This past summer, if you happened to talk with a Museum educator with plans to run a mobile youth program, you were guaranteed to hear one word: ARIS. ARIS describes itself as “a user-friendly, open-source platform for creating and playing mobile games, tours and interactive stories.” I recently met with David Gagnon, who directs the ARIS design team, and Jennifer Sly, from the Minnesota Historical Society, to find out why it has captured everyone’s attention.
Please introduce yourselves.
Jennifer Sly: I am the Museum Education and Technology Specialist at the Minnesota Historical Society in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
David Gagnon: I am the Director of the ARIS program and the Program Manager of the Mobile Learning Incubator at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
So let’s jump right into it. What’s ARIS?
David: So ARIS is a mobile locative gaming platform that centers mostly around narrative that allows non-technical people to author mobile locative apps, stories, games and all kinds of other stuff that we haven’t even seen yet.
When I recently did a survey to find out what museum educational professionals were doing this summer, almost every single person who said they were doing something with mobile mentioned ARIS.
David: That’s good.
Why do you think that’s the case?
David: Well, our goal has been to offer a toolkit of everything we have been iteratively discovering is interesting with mobile, education and gaming. We are just always growing this toolkit for people to build all kinds of really exciting stuff. Every time anybody does something new and innovative or builds a new feature or it does something really awesome we keep putting it back into the platform so everybody else can do it for free.
Jennifer: Two and half years ago we took ten different platforms that we could possibly use and evaluated them with our own criteria. We really liked ARIS because it had so many built-in game mechanics and the design was really open so that you could have an option to try a lot of different things. Plus, the rapid prototyping was great because we were super nontechnical people and we were hoping eventually that young people could help us in our designs, so that was a double benefit of having a really easy interface.
This is fast becoming an ad for ARIS! So what are some challenges with ARIS? What are some things that keep you up at night, or are the most frustrating things that you want to change in the future?
David: I think there is a couple. Every time I give a presentation at a conference the complaint I always hear is “It’s iOS only” and that’s a real challenge for a lot people.
The other part that is a challenge is that we are, fundamentally, a research prototyping platform. That was the goal and it’s always been a goal –
For who? Who was it developed for?
David: So it’s funded by the MacArthur Foundation and the Pearson Foundation and developed with The Games Learning and Society Group and my own personnel research and the community people here at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
Now what’s interesting about that is as more institutions pick it up we have got to make it not be a prototyping platform. We need to make it a production platform. And we are in the middle of that translation right now. It’s got to bring constraints and it requires different staff and a different attitude about how development happens. So it’s been a learning curve for us to move from a platform that allows you to do anything you could ever imagine into doing less thing really, really well in a really, really reliable way.
Let’s get specific. Jennifer, what have you been doing with it?
Jennifer: Well, we are actually using ARIS in two ways. One is we are developing an in-gallery mobile app specifically for kids on field trips, so we are hoping that we can put an iPad in the hand of every kid that visits our museum and then they can explore a new exhibit that we developed just for kids using ARIS.
The other part is we are are using ARIS to teach teens design and game building through history-based games.
This is what you have done or what you are planning to do?
Jennifer: We have been working on our in-gallery app for about two years and we will be launching it in this fall, and we have prototyped some ARIS game camps and our very first official one starts on Monday.
Can you describe from a user perspective what, briefly, their experience would be like going through one of these two programs?
Jennifer: We figured out a way to get kids logged in pretty quickly, to set their user account, and then go explore an exhibit which has some very immersive spaces. So, for instance, we have a mine that we have rebuilt so kids can experience what mining is without a mobile app, but with the mobile they are able to record what they have been actually doing in the mine itself. They can meet some miners and talk to them about life in the mine. And ultimately we are looking at, we are still in the design process, but really ultimately we want kids to be able to role play and to try to solve problems that we Minnesotans had and have.
David: I think the mine is a really good example because it’s been one of the most playful, interesting and weird experiments I have ever been a part of, to ask, What if we could make the game controller a physical space? So when we talk about mining here we are not talking about, like, Minecraft or some other videogame, where you are just pressing buttons in order to do activities. I mean, in this exhibit you are literally loading simulated sticks of dynamite into the wall and then pushing on a physical plunger that is connecting to a videogame in which you are trying to live as a miner or make a living. It helps you to understand what it’s like to be that person. So the narrative and the activity are being united in a way that I have never seen anything else do.
It’s been a really unique experience to design.
So what would you recommend for folks who are interested in learning more about ARIS?
David: So I think there is a couple of next steps if you are just interested generally in the platform. The biggest one is that it’s a communal platform, so we are all experimenters entering into an exploration of what mobile learning might look like. I don’t think we have the answer, I think we have a tool kit to help you explore it, so it gets tied into the community so that means kind of one specific thing: join the Google Group, start participating in community events, start sharing your stories, and reflecting on other peoples stories. And if you need resources or manuals for doing youth design, or manuals for doing your own design, we have a website up that’s got a lot of that stuff documented. And then that Google Group is the thing that will fill in all the gaps.
Jennifer: I would have to agree with David. The ARIS Group has been a great community to work with. I think we are all in the Wild West so I think everybody is learning at the same time.
Playtesting has been really helpful for us just because the things that we assumed would work didn’t. We have tested with a thousand kids and I think we have two thousand more to go before I think we have a really great program. So I would just say to plan on an iterative design process.
We really hope that people who are interested would share what they have been learning too because it really is people just trying stuff and seeing what works. There is a lot of failure, so even if they can share the failures, there is a lot we can learn.
David: I like that attitude. Instead of, like, you know, Let’s do something really big together, it’s Let’s take some risks along the way. If we are going to figure out what mobile locative embodied narrative-centric media is going to do we are going to have to take a lot of big risks. ARIS is one of the things that enables those risks to happen quickly, cheaply and fast, and help us find out what’s possible.