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The Secret of Box 42

Part Game / Part Psychological Experiment

Or what happens when you leave a series of boxes labelled ‘OPEN ME’ around an event

Jess & I have a long history of running imaginative and fun games at conventions so being asked to run ‘something’ for Lazlar Lyricon 3, a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy convention, was not a challenge. But lately, just putting together an hour long programme item as a bit of light entertainment has lost its luster. We have literately been there, done that and have a wardrobe full of t-shirts to prove it.

This time around we wanted to do something which challenged our creative and logistical skills but which also delivered something special, something new to the con-goers’ experience of an event. However, we had no idea what that was.

Blank Page Syndrome

The biggest killer of creativity is a blank sheet of paper with its infinite possibilities. Creativity is driven by restrictions not possibilities because necessity really is the mother of invention. So the first step in inventing a new convention experience was to place limits on what we could do.

Our first restriction was our budget. Unlike practically everything we have run before we had a budget. At £300 it was ten times what we had ever spent on a single programme item before. Though £300 is not a lot of money in real terms, to a small, 140 person convention it is a big investment. Our budget was more than the cost of most of the con’s other programme items put together which placed a responsibility on us. The money could not be simply pissed away on a single big prize or gimmick.

A second restriction we placed on ourselves was that whatever we did could not interfere or detract from what else was happening around the convention nor could it place any extra stress on the already busy con-committee. We’ve run small conventions, we know the workload and competing needs the committee have to juggle and we had no desire to cause them any difficulties.

Idea, Idea, A Kingdom for an Idea

Even with our self-imposed restrictions we struggled to think of anything at first. Every idea was discarded as being too profligate, too big, too small or simply impractical.

Then, bouncing around ideas with the aid of a bottle of wine (or two), our conversation drifted onto computer games and how in games like Skyrim there are treasure chests scattered around from which the player can take loot. In any particular game, all the treasure chests have an identical appearance and the player quickly associates that graphic with a reward even though sometimes the chests are empty. This led the conversation into Pavlovian conditioning and Skinner’s pigeon experiments and then bang! We asked ourselves a question.

What happens if we applied the same psychology in the real world by scattering boxes containing treasure around a convention?

Simple Idea, Lots of Work

Boxes by Jess Bennett

Waiting for the paint to dry on just some of the boxes.

An idea, no matter how good, is worthless. Developing an idea into something of value takes a lot of work. So we began asking further questions and finding answers: What should the boxes look like? How are they going to be made? Where will we put them? Do the boxes change over time? and of course the most important question – what’s in the boxes?

One question was very easy to solve – how many boxes? The only possible answer for a Hitchhiker’s convention was 42.

But this then led onto another big question. In the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, 42 is the meaning of life, the universe and everything. So we faced the question of what can we put in a box which somehow matches the significance of that number?

What Is The Meaning of Life?

The idea for the boxes arose out of a discussion about psychology so it seemed appropriate to look at the psychology of happiness and fulfillment as we wondered what to put in box 42. One of the simplest and most widely-taught approaches to a meaningful life is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and it was easy to draw connection between Arthur’s adventures and the different levels in Maslow’s hierarchy.

By now the idea of the boxes had momentum and was quickly gaining a structure. There would be 36 boxes put out over the weekend and boxes 37 to 42 would be opened in a programme item right before the convention’s closing ceremony. Everything in the first 36 boxes had to build towards the programme item and the programme item had to build towards the climatic opening of box 42.

What’s In The Box

Our first step was to brainstorm lots of ideas for box contents which we then loosely organised into different types. After some refinement we ended up with five classes of boxes inspired by the five levels of Maslow’s hierarchy: rewards, treasures, activities, quests and meta. Each of the types had a different purpose and place in the overall game.

Reward boxes were primarily a simple psychological conditioner. Inside these boxes were sweets or other gifts along with instructions to ‘help yourself’. These boxes were designed to build a positive association with opening boxes. Treasures were like rewards except they only contained a single valuable item which anyone could take if they chose. This introduced rarity and encouraged people to look in the boxes quickly before someone else took the item. Activity boxes instructed the opener to do something such as play a game or challenge someone to a duel. In these boxes were appropriate things (like a deck of cards or toy guns) but unlike the reward boxes, the instructions only suggested the box opener used them, not keep them. Meta-boxes contained nothing except a quote from the Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. The chosen quotes were amusing in their own right but also all related to the theme of hunting for the meaning of life.

