In The Crowds: Scripted Experiences

I’m just back from my first trip to California.  Having visited it so many times virtually, I was surprised at how different the place is from how it frames itself.  Like a movie set, Southern California has a face that looks good while hiding a lot of things that don’t work.

My favourite parts of California were the real bits: the coast, Joshua Tree Park, Mount Palomar.  It got dodgy for me the minute we wandered into the invented places, strangely also the most crowded places.

We’re all victims of our own childhood.  My parents spent ours taking us camping.  When we went to The States we visited family and hung out on the beach.  In Florida we went to the Kennedy Space Centre, but never Disneyworld.  This might have had as much to do with how much disposable income we had as it did with our interests.

Going to California for the first time, my wife, who has fond memories of attending Disneyworld as a kid, wanted to show me Disneyland.  I’ve had a long personal history with Disney.  It was what we watched as a family on Sunday nights on TV growing up.  The first film I ever saw was Jungle Book.  Being an animator at Disney was a long time dream.  I’m anything but a Disney hater, but I’ve never had an interest in going to their theme parks.

Going on Christmas Day with thousands of giddy people in mouse ears felt like attending some kind of cult meeting.  I don’t do well in crowds and this particularly day is one of the busiest the park has.  I enjoyed various aspects of the park, but at the end of a hot, sweaty, crowded day, what it did most was clarify for me the difference between a shallow, scripted experience and a genuine one that offers depth of narrative.

I used to enjoy amusement park rides, but nowadays if I want a thrill I’ll scare myself for real on a motorcycle rather than sitting like a lab mouse in a centrifuge.  I prefer a situation where my own skill dictates the quality of the physical experience.  This also ensures that the experience will be mine instead of what is spoon fed to me.  Two people on a rollercoaster walk away with the same cookie cutter experience.  Two people riding motorbikes on a mountain road do not.

My son isn’t a fan of rides either, so we tended toward shows and entertainment rather than lining up to strap into spinning things.  The Star Wars tour, Pirates of the Caribbean and various stage shows all offered a focus on entertainment rather than vacuous adrenaline.  Disneyland tends to focus on immersion in the Disney ethos, so you can easily go to the park and not once get on a spinny ride.  Having said that, we didn’t go on ‘It’s a Small World‘ because it would have taken two hours of lining up to see just how small the world is.

People get in their vehicles and sit in traffic to get to Disney World, where they line up to get into the park, and then line up to get on this ride where they then sit in traffic.  Some people’s idea of fun is completely foreign to me.

Strangely, I’m more than happy to shift into a more passive mode and follow a narrative on the screen.  Experiences that use digital technology to create interactive, sensory experiences are quite interesting to me.  In our time in California we also went to Universal and did the Minion Mayhem ride, which is a great example of advanced digital media being used to create an experience, it feels like a roller coaster with a plot.  Pirates of The Caribbean also was remarkably immersive with complex robotic tableaus that told a story.  Star Tours was a nice mix of both, with a smartly done interactive line up that leads to a digitally immersive ride; I can get lost in narratives like those.

Now that I’m back in school I can’t help but consider these ‘amusement park’ experiences in terms of learning.  There is such a strong emphasis on engagement at all cost that many classrooms have taken on the giddy quality of the spiny ride, complete with lineups to get on the digital tools needed.  Any experience that comes out of it tends to be scrambled if retained at all, and the idea of patiently building deeper understanding doesn’t have a chance.  The hook becomes the reason for the lesson rather than anything you can immerse yourself in and take away afterwards.

I’ve heard students talk about how they ‘did’ a rollercoaster – as though their interaction with it somehow affected the outcome.  The rollercoaster did them, they didn’t do the rollercoaster.  When students talk about video games designed to deliver you to a conclusion I feel the same way – the game played you, you didn’t play the game.  When failure is never an option, you never get to succeed at anything.  It’s the difference between real and not real experience.  I’m willing to bet that, if surveyed, the majority of students would feel that their education was something that was done to them rather than anything they had a say in the outcome of.

When I think of those millions who press their way through Disney to see concrete starfish plastered on walls when real ones are only a few miles away at the beach, I wonder what it is we’re aiming at in terms of engagement.  Giving people what they want is often pointless when what they want is empty.