I’m reaching the end of a project for Youth Consortium Sheffield – working with five pilot organisations on designing and delivering SMS text message and social media content to engage young people. The emphasis has been on a combination of ‘big splash’ components to get participant’s attention and deliver themes and insight, alongside practical, timely messages – event reminders, status updates – to get awareness up and ‘DNS’s down.
But the most exciting thing I’ve put together over the course of this last four months has been something that didn’t work. A really good failure I think I’ll look back on as my first step in delivering RPG principles through social media. And that saw me touring locksmiths and grabbing fistfuls of dead leaves to build it…
Sheffield-based charity SHINE work with young people on weight and self-confidence issues. A key part of the project was designing an SMS-based treasure hunt for a field trip to Bakewell. Four teams of young people would each be accompanied by an adult team leader who would receive clues and questions by text message and send back answers on behalf of the team to a special SHINE mobile number, run by ourselves.
But the SMS was just a technological lick of paint. The activities1 - which included things like asking the teams to add together the speed limit on the road they were walking with the number on the telegraph pole they’d just passed, or in Bakewell itself, finding out who was England manager at the Mexico ‘70 World Cup by hunting down a photograph of the team in a Framery window – could just have easily been delivered via activity sheets. I wanted to come up with a challenge that could only be done via text message, something that involved the teams properly interacting with their environment, and that made more of the characteristics of texting such as confidentiality and candidness.
So I started to consider the person the teams were sending their messages to. This was ostensibly me and the client, but there was scope to try out other ideas. We considered building an entire narrative around the activities and turning the treasure hunt into a story with actual pirates or a hunt for a spy 2 But lots of self-contained activities are a better fit for the attention spans of tired ten year olds than a big narrative.
I came up with the idea of placing dozens of keys on pieces of strings around the trunk of a tree on our participant’s route and getting the teams to text a ‘guest’ character. The objective was to text this person, ask questions to find out more about them, and gain their trust in order to find out who they were and what was inside the safety deposit box at the foot of the tree trunk.
The character would be the tree itself; the object in the leaf-lined safety deposit box would be a paper boat – all that was left of the weeping willow’s son. I hoped this would present a different activity and a different type of treasure – a dark fairy tale offering the participants the chance to demonstrate negotiation, empathy and trust-building skills.
Alongside points for successfully finding the tree’s treasure, I designed a number of xbox style ‘achievements’ – such as awarding 10 points if anyone set the boat on the water near the tree. These are great ways to add texture and richness to events as well as encourage inquisitiveness and exploration. They could work just as effectively in classrooms no doubt.
The biggest problem with the activity, and its downfall in the end, was a lack of preparation. I’d come up with the idea, twisted the client’s arm despite their reservations and had to deliver it within 36 hours. This included about five minutes with the person who was going to manage the interaction ‘on set’ as it were while I was squirreled away responding to the messages from elsewhere.
The execution wasn’t great, then. The teams were unsure what they were meant to be doing, and the activity was transformed into a ’20 questions’ style guessing game. But mobile phones remain as ‘treasure-like’ as any gilt-edged chest. Full of secrets, conversations and stories, they’re objects of totem-like importance in 21st century life, and I think they’re ripe venues for storytelling activities for young people. This is just the first faltering step on what’ll hopefully be a longer journey, and I don’t think I’ve ever had such an exciting failure.
- Now Get out of That was a show I did a bit of looking at. A team (accountants from Luton usually) were airdropped into a wilderness and spent the rest of what would have been a perfectly nice weekend trying to complete challenges like crossing a river using three plastic bags and a ball of string. Sounds rubbish? Yeah, actually, it was amazing. Check it out here. Remake it with celebrities and you’d clean up, basically. ↩
- Interestingly, another thing that Get out of That toyed with. I don’t remember it, but the activities the team would be doing, and the kit to get across the river etc would turn out to be left by a mysterious organisation needing our team of bathroom designers from Adlington to break a captured spy out a safe house. Talk about your square pegs. I guess The Adventure Game is maybe more successful at this mixing of gameshow with storytelling. Maybe cos it had actors – who can play along with mardy kings who had been transformed into plant pots better than loss adjusters from Bury. ↩