There’s a lot of ways to approach the idea of surprise. Here’s one way I look at it.
First, we have the experiencescape. This is the people, place, objects, rules, relationships and blocking (how things move around over time) of the experience. Each of these things might interact with any of the others.
I’ll define surprise as when you are clearly and immediately faced with a gap in your knowledge of the experiencescape. The gap could be the introduction of additional elements, the removal of elements, or the interaction of elements in ways not previously anticipated. Something changed in a way you had not expected.
When you are surprised you have three choices:
- Ignore it
- Fight it.
- Reconcile it into the story you’ve been telling yourself about the experience.
Ideally I want my visitors to do #3.
Why might they choose #1 or #2 and how do I help insure that the do #3?
Surprise to me, has a dimension of meaning.
At the far left end of this spectrum is the meaningless surprise. It is complete randomness for the sake of randomness. It doesn’t invite the participant to consider how it fits into their current view of the universe. It doesn’t appear to connect to anything that has come before. It feels more like a rude interruption than something that is making the experience better. It lessens the experience. There’s no way for the visitor to connect or reconcile (via the story they are telling themselves) what just happened to the reality. This will often be ignored “Ok, whatever” or fought back against, “God, this is stupid.”
In the middle of the spectrum are the easily anticipated things. These are things that fit into the experience as you understand it. Perhaps the program involves matching colors to birds. You’ve already seen some colors and some birds. You’re probably not going to be surprised to see some new colors or new birds. A small variation that fits existing meaning.
On the far end of the meaning spectrum are the things that expand your understanding of the universe and/or your role in it. If you can get people to embrace a basic experiencescape, then your visitors will delight in watching it expand in meaningful ways. Meaningful experiences provide:
- Learning. We enjoy learning about things we find meaningful. When visitors get to learn more about the universe they care about, they enjoy it. It seems to me that humans are hardwired to pursue growth in areas they find meaningful.
- Bonding with other people. As a visitor is shown more of the universe, their perception of it will change. Change requires a measure of vulnerability (ie, admitting you didn’t know it all before) and it seems that, especially in a group, this sharing of mild vulnerability has a bonding effect on participants.
- Bonding with the universe. The more you know about the world around you, the more you feel connected to it.
- Strength and security through mastery. The more you understand and the more you grow, the safer you feel in your surroundings. The more you bond with other people and your surroundings the safer you are.
If I can consider these needs when creating programs, I can create a better experience for visitors.
How can I let them grow and learn in the universe? How can I create moments of bonding with other people? How can I make them feel really connected to the universe of the experience?
These questions aren’t just to be considered at the beginning of the program development during high-level brainstorming or scripting. They are ones I can ask at each touchpoint of the experience: How are they growing? How are they connecting with others? How are they connecting with the universe? How are they getting stronger?
If one of these isn’t happening, then what is happening instead?