Location-Based Gaming for Education: Try Gowalla

gowalla logo[Note: This is my my final post for ProfHacker. Y'all have fun out there.]

At first glance, Gowalla might seem like just another location-based check-in service, or game, in the same vein as Foursquare or something else that the kids these days are playing with their iPhone, Android phone, BlackBerry, Palm device, or iPad. But there’s a difference—a pretty big difference, if you ask me—and that is the underlying ethos of the company and its service. By that I mean there’s no “douchebag” badge, and checking in at a professional conference with your friends won’t award you the “player, please!” badge. Now, I’m no prude, but those sorts of “achievements” turned me off using Foursquare (plus the lack of anything to do besides check-in and achieve what was likely to be a meaningless mayorship—and see who else was in the room, which I could do by looking around with my actual eyes).

I quickly turned to Gowalla, the (relatively) little company that could, with a significantly smaller user base than Foursquare (or some other location-based social networking platforms) but with significantly more rich content, attention to place, and (if I may be so bold), vision:

“When we’re influencing people to go out and visit a national park because of this social network, that’s when I get excited.”— Gowalla Inc. CEO Josh Williams

Sure, at the heart of it all, you check-in at a location (or create a new one), you may or may not receive one of the items to collect, you can save that item in your vault or (virtually) drop it at a location for someone else to pick up, or you can swap for an item already (virtually) at that location. Sometimes you’ll be awarded virtual items you can exchange for real ones. There are challenges to complete, state and country stamps to put in your virtual passport, and company and/or user created trips to complete.

Ok, so what does any of this have to do with education?

While you (or any Gowalla player) can create and publish “trips,” and those trips could just as easily be your five favorite pubs as five historical markers in your town, there is a sense of history and the desire to reconnect with special/unique locations forgotten by time. Now, the Old North Church certainly hasn’t been forgotten by time—it even has its own special icon! On the Gowalla page for this spot, you can see a bit of description, user-contributed photos, and a list of the “trips” in which the spot is included. One such trip is the Freedom Trail trip:

Freedom Trail trip

Not only can students explore already-created trips, they can create their own. Perhaps you teach a literature class and have used the New York 1900: Edith Wharton & The House of Mirth Google Map, or some of the entries in the Atlas of Fiction to help students gain a sense of location, place, and scale. Turn books into Gowalla trips. Or, to get even crazier (or “more fun,” depending on your perspective), how could students have integrated Gowalla trips into the Looking for Whitman project? Some people even use Gowalla check-ins and commentary as performance art (best read from the bottom up).

While Gowalla is launching university-based initiatives to help students connect with and learn more about their campus, students can take their own initiatives (instructor-led or otherwise) and publish content that adds to the public knowledgebase. Editorial insight need not be limited to National Geographic or The Washington Post, although those are good too.

Although I tend to geek out about mapping historical or literary places, over the last year or so the museum folks have perked up their ears; the public wiki for the Smithsonian’s Web and New Media strategy process includes several entries on location-based games and other interfaces to content, such as this Gowalla/Foursquare comparison. But I asked my go-to person on such matters, Sheila Brennan (Associate Director of Public Projects, Center for History and New Media), for her thoughts on Gowalla and museums. As you can see, there are plenty:

  • Passports: Many museums participate in cultural passport programs already, so Gowalla could act as the virtual passport that encourages museum visits. We already see that some tourism-themed trips popping up on Gowalla, when visiting cities and neighborhoods. There is great potential for museums not only to create trips where they are located, but to work with Gowalla to develop custom bonus items that relate to their collections and custom stamps and pins that could relate to a trip theme. For instance, city-wide cultural tourism organizations often create a theme for a given year and ask local institutions to open special exhibitions or public programs relating to the theme. A custom stamp could be designed with the logo of that promotion and a pin given to the Gowalla user for completing a trip (or X number of destinations) that might be used for a discount in a gift shop.
  • Highlights: Museums could create a history of their institution or of their objects through customized highlights form that would allow users to discover an object that is on display in one city’s museum, but hails from another. For instance, a clock on display at the National Museum of American History in Washington, DC could be located in its place of manufacture: Waltham, MA and then discoverable by someone walking along the Charles River in Waltham. [Note: bonus! learning about metadata!]
  • Items and Collections: It would be great if museums could work with Gowalla to create custom bonus items that related to that collection. For instance, the American Museum of Natural History could have a Tyrannosaurus Rex and the Andy Warhol Museum could have a tomato soup can. Then these items travel with a user who might drop or swap them elsewhere, or they can also save these items in their personal collections. Each object retains a history of its origin and circulation, much like a provenance, which once again fits with how museums save/include information about their objects. This act of seeking out, collecting, and saving objects has the potential to create personal connections with cultural institutions, while also promoting the hobby of collecting. This type of personal connection could lead to increased museum memberships or participation in public programs.

I love all of these ideas, and would be shocked if some of these aren’t already in the works. Of great importance for customization is a solid application programming interface (API), and Gowalla has a good one that allows for both read and write access to the platform and its content. The API allows for even more creativity by students: what sorts of ideas can they come up with, based on Gowalla content? The weeplaces application is an example of a third-party application that uses Gowalla (and other) data to visualize check-ins.

What other applications could a bunch of smart, motivated students come up with? Or better yet, what trips could they create? What might they be able to learn about their locations that they never knew before? Brainstorm in the comments section, or spend that time exploring with Gowalla.

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