Family Learning Forum

A Project of the USS Constitution Museum

Blog: Tipping Towards War Prototype

by Family Learning Interns at the USS Constitution Museum

The War of 1812 was caused by no one single event, but instead by a set of circumstances. In the Tipping Towards War interactive, we hope to illustrate this concept using a delicately balanced ship’s deck. Players spin a wheel to learn about the various causes of the war—impressment of American sailors, the United States’ aspirations to Canadian territory, disruption of trade, and British arming of Native Americans—and place corresponding wooden pieces on the deck. The goal’s game is delaying the ship’s almost-inevitable tipping, because when that happens war breaks out! This interactive has undergone a great deal of change as we’ve worked with it. Check out the posts below to see how it’s progressed.


Tipping Towards War

Author: Sarah Budlong

Today the three Family Learning Interns received red USS Constitution Museum polo shirts and headed into the galleries to begin prototyping activities for the Old Ironsides 1812 Discovery Center, slated to open in April 2012. Having spent the past week learning about the War of 1812, writing instructions for the activities, and creating evaluation forms, we were eager to see how the public responded to the prototypes. We decided to start with the activity that we have affectionately nicknamed Tippy Boat, but which is formally named Tipping Towards War.

Tipping Towards War Prototype Completed

Final iteration of the Tipping Towards War prototype

The goal of Tipping Towards War is to teach the public that many causes contributed to the outbreak of the War of 1812.  Wooden symbols represent the four main causes of the war: impressment, trading rights, British arming of Native Americans in the west, and the United States' desire to invade Canada. Groups must stack these symbols on the unstable surface of a wooden ship and work together to balance it and prevent it from tipping over. Inevitably, the wooden pieces will tumble off the boat, which symbolizes the nation plunging into war with Great Britain.

Tipping Towards War Spinner

Tipping Towards War spinner

Our plan was to recruit families in the galleries who would let us observe them using the prototype of the Tipping Towards War game and then have a short conversation with us about it. For the first round of prototyping, our goals were broad. One goal was to see how familiar the public is with the War of 1812. Although the final version of the activity will be located in the 1812 Discovery Center, we set up our prototype in a gallery dedicated to the story of the Barbary Wars. That presented a challenge because the game was out of context, so we had to provide the context for the groups that we recruited to play it. Several participants played the game assuming it was about the Barbary Wars or the Revolutionary War. We realized that we need to find a better way to communicate the time period of the prototypes, so that the public has a frame of reference for the historical content and, therefore, can provide us with better feedback. Perhaps a large sign attached to the table (“Come try out activities for the future 1812 Discovery Center!”) would be helpful.

We also wanted to see if the public understood the instructions we wrote and if they realized the connection we drew between the tipping of the boat and the outbreak of war. We quickly learned that we needed to make a more definitive link between the wooden symbols and the causes of the war. Participants understood what we wanted them to do, but not what it meant. We observed great conversations between multigenerational group members about strategy for the game (“Are you sure you want to put that piece there?” a father asked his child, with a warning that it might tip the boat) but no conversations about the war or its causes. Even groups who read the instructions and the “Why War?” cards out loud did not understand the connection the activity tried to make. During the interviews after the game when we asked families, “What can you tell us about the main causes of the war of 1812?” We were often met with slightly panicked, uncertain stares. Despite our efforts, participants did not understand the game's content unless we prompted them with focused questions.  

We learned a lot during our first session. Special thanks to the six intrepid groups that acted as our prototyping guinea pigs. Before we prototype Tipping Towards War again we need to make several changes. First we need to redesign our testing space and add a sign or other materials that will help visitors feel more comfortable approaching us and helping us test the activities. We also need to redesign the instructions to make a more explicit connection between the game and the historical content that it represents.


Man overboard!

Date Tested: 6/29/2011
Author: Sarah Budlong

Julia and I spent Thursday afternoon prototyping the Tipping Towards War game. During the first day of prototyping, we learned that museum visitors really enjoyed playing the game. They loved balancing the wooden pieces on the boat and trying to prevent it from tipping. On Friday, Molly and I tested the game again and were pleased to see that visitors liked the collaborative aspect of the game and had great conversations about how to balance the boat.

Our initial excitement was tempered when we realized that many visitors did not know about the War of 1812, did not understand that the wooden pieces symbolized causes of the war and did not realize that the tipping boat was a metaphor for war breaking out. For this round of prototyping, we rewrote the instructions and the “Why War?” cards to try to make the metaphor more explicit. We also eliminated the Free Pass spot on the spinner because that led to visitor confusion and our testers reported that they did not like it during the first round of testing.

