31 January 2023

Cards for Humanity: How the Gemini Card Game Improves User Support

André-Nicolas Chené NSF's NOIRLab / US-ELTP

The challenge for observatories to engage with their users has changed in the last two decades. Until the early 2000s, most of researchers, from students to emeritus, had to travel to the telescopes and take their own data. The trip was an opportunity to meet with the observatory staff and learn a great deal about how the work is done at the telescope. Nowadays, astronomers can benefit from service observing, which is when specialized staff take all the observations for the investigators and send them the data through an archive. Service (or queue) observing has opened a lot of new opportunities for science, but the cost is a potentially growing disconnection between observatories and their users.

Sample of cards from the three main decks: the Weather deck, the Instruments deck, and the Player deck. In the Player deck, there are targets, observing programs, and telescope time. Credit: André-Nicolas Chené.

In service observing mode, an investigator that is not engaged with their observing program and that has a poor understanding of the observatory’s systems is less likely to receive data that meet their expectations. Observatories have therefore developed many strategies over the years to address that challenge with in-person meetings, web documentation, and video conferencing. Yet, it can feel like an endless battle, with an ever-growing number of astronomers leading observing programs that are always getting more ambitious and more complex. And sometimes, even after putting a lot of effort into informing the community, it is still not the same as if people could just travel to the telescope. 

Visiting the observatory was fun for most, especially for the junior researchers. And fun is a great teacher. So, when observatories are providing fun ways to inform and educate their community, they tend to increase their users' engagement to a point that makes service observing optimal. And that is the intention behind the development and distribution of the Gemini Card Game! Originally, the game did not come out of a master plan to make Gemini’s users more engaged. It was an idea that spurred from a discussion about what are the best handouts we could give at national meetings, such as the AAS meeting, that are allowable within our constraints as a publicly funded observatory. We thought of prints that are more practical than those in a US letter format, more popular than postcards, and more informative than business cards. When we thought of playing card-size, we asked ourselves: “Why not just create a game, then?” That naïve question triggered too much excitement to be ignored. Little did we know that it would be only a year later that we would distribute the very first 90-card decks at the 233rd AAS meeting.

The Gemini Card Game is a cooperative game for two to four players who work together to complete science programs over the course of a semester. Players experience the complex decisions required to run a world-class observatory and the excitement of contributing to a team as they provide researchers with their precious data and contribute to expanding the knowledge of the universe. The deck is split into three main parts: the Weather deck, the Instruments deck, and the Player deck. In the Player deck, there are observing programs, targets, and telescope time. The challenge is to complete all or almost all of the top priority programs without losing more than three reputation points in 12 rounds! Under normal circumstances, each player has one action per round. They collectively activate programs, attach targets, and associate instruments to the programs, and if the weather allows it, they can spend telescope time on the targets. For more details about the rules, visit the Gemini web page.

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Totally immersed group of students playing the Gemini Card Game for the first time at the 235th AAS meeting in Honolulu, Hawaiʻi. Credit: Lauren Laufman.

The success of the game comes in large part from the immersion experience shared by the players. By the second or third round, the players are having similar thought processes and face challenges equivalent to what the observatory staff lives with every day! It is as close as it gets to the real work but summarized in a 45-minute-long game where nothing can break for real. And once someone cracks the code and understands how to win the game, they truly understand and appreciate the work happening at the telescope. Since the first launch, we received multiple testimonials from users who said that they now understand how to make better decisions with their observing programs and how to be a better user of the observatory. We were also surprised to hear from staff who does not work directly with the telescope operation telling us that the game allowed them to understand for the first time in many years of employment at Gemini what operation staff do! There is also telescope operation staff who prefers to play it only occasionally because it looks too much like work!

Since the launch, many astronomers have included the game in their teaching. They considered that it corresponds to the type of experience and knowledge that fits in undergraduate students' curriculum. They also appreciate that in time periods when students are tired and stressed, the Gemini Card Game can be seen as a much more approachable assignment. That is how the game reached out to an unexpected audience of future astronomers who may one day become Gemini’s users themselves.

If you too want to join the group of Gemini Card Game players, make sure to participate in meetings where the Gemini observatory holds a booth and get your own deck in person. If that is not a possibility, try the game online! And please always feel welcome to share your experience using the #GeminiCardGame.

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