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Gaming the Garden

By Scott Donaldson

The Minneapolis Sculpture Garden is among the newest places people can explore with SCVNGR, a rapidly growing location-based mobile app. Writer and former marketing intern Scott Donaldson gives the scoop on how it works—and why the Walker is using it in this urban landmark and elsewhere.


Snap a photo of yourself “holding” the spoon in front of Spoonbridge and Cherry: + 3 points. Dream up a new title for one of your favorite Garden sculptures: + 3 points. Pick out three adjectives that you think best describe Standing Glass Fish: + 5 points. Visiting the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden has always been fun, but it’s now become a game. In June, the Walker unveiled a new engagement strategy using the SCVNGR app, a mobile technology game that has visitors racking up points by completing “challenges” in the Garden and elsewhere on the Walker campus—both indoors and out.

Long a leader in cultural new media and digital initiatives with programs such as mnartists.org, ArtsConnectEd.org, and Art on Call, the Walker is now offering SCVNGR as a new way for visitors to explore artworks—and the institution itself. “The great thing about it is how it makes daily activities into ventures,” says Scott Stulen, project director of mnartists.org and an avid early adopter of mobile applications. He’s one of more than a million people who’ve added the app to their iPhones, Android phones, or iPod Touches in the past two years. SCVNGR’s up-and-coming 22-year-old founder, Seth Priebatsch, gave the keynote speech this year at the influential SXSW Interactive Festival, and if past keynote speakers—Facebook titan Mark Zuckerberg (2008), Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales (2006)—are any indication, SCVNGR is poised for explosive growth as part of a new wave of location-based games and apps.

Basically, the app allows users to broadcast their activities and whereabouts—think Twitter and Foursquare—but it adds a layer of challenges and rewards that can bring an element of game-playing into a daily routine. From leaving a helpful tip about a place to solving a complex riddle, these tasks are also designed to encourage users to explore new places and do new things. Unlike games that exist solely in the digital realm, SCVNGR has its users connecting both online and on the street, and rewards them for exploring and solving problems together.

In the Garden, challenges range from answering questions about artworks and taking photos to interacting with other visitors or Walker staff. It builds on last year’s text-message scavenger hunt, also created through SCVNGR, but “that was a one-time activity, with a start and a finish,” notes Ryan French, the Walker’s director of marketing and public relations. “In contrast, this year’s mobile game evolves over time. It’s designed both to draw new visitors and reacquaint longtime residents and Walker members with a favorite place.”

French notes that users can post their own interactive puzzles with photos and trivia, or even create a customized tour: “People who know a lot about the Garden, whether they’re regular visitors or tour guides or Walker staff, can share their insights with newcomers.” So one role for the SCVNGR app is a sort of publicly generated guide to the Garden. The stream of new dares makes each visit fresh and multifaceted, whether the visitor is a Garden first-timer or a regular.

Visitors who don’t have their own mobile devices can borrow SCVNGR-equipped iPod Touches at the lobby desks inside the Walker—where challenges will also soon be popping up. “Summertime in the Sculpture Garden is the ideal time and place to introduce SCVNGR.” says Robin Dowden, director of new media initiatives. “This app can eventually complement many other areas of the Walker: the galleries, restaurants, and other public spaces as well as events such as Target Free Thursday Nights and Free First Saturday.”

Just as the Walker encourages visitors to take photos and videos for personal use, it also encourages people to add specific Walker challenges to SCVNGR. “We see it as building on our commitment to provide multiple ways for people to connect with art, both online and on-site,” says Dowden. “This app, in fact, can help us bridge that divide in fun and innovative ways.”