Bag of an armadillo-wrangler

The final type of box, quests, was special. Every member of the convention was given a quest card with their membership packs which listed the ten boxes containing quests. These boxes had instructions to do something but the box opener had to talk to the the people running the game (myself, Jess, Jim and Meike) who were known as armadillo-wranglers. E.g. take a photo of yourself with a cup of tea and show it to an armadillo-wrangler. To make us identifiable and to reinforce the visual branding of the game we carried tote bags depicting the same logo as appeared on the boxes. When someone reported to an armadillo-wranger about the completion of a quest they received a sticker on their quest card.

We deliberately employed two psychological tricks with the quest cards. Listing the quest box numbers on the card triggered the ‘gotta catch them all’ completist mentality. We also had two different types of stickers – simple red dots and gold stars. Anyone who approached an armadillo-wranger on completion of a quest got a red dot, but if they completed the quest in an interesting or imaginative way, they got a gold star. This additional reward mechanism encouraged people to invest more time and effort into the game which in turn made people play the game more.

48 hours, 36 Boxes

Box 1 was placed a few feet from the convention registration desk.

We scheduled the boxes to appear at roughly six boxes every six hours (ignoring overnight periods). As we added new boxes we removed old ones which had been emptied of their rewards or whose entertainment value had been spent. New boxes were placed in different locations from the old ones which created an ever-changing con environment. This was a deliberate echo of Skinner’s pigeon experiments on conditioning and a technique used in many video games. The correct balance of unpredictability and predictability in rewards produces the strongest behaviour patterns and that is certainly what we saw. By the end of the convention, whenever we were seen carrying a box, one or more people would start following us.

Unexpectedly Successful

As far as we can tell, everyone at the convention opened at least one box and most people opened all the boxes they encountered. Some of the boxes were placed in the main convention spaces but others were in more out-of-the-way places. After the convention multiple people reported having hunted down every box simply out of curiosity. As designers, and after investing a lot of work into the boxes, this was very pleasing.

However the biggest surprise was people’s engagement with the quest boxes. Over the weekend the armadillo-wranglers were repeatedly delighted by the questers’ enthusiasm and inventiveness. We were especially pleased to see questers co-operating and helping others to find elusive boxes. In the programme item we had a game which was based on the number of quests players had completed. We expected that maybe one person would do all ten. In the end we had nine people do all the quests which represents about 6.5% of the 135 people at the con (including committee and guests). At least 30% of the convention’s membership completed at least one quest.

Possibly the most pleasing sign the boxes were a success happened on the first night. Boxes 1 to 12 had been introduced but someone created a fake box and labeled it box 0. There was no attempt to deceive as the box looked notably different, but someone was clearly and deliberately playing with the box-opening meme. It could not be a clearer sign that the boxes were in the con-goers’ psyche.

Final Countdown

Five competitors await their chance to open box 42

The final five about to compete for a chance to open box 42.

The last six boxes, numbers 37 to 42, were opened in the programme item called The Secret of Box 42. Connected by a bit of patter on Maslow’s hierarchy and Hitchhiker’s Guide references were six rounds of games. The first five rounds (boxes 37 to 41) started with the entire audience and filtered them down to one person who then opened the next box. We scripted this to become a ritual with the opening of each box following an identical pattern. Though the contents of each box were different they all contained an item and a promise the winner had to make to the audiance. The promises were related to socially positive behaviour (such as posting on social media about Save the Rhino, Douglas Adams’ favourite charity). With this we were playing with another psychological concept – that pledges made publicly are more likely to be acted upon.

The final box followed the same basic structure of the previous boxes but could only be opened by one of the final five, the people who had opened boxes 37 to 41. For the last twenty minutes of the programme item, we played more games which knocked out one contestant per game until we ended up with one person. That one person got to open the box and take the prize.

So What Was In Box 42?

Box 42 on a table - Photo by C-Dave

Box 42, about to be opened.

We realised early on that if we did our job right, then people’s expectations and excitement for Box 42 would always exceed our ability to deliver. Our solution to the problem was Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. A little-known aspect of his work is that he changed his mind later in life. His old top level was all about being the best there is at whatever the person chooses to do. His new top level was about helping others to be all they can be.

So, to reflect this, box 42 contained the bag of an armadillo-wrangler. Identical to the ones carried by the four of us all weekend, it contained a variety of useful and custom-made items. Having shown the contestants the meaning of life (at least from Maslow’s perspective) we gave the winner the tools to continue on the work.

You Are Also A Winner

In the spirit of box 42, the importance of helping others to be the best they can be, we are also making all our notes and scripts available to anyone to use in their own game. These are free to use for non-commercial purposes under the creative commons if you give suitable credit to the copyright holders – Chris Tregenza & Jess Bennett. ( CC BY-NC ).

You can own your own bag of an armadillo-wrangler and other pink fairy armadillo goodies in our store.

A big thank you to Emma and the con-committee who let us do this and to Jim & Meike for helping out in the design and execution of the game.


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