We were on vacation this weekend (kids on a two week fall break) and we took them to the revamped Stone Mountain Park in Atlanta, GA. This is probably going to be a long post so the tl;dr version is this: I spent time in a kid’s play area that was designed like an MMO, and it blew my mind.
A few years ago, Stone Mountain was taken over by the same company that runs Knott’s Berry Farm over in CA. As a result, it took on less of a camping/refuge atmosphere and became more of a theme/amusement park area. One of the things installed was the Great Barn. Its a giant indoor funhouse, four stories up in the middle, with numerous different activities inside. And as I sat and watched my kids and my neighbors kids (who had joined us on the mini-vacation) play, I began to see things with my trained gamer’s eye. The whole blasted thing was one giant MMO.
When kids came in, they were stopped in an initial area where they could create their “farmer,” and get a special wristband that would track their progress in the different activities. Can we say Achiever anyone? In the center great room on the bottom floor, visible from just about everywhere, was an electronic sign proclaiming the top ten scoring farmers from each age group. In that same great room, the “starter area” for the game, there are hundreds of balls (“fruit”) lying around in several different colors. Farmers can spend time here gathering fruit for the activities, and the wise ones will grab a bag to extend their capacity (I didn’t get a chance to count the number of slots). Farmers might also explore side rooms for additional fruit and bags, take them from other players, or perhaps speak with those leaving the game area to gather additional capacity. Thus we complete the first echoes of Bartle underpinnings.
This fruit Economy as it were, is more complex than it might seem. There are a finite number of fruits in the game, they are required for all the activities, save some of the explorer ones (ahem, slides, climbing nets, and side rooms). Expended fruit, through a complex system of tubes, vacuums, and nets, are channeled back down to the bottom floor room out in the open and also in less visible caches around the side rooms. Some of those side rooms are netted and hallwayed off from the main room, providing quiet areas for Socializing via benches and even through exchange of said caches to interested players. Some Mini Games exist here in the form of small slides and riders for younger players or those who prefer to play alone for a while. Killers can peg one another endlessly, as well as trying to defend themselves from the veteran players on the second Tier above.
Once one has completed the games and activities on the first floor, and gathered enough fruit for their liking, they may proceed to the second Tier of challenges and activities, either through Challenges such as climbing cargo nets, or via the Rapid Transport System..er stairs, at the back of the room, conecting to the Quest Hub (lobby) of each Tier (floor). On the second floor, one engage Killer instincts by Bombing players on the first floor, completing Challenges involving expending various color combinations of fruit to gain Achievement points, or engage in the running gun battle with air guns that use the fruit as ammunition on two opposing sides above the open air great room below. This second floor also allows for Socilization and Trading as farmers find that they need different fruit colors or different skills or even additional players (one challenge involves a crank system that requires cooperation) to play. Some of the less assertive farmers simply go between the floors carrying loads of fruit for other players, especially those locked in battle (Crafting and Player Driven Economy at its best). After completing a challenge, if you desire, just scan your bracelet, receiving the points and perhaps a prestigious place on the big board instantly. Some of these challenges are again hidden in side rooms, requiring Explorers to hunt them down and use them or share their location with others.
On the third level, players are treated to a more hard core version of the PVP battles below, as it is harder to obtain ammunition, and there are less available guns for the players to utilize. Moreover, slides dropping one down to the starter areas below are clogged not only with PvPers looking for more ammo, but also less hardcore players just looking to enjoy the ride! Many community service managers are in attendence, regulating the flow on the slides to prevent jams and aiding players who are lost or have a problem. There are also a few challenge type games here that can be played solo for the biggest point scores, but require more fruit and more complex expenditures of that fruit or more demanding hand-eye coordination to complete them.
A final, smaller area seemed to be available for those who wanted to complete their tour of the entire facility, but carrying my weighty bag of fruit and my one year old, I found that even since their was no Rapid Transport System to that level, I was not able to go there. Thus it was completed – those with family obligations or too tied to their material goods would find themselves unable to participate in the true end game and…whatever it was that it had to offer.
My kids played for probably two hours in the area, finally giving up only when it closed down and we headed for the famous laser show. Caretakers/Devs emerged to arrange the balls and bags in strategic positions, helping to reset the economy to accomodate the new batch of players that would arrive in the morning.
As we left, and I continued to marvel at what I saw with a gamer’s eye, I had one final terrifying thought…what if I had it all backwards. What if, instead of building a play area for kids, designed like an MMO, instead the MMO’s that you and I played were designed like kids play areas. Perhaps in the final say, we are not only being treated like children, but we love it so much, we keep coming back to the same Barns, day after day, not really expecting or hoping for improvement, content in the channeled reality with which we are presented.