Open World Games & the conference experience

Open world is a term for video games where a player can move freely through a virtual world and is given considerable freedom in choosing how or when to approach objectives, as opposed to other computer games that have a more linear structure. Source: Wikipedia

Examples are games like Red Dead Redemption, Assassin’s Creed or Minecraft. If you’ve ever played one of these, you might have experienced the feeling that on the one hand there’s LOTS to explore, a huge world to walk/ride/run/climb around in. On the other hand, there’s a plot line that runs through the game and provides some guidance, should you choose to follow it.

Keep this in mind as Exhibit A.

Now consider immersive theater experiences like – maybe most famously – Punchdrunk‘s pieces Sleep No More or The Drowned Man:

(I won’t link to any spoilers; the video above is Punchdrunk’s official trailer for The Drowned Man, the links before go straight to their website.)

The worlds that Punchdrunk creates are immersive; they are vast, and rich, and textured. At any point there is a plot – mostly, in fact, several plots in parallel, that you can follow. Or you follow an actor instead. Or just can just go on and explore the world, and dig around the rooms, or look for easter eggs and hidden passages. Or you just sit and let the world play out around you. Either way, you will never be bored.

I got to watch The Drowned Man in London once, and it was magical; one of the most memorable experiences, and certainly by far the most impressive theatrical experience I’ve ever had.

(I hasten to add that my experience with immersive theater is otherwise very limited.)

Take this as Exhibit B.

How can Open World Games inspire conferences?

So I’m wondering: What can we take from Open World Games and immersive theater and bring to the conference experience?

This is a starting point for my thoughts; nothing yet but exploration. I’d love to hear your ideas as I start to evolve mine.

A conference (if we’re not talking about the boring old school type of full frontal grey suit congress) is an interactive format, one that encourages exchange of ideas. Conversations, making, learning. Peer-to-peer interactions as well as master-student type sharing. (I personally believe that there is a good place for both of these types, although I know some will disagree.)

Their main appeal is they provide a simulated reality and allow players to develop their character and its behavior in the direction of their choosing. In these cases, there is often no concrete goal or end to the game. (…) An open world is a level or game designed as a nonlinear, open areas with many ways to reach an objective.

Design principles for open world events

These two characteristics (source: Wikipedia) are what I think can guide this line of thought, and help shape design principles for open world events:

Open world events…

  1. … allow participants to develop their own journey and interactions.
  2. … are designed as a nonlinear, open experience with many paths to explore the event.

Onboarding & guiding the experience

I imagine that the magic is in the right mix of activities and formats, which could and should include:

  • Recurring rituals that help bond among participants and foster group dynamics.
  • A strong narrative that centers and grounds the overall event, a thread that ties everything together.
  • Drop-in and drop-out points aplenty so it’s possible to join for the “main narrative” for a while, but also be able to join or start other alternative activities.
  • A mix of more active and more passive formats, like talks and workshops and immersive experiences and group conversations.
  • Spaces for intense social interactions as well as personal/private spaces to retreat, because sometimes a few moments of quiet save the day.
  • Space & opportunity for participants to start their own activities. Could be physical or virtual spaces, or just encouragement.
  • Allow for a wide range of stakeholder agendas, because where more partners contribute by promoting their own agendas (read: follow their goals & passions, not distribute marketing), the event has more layers and more depth.
  • What else?

At any given time, there should be something to do, something to explore, someone to meet. This could be part of the core program, some smaller-scale, more intimate experience or activity, maybe some personal downtime for reflection.

This would create a richly textured & layered event, and a highly self-directed, interactive journey, and a rewarding overall experience.

I’d be curious to learn about your experiences with things like these, or examples where this was tried (and worked), or generally speaking pointers to other sources/people/projects to check out. Thank you!

Leave a Reply