How do you design an experience that makes learning about the U.S. Senate fun? You let visitors role-play senators. Opening this month, Boston's Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate is to the young Leslie Knopes of tomorrow what Dungeons & Dragons is to LARPers (or live-action role-players): an interactive, day-in-the-life simulation of the U.S. Senate, housed in a full-scale replica of the chambers themselves.
Designed in tribute to the late Massachusetts senator Ted Kennedy, who spent almost 50 years in the Senate, the institute was designed by Ed Schlossberg of experience design firm ESI Design. Schlossberg is no stranger to the Kennedys, as his wife is Caroline Kennedy, Ted Kennedy's niece. According to Schlossberg, the plan for the institute began to take shape in 2002, when he presented Kennedy with a sketch of what a museum in his honor might look like.
Kennedy neither wanted his institute to be a vanity project, nor a boring museum telling the Senate's history. Rather, Schlossberg and Kennedy imagined it as an interactive simulation, in which visitors could LARP as a senator and pass bills into law.
Although Kennedy died in 2009, Kennedy's widow, Victoria, worked with Schlossberg and consulted on the development of the Institute to bring the senator's vision to life. The main message Kennedy wanted to convey in his institute? The importance of compassion and compromise to the American political system... bywords which sadly seem all too absent from today's political landscape.
It's located across from the JFK Presidential Library overlooking Massachusetts Bay near the University of Massachusetts Boston in a minimalist building designed by architect Rafael Viñoly. The centerpiece of the institute is an exact clone of the Senate chambers, complete with polished wood desks, spangled blue carpet, and gold eagles. Student groups occupy these desks by appointment, and role-play the process by which bills become law. Outside the Senate chambers is a general area filled with interactive exhibits projected on the walls, as well as a recreation of Ted Kennedy's offices during his time as a senator.
Even if you don't come as part of a group, you can still take part in interactive exhibits that explain and simulate the Senate. All visitors are handed tablets when they enter, and can play with multimedia exhibits that include everything from an interactive timeline of the Senate to an augmented-reality view of Kennedy's office.
There are also games visitors can play, like a Cards Against Humanity-style card game that helps visitors understand what happens in the Senate cloakroom. Visitors even win Xbox-style achievements as they participate in the exhibits: *Filibuster complete. Bill successfully tabled.*
When I visited the institute a few weeks ago, one of the interactive games challenged my group to get a National Hot Fudge Sundae bill passed into law. Since this is the Senate, no one can agree on the toppings, so we were asked to vote from a pool of vetted toppings: whipped cream, chopped walnuts, rainbow sprinkles, and so on. The two toppings that got the most votes would then be amended to the bill. Peanut butter cups and — what the f...—strawberries ended up getting the most votes, but then the (virtual) Republicans demanded that bananas (yes!) and orange slices (no!) go on the sundae instead.
To bring the exercise back full circle and illustrate the spirit of compromise that Ted Kennedy stood for, we then voted on one topping from each party's topping candidates, only to end up with a National Hot Fudge Sundae Bill with strawberries (!) and orange slices (!!!) on top. The president—played by a computer—then vetoed the bill, because even a computer knows those toppings are insane.
So instead of getting a national hot fudge sundae with two indisputably awesome, well-paired toppings, the Senate ended up voting on a clearly terrible sundae that never made it past the White House. The only thing missing from this eerily accurate simulation of how the modern-day Senate works was a senator standing up to give a five-minute speech about how voting for peanut butter cups instead of orange slices was really just a vote in support of Planned Parenthood.
To dismiss the intentions of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute just because it's too good at simulating the Senate would be a disservice to what it's trying to accomplish, though. Yes, sometimes the Senate passes bad bills into laws, and yes, sometimes compromise can lead to a well-intentioned bill being so corrupted that, like a hot fudge sundae with orange slices on top, it's nearly impossible for voters to swallow. But the system itself still has value, because even when it doesn't work, all voices are allowed to be heard.
You can find out more about the Edward M. Kennedy Institute here.