PAX Gamified

It’s been a busy week. And PAX was the start of it. And of all the games available for play or merely on display, there was one that I felt I needed to post about here: this year’s iteration of the PAX XP challenge.

PAX XP was introduced at last year’s PAX Prime as a way to encourage people to participate in every aspect of the convention, rather than just ensconce themselves in one area, as is very easy to do. It accomplishes this through what’s come to be called “gamification” — yes, even gaming conventions are being gamified. I suppose it’s the audience most likely to be receptive to such things. Here’s how it worked last year: Ten people, stationed at specific locations listed on the PAX XP card you got with your program, held special hole-punches, and would punch the appropriate slot on your card either on request or, in some cases, after you performed a simple quest, such as getting up from a beanbag chair or reciting the Konami Code from memory. Once you got all ten holes punched, you could “level up” by turning the card in for a PAX XP keychain fob — a good choice of prize, it seems to me, because it provides an undeniable physical recognition of your accomplishment while at the same time being valueless enough that it doesn’t inspire cheating.

It should be noted that PAX XP wasn’t even the only such activity running at PAX. There was a similar set of simple activities run by a group of indie developers this year as an enticement to visit all their booths. Both this year and last, Magic: the Gathering people had people stationed throughout the grounds running puzzles that got you an invitation to some kind of M:tG event. (Last year, I finished all their puzzles simply because I liked puzzles, but had no interest in the event.) The thing is, these other activities were blatantly geared entirely towards publicizing their particular products. PAX XP 2010 had a little bit of that — one of the hole-punch-carriers was stationed inside a Plants vs Zombies exhibit — but mostly it was about calling your attention to attractions that you had already paid for, and that made it somehow feel more legitimate.

This year’s PAX XP challenge was a bit different from last year’s. 1Apparently the version described here was also used at this year’s PAX East, with a different solution. Instead of tying up 10 people with hole punches, they posted throughout the grounds 38 laminated sheets of paper bearing QR codes, each decodable to a letter 2Actually, one “letter” was an apostrophe. Other punctuation was not included in the codes. and a clue. (So, already it’s more like a real game.) The letters were to be unscrambled to form a phrase which you could say at the main desk to get this year’s keychain (which is larger and more impressive than last year’s). The clues were mostly things like “Word 2 has one more letter than the final word” and “The letter O appears in four words straight”, but a few of them gave the location of other QR codes. One QR code prominently posted at the entrance yielded “Defeat my puzzle and become the hero of PAX!”, which seemed useless at first, but turned out to be a strong hint about the whole sentence, if you had the necessary cultural references.

Notably, finding all the clues wasn’t necessary. I managed to figure out the sentence from only 24 of the 38 — and this was despite a couple of inaccuracies in the clues. (Two QR codes gave L as their letter, even though one of the clues directly stated that there was only one L in the sentence. One clue incorrectly stated that the letter T only appeared at the beginning of words.)

The really clever thing about using QR codes is that by now most of us automatically filter them out, like banner ads. Consequently, they’re unobtrusive, and easily ignored by people who don’t want to participate in the riddle-hunt. But at the same time, they give the people who are participating a reason to pay attention to QR codes. A few of the commercial exhibits had codes posted that looked like they could be PAX XP clues but turned out to be their company URLs. I’m not sure if my confusion there was deliberate on their part or not; if it was, it didn’t work very well, because I didn’t actually open the URLs after decoding them, but I suppose someone with a different decoder app might have opened them automatically.

I can’t say for sure how popular the whole thing was, but I managed to win an additional “speed demon” award for being one of the first solvers, and that was on the second day of the convention. Also, only once in the entire three days did I see someone else pointing a phone at one of the codes, and he turned out to have no idea what it was about, having not read his program yet. But I suppose that in most cases taking a snapshot of the code is a quick procedure that you wouldn’t notice happening; in this one fellow’s case, it was rendered difficult by glare on the lamination. But hunting for scattered clues is a very adventure-gameish idea, and most gamers aren’t adventure gamers. I suppose there must be enough people participating for the organizers to think it’s worthwhile to keep doing it, at least. It’s not like everyone has to do everything, even if that sentiment goes against the original point of the exercise.

1 Apparently the version described here was also used at this year’s PAX East, with a different solution.
2 Actually, one “letter” was an apostrophe. Other punctuation was not included in the codes.

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