Participation in Your Experience

I just spent 6 wonderful days at the happiest place on earth with my family. I’m sure the happiest place on earth is different for many people but indeed I mean Walt Disney World. Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom.

In fleeting thoughts before I went I thought, I’m grown up enough not to have fun at Disney. I can see through the artificial “curtains” of the fantasy. But as I walked in the park my cynicism died almost immediately. Just before I gave up my pride I thought maybe it’s because I was feeding off the sheer pandemonium of my young nieces and nephew. Two seconds later I didn’t care and started running around the park like I was six years old.

As I jumped on the Peter Pan ride with my 10 year old niece, who’s clearly moving from child to tween, I wondered; What is it about the charm of these rides, or this experience that makes middle aged men want to buy and wear hats they won’t ever wear again? With the realism we are served through cgi, special effects in movies and video games everyday why does trolling me over a range of fake looking mountains with a modified dry cleaners’ carousel and black light suspend my reality enough to feel the freedom of peter pan himself?

As soon as I had asked the question it was instinctively answered. It’s your imagination. The power of the our human intellect makes up the difference, it then become a participatory experience. When it’s a participatory experience it can actually far more powerful than being served an experience. We come to places like Disney, even movie theaters to overcome the threshold of reality. They create the environment that gives us permission to break the boundaries of our normal lives and in turn we do the rest. That cooperation creates a true participatory experience.

If you talk to a doctor of medicine, she will tell you that the feelings you get from alcohol are not about the alcohol’s properties, but about how the human body reacts to the properties of alcohol. Alcohol happens to be popular because anyone can do it. It’s easy to purchase a drink get a euphoria. Another example of how the human body reacts to an environment is the runner’s high. After some amount of effort the body reacts to the conditions and creates a boost of energy. Think of your favorite entertainment, muse or hobby I would be that in some way there are elements of this principle in your activities.

Our design world has turned it’s ear towards this idea. More and more the democratization of design with the users and communities creates that two part balance. We might even go so far as to call our “users” …..participants.

When we think about creating good experiences as designers we are setting truly setting the stage. However the only influence we have in the experience is limited to the software we serve. We’re even limited to the technology the participant owns. Fortunately the near future we’ll be able to overcome these boundaries as mobile experiences become more accessible. That stage grows to be a larger arena as well at the role of the participants. Blogging, Twittering and Sharing trends have this well documented.

Monday morning I jumped back into my routine to find this gem of a presentation on TED. Julie Taymor presents her work on of all things Disney’s Broadway Production of the Lion King and validates my thoughts almost word for word. Needless to say I’m a big fan of hers instantly.