Old Maple Leaf Card

Old maple leaf card

New Maple Leaf Card

New maple leaf card

On Thursday Julia and I tested the new instructions and the “Why War?” cards (which we renamed “Reason for War”), with twelve groups.  The new instructions explicitly stated that the tipping of the boat meant war. During our interviews, we found that visitors who read the instructions understood the metaphor and could repeat it back to us.  Visitors who read the “Reason for War” cards understood that the wooden pieces they placed on the boat represented causes of the war. Unfortunately, we found that groups still did not have conversations about the War of 1812 and its causes. The game received high ratings from visitors, but visitors were not engaging with the content and we were not achieving our learning goals.

After prototyping, Julia and I met to discuss ways to integrate the content and structure of the game. Our best idea was to combine the spinner with the content on the “Reason for War” cards. We envisioned a Wheel of Fortune style wheel that circled the boat. The visitor would spin the wheel and an arrow would point to one of the “Reason for War” cards. We would figure out a way to shorten the cards to 1-2 sentences and possibly include an image. Julia drew a diagram of our new spinner and the Exhibits Department will make a prototype next week. By combining the structure and content of the game, we hope to enhance conversation about the causes of the war and convey the metaphor about the tipping boat without explicitly stating it.


Taking her out for a spin!

Date Tested: 7/7/2011
Author: Molly Braswell

This morning Sarah and I went down into the galleries with the third version of “Tippy Boat,” and about an hour and a half (and four interviews) later, we headed right back upstairs! It’s remarkable how quickly we can spot the areas of the game that need improvement.

The new version of Tippy Boat has a Wheel of Fortune style wheel that circles the boat (Sarah and Julia developed this after the last prototype day). The text about the different causes of the war is typed onto the wheel/spinner, and the spinner has four arrows on it (meant for each of the four possible players). This new wheel design incorporates the educational content into the format of the game.

New wheel of fortune style spinner

New wheel of fortune style spinner

The spinning wheel is now no longer a free-standing object; it is attached to the boat. The bottom part of the spinner spins, and on the top part there are four stationary arrows positioned towards the four cardinal directions. The spinner still has spaces that represent each cause of the War, and four arrows were added so that each player can easily see what his or her spin landed on. The issue we noticed immediately after the first interview was that visitors thought that since there were four arrows, each of them went at the same time. The instructions say to “Take turns spinning the wheel and adding pieces to the boat,” but it does not say that only one person goes at a time. People were taking turns spinning the wheel (like we instructed), but they were all going at each turn. We quickly realized that we might need one arrow that points to the causes, and that it will have to be large enough that people from every seat can see it.

Our next realization was that even though the text about the different causes of the war was right in front of each player (on the wheel), people still did not read it. The new versions of text were drastically cut down from the first “Why War” cards, but they were still not short enough! A USS Constitution educator remarked that the “Impressment” text was the easiest to read. It is only two lines long, and contains 26 words. Some of the other causes had three or four lines of text. This comment made us realize that the number of lines the text takes up is just as important as the word count. When writing the labels, we were focused on making them 50 words or less. But we did not think about how much space that would take up on the spinner. So our new plan is to make each cause description fit into two lines (which equals about 25 words).

Spinner text

Spinner text

In addition to shortening the text, we want to use the game’s instructions to encourage visitors to read the information on the wheel. In today’s version of Tippy Boat, the game play instructions are as follows:

  1. Spin the wheel around the boat. The arrow in front of you will point to one cause of the war.
  2. Grab the wooden piece that represents the cause and place it on the boat.
  3. Take turns spinning the wheel and adding pieces to the boat

We decided to change the 2nd step. Our next version will say:

Read the cause aloud. Grab the corresponding wooden piece and place it on the boat.

Even though the visitors did not understand the four arrows and most of them still did not read the text, nearly everyone understood that the boat tipping symbolizes going to war. Our main task, it seems, is to work on how to get visitors to read the text so that they will understand what the four playing pieces represent.


Tipping Towards Insanity

Date: 7/12/2011
Author: Sarah Budlong

Molly and I were disappointed with the results of Friday’s prototype session for Tipping towards War. Admittedly, we went into the galleries with high expectations. We thought that redesigning the game would lead to greater visitor understanding of the game’s rules and higher comprehension of its content. As Molly detailed in the previous blog, we were disappointed when we realized we still have some kinks to work out regarding the game’s rules and instructions.

