters compared to typical movie ads.

I hope this is a useful overview of the concept and practice of game anthropology. Correctly used this technique can help designers create potently original game designs that are more than just 'fun'. They are game-like activities that flourish within a cultural niche. If you have any ideas along these lines, feel free to add them to the comments.

take care


  1. This is a great idea, it reminds me of seeing Star Wars 3, before the movie everyone was bored and the drinks had cds on them. So some people started reflecting light from the cds onto the screen and a few more joined in and everyone was cracking up. Excellent idea to fill a niche here.

  2. If you haven't patented this idea already, you should. It's awesome and audiences would eat it up.

  3. When I was working at the University of British Columbia, someone in the lab I was in had created laser pointers that pulsed in unique paterns, so that every person who had one could interact with a projected display and the system would know who was who. Best part, the device was only a few dollars to make. I toyed with the idea of trying to make a movie theater game with them, but ended up spending more time with my girl freind instead. Considering she's now my wife, I don't think it was a bad trade off.

  4. a company called megaphone has built upon a similar idea with a simple cellphone controlled crowd game on a big screen TV:


    ps - was recently pointed to your blog by Andrew Chen and have spent much of the holiday weekend obsessively reading your archives. Great work!