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Five questions…for Matt DuPlessie

By Lisa Neal / February 2008

TYPE: INTERVIEW
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Since going back in time is not possible, immersive environments can be one of the best ways to learn about history. That's why Matt DuPlessie, who studied mechanical engineering at MIT and received an MBA at Harvard Business School, created TOMB, a faithful recreation of an Egyptian tomb. He combined elements of simulations, video games, museums, and theme parks into an immersive, learning-by-doing experience. This innovative approach to learning addresses the curriculum standards for Massachusetts sixth graders as well as providing rich teamwork experiences.

Lisa Neal: How did you get the idea for TOMB?

Matt DuPlessie: I wanted to create a bite-size theme park (something that I could actually get the financing to open with only my 20-something credentials). As I explored options it became clear that no one was really doing full physically-immersive entertainment. The theme parks claimed to have it, but strapped into a ride car going through a canned experience isn't what I call "interactive" no matter how good the special effects are. Museums are always trying to improve immersion but seemed gun-shy about going the full way-too much fear of entertainment value overcoming educational value, rather than seeing those two elements as complimentary. So the idea emerged to create an opportunity for guests to be the hero in an adventure that had previously been only on screen or in the pages of a book.

TOMB was a natural choice for a theme, as the ancient Egyptian adventure, Indiana-Jones-style is a classic.

LN: Explain how you were inspired by the five wits: common sense, imagination, fantasy, estimation, and memory.

MD: The five wits, a concept from renaissance literature and often associated with the five senses, are indicative of the skills a guest needs to succeed in any 5W!TS adventure. We liked the hands-on, creative feeling of those skills, and we design our adventures to give guests the opportunity to use all their wits. Also, "Five Senses Theming" is somewhat of a buzzword in the themed-entertainment industry: If you can convince all five senses, then you have achieved immersion.

LN: Describe what the experience is like from a learning perspective and for different age groups.

MD: The focus of the TOMB and other 5W!TS adventures is creative puzzle-solving. Your small group finds themselves in a pinch and needs to solve a series of challenges to make their way through. Those challenges vary: tests of strength and dexterity, tests of intuition and perception, tests of logic, and cognition. All in a small group context, so every puzzle is solved as a team, working together, with pressure applied by the plot and surroundings. Imagine trying to solve a giant logic puzzle, with your group scattered all over a room, while the ceiling is rumbling down on top of you, hurrying you along! Great fun.

LN: With the heavy focus on experiential learning today, how does TOMB compare to other physical experiences, such as museums, and online experiences in games, simulations, or virtual worlds?

MD: TOMB combines the best elements of the physical and the virtual. We often describe it as a live-action video game. Many physical experiences, in all but the best museums for example, are bland—kids in particular have a hard time connecting or even caring about the content. On the other hand, kids gobble up video games and virtual worlds like it's second nature. TOMB takes the enjoyment from the screen to the real world—this is not virtual reality, it's "real reality." But the content doesn't have the flatness of a traditional exhibit, as the set, the booming audio and lighting effects, the computer control, and automation creates a physical embodiment of a fantasy world. It lets guests literally get "in" the game. As intense and "realistic" as video games have developed, they still do not fool the senses—you know you're looking at a screen.

LN: If TOMB were an educational game, how would you design it differently and with what expected outcome?

MD: If TOMB were overtly educational, it wouldn't be designed a whole lot differently. I am a firm believer in learning by doing-hands-on lessons sink in. And the thrilling environment of a pharaoh's tomb really gets guests to engage. They care about their success, they are actively involved in the experience mentally and physically, and they learn despite (I would say "because of") the fun they are having.



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