Before we prototyped this morning, we covered up three of the black arrows around the boat’s base. Our original intent was that each player would have his/her own arrow, which would make it easier for him/her to see what cause they landed on and then read it out loud to the rest of their group. We found that the arrows confused the players and that they could not figure out what to do with them (even though we thought that the directions made that clear). We wanted to see if covering three arrows would help clarify this problem.

Visitor reaction to the single arrow was mixed. Some visitors had a hard time finding it, because the arrow we left uncovered was the one under the bow of the ship. Once visitors found the arrow, they had a difficult time deciding how to navigate the game play. When the person sitting across the table from the bow spun the wheel, they were too far away to read the cause that the arrow landed on. The players did not know how to handle that scenario. Some groups had the person sitting closest to the arrow read the cause and some groups had the person spinning the wheel lean over to read it. It was a little awkward to watch and Molly and I decided to address this issue the next time we tested the game.

Not surprisingly, we discovered that there was an increase in the number of people who read the causes of the war. This happened because we added a direction to “read the causes aloud” on the instruction card. The majority of the people who read the causes of the war aloud understood the point of the game and correctly identified the tipping of the boat as a representation of war breaking out. We did notice that when we asked people to identify the main causes of the war, they primarily mentioned trade and impressment. We asked one visitor why he mentioned those two causes and he said it was because the wooden pieces we used to represent them were larger and more memorable.

When Molly and I finished prototyping, we realized that we still have alterations to make to the game. Although visitors really like the wheel spinning around the boat, we need to do a better job of making the use of the arrow clear. One visitor suggested that we change the wheel so that the causes are fixed in one position and the arrow itself moves. We need to think about that idea a little more before we try it. I think that we might find success if we return to our original four arrow concept and alter the instructions to make it absolutely clear that only one player goes at a time. If that doesn’t work, we will do something more drastic and alter the arrows themselves.


Four Arrows point to SUCCESS!

Dates Tested: 7/14/2011 and 7/15/2011
Authors: Molly Braswell and Julia da Silva

After our experience prototyping earlier in the week, we decided to bring back the four arrow concept that we used on July 7th (Prototype Day #3). Julia, Sarah, and I went down to the galleries both Thursday and Friday with the same version of “Tippy Boat.” For this version, we decided to try the four arrow concept again, but with NEW directions. Our original directions for the four arrow spinner wheel read:

  1. Spin the wheel around the boat.  The arrow in front of you will point to one cause of the war.

These directions caused a lot of confusion; everyone thought that each player went on every turn. In an effort to be more specific, we changed the first step to say:

  1. The first player spins the wheel around the boat.  The black arrow in front of them will point to one cause of the war.

This change seemed to solve our problems! With the new instructions, visitors were no longer confused about how many players went during a turn.  Everyone could once again see what cause their spins landed on, and most groups took turns reading the cause text aloud during their turns.  Huzzah!

New directions (front)

New directions (front)

New directions (back)

New directions (back)

In addition to (hopefully) figuring out the issue with the arrows, a discovery that we made earlier in the week was also reinforced today.  We realized that we need to rename the titles of the four causes (located on the spinner). We would like to address this in our next fabrication of the prototype.

Causes for war shown on spinner

Causes for war as shown on spinner

Right now the causes are titled: “Impressed Sailor,” “Maple Leaf,” “Barrel,” and “Broad Arrow.”
These titles explain the symbols of the causes, but not the causes themselves.  Renaming the titles will help it be more immediately noticeable what the causes were; if a family only glances at the words and does not read the text, “Trade” will mean more to them than “Barrel.”  We think that if we change the titles, visitors will be more likely to connect the symbols to the actual causes of the war. 

We would like to keep the “Impressed Men” title.  It accurately describes both the symbol AND the cause.  We want to change the title “Barrel,” to “Trade.” “Maple Leaf” and “Broad Arrow” are both a bit trickier to explain succinctly. We’re tossing around something along the lines of “Fight over Canadian Territory” and “British Arming of Native Americans.” We still need to work on the wording, but we know we want to change the titles because too many people have responded to the question: “What were the causes of the War of 1812?” with answers like: “Canada,” or “Barrels.”  Our hope is that if we change the titles, visitors will remember “Trade” as a cause instead of “Barrel.”