Here is my review of an exhibit called The Science of Sharing, Investigating Competition, Cooperation, and Social Interaction. The exhibit is currently on display at The Exploratorium in San Francisco.

First, Bravo to the Exploratorium for creating this exhibit! The Exploratorium has always been the place to go in The City for super fun and interactive exhibits relating to science and perception. The Tactile Dome, for instance, is a pitch-black geodesic dome filled with weird things to touch as you grope through it in the dark. The Science of Sharing lets the visitor explore the question at the heart of—whether ‘tis nobler to Cooperate or Compete. Exploration is through hands-on activities, thoughtful displays, clever conundrums, and yes-games! It’s rare in our hyper competitive society for any public institution to facilitate reflection on the supposed merits of competition. Competition is a sacred cow (or maybe gaudy wallpaper?) that is pervasive yet almost never critically examined. Kudos to the Exploratorium for breaking the ice.

I enjoyed the installation Collaborative Shapes. It consists of a rope posted to a backdrop. Visitors are asked to pair up and try to make a shape with the rope—a square, crescent, etc.) with their eyes closed. Partners can talk and communicate any way they wish but eyes need to stay shut. I tried this and watched others do it too. The shapes were pathetic! The moral of the story: cooperative tasks are difficult when partners don’t share information. For cooperation to work, everyone needs to have access to essential information about the situation at hand.

Team Snake is also really cool. It’s a cooperative video game and seemed to be one of the most popular exhibits. The game goal is to work as a team to keep a fast-moving snake alive and growing. Coordination is required to feed him apples he needs to live and grow and avoid hitting the walls of his container. This is an active game that requires group strategy and fosters camaraderie. For lots of visitors kids to adults, the game was big fun!

On the other hand, Red/Blue is a competitive game in the exhibit. Like Team Snake, the game is a very inviting digital game that prompted a lot of visitor participation the day I was there. Though Red/Blue was popular and fun according to the visitors I asked about it, its vibe was completely different than Team Snake. Instead of relaxed smiles and collegial attitudes, players displayed a fiendish twinkle in their eyes. In Red/Blue, it’s time to go all out to beat your opponent and prove yourself. When the game was over, I noticed a certain awkwardness and lingering aggressiveness as friends were—even if briefly—turned into rivals. It takes a little while to get over competitive encounters like this in which one player thoroughly trounces another. One wonders about the long term psychological and social effects of competitive games such as this. A sign posted near Red/Blue explains the social risks:

The Science of Sharing exhibit featured several riddles for contemplation. Consider the Public Goods Dilemma, shown below.

On my way out of The Science Of Sharing exhibit, I walked by the Give and Take Table. It consists of a great big silver bowl reflecting the people staring into it—reflecting their faces as well as their thoughts. Instructions ask visitors to add or remove whatever they wish to the bowl. I sat and watched what happened there for a while.

I wish I could report the bowl was made overflowing with an abundance of meaningful and valuable items that visitors chipped in to stock the commons…maybe drawings, poems, trinkets, money? Or for real trust—how about something edible? I guess we are a ways from that ideal though, at least at the time that I was observing.

People, I hate to tell you but what I saw in the Sharing Bowl consisted of a few pennies, two dry beans (they looked like pinto beans), a few pieces of wrinkled paper, a couple small beads, an eraser, and one plastic Radio Shack gift card (the big question: Was it empty or was it still worth something?) I saw four young men, probably in their 20’s, come up to the bowl. Two of the fellows debated giving/taking but they were hesitant–cautious. Deciding whether to make any kind of donation or trade launched them into extensive analysis of the pro’s and con’s coming strictly from the head with no heart in sight. Worse, one of the fellows said jokingly but seriously that he felt the “smartest” thing to do would be to take everything out of the bowl for himself and not put anything in…why not? He’s no “chump” after all. The fourth fellow didn’t say much but squirmed uncomfortably. Apparently, I caught the Give and Take Table at an off moment! (On the other hand, there could have been an altruist to the table if the Radio Shack gift card turned out to be a significant gift. An unresolved mystery…)

Anyway, I have an experiment idea for the folks at the Exploratorium: Let’s put the Give and Take Table next to Team Snake and see what ends up in the Sharing Bowl. Then let’s move it next to Red/Blue and see what happens. If results are similar to the other research comparing cooperative with competitive games, we’d expect Team Snake to inspire great bounty in the bowl. On the other hand, a bowl placed next to Red/Blue would likely not even elicit two pinto beans.