Three months ago, I wrote an article for Smithsonian magazine about "Ghosts of a Chance," the new alternate reality game at the Smithsonian American Art Museum's (SAAM) Luce Foundation Center.
From This Story
With Ghosts, SAAM became the first major American museum to host such a game. Georgina Bath Goodlander, program coordinator at the Luce Center, told me the goal was to attract the young audience that museums have a hard time holding onto. She hired John Maccabee, a former historical novelist and current game designer, to plan and execute the game, which started on September 8 and ended in an event October 25 at the museum.
While working on the game, Goodlander and Maccabee tackled questions about museum management and the digital future of brick-and-mortar museums. Can alternate reality games, which mainly take place on the Internet, be adapted for a physical collection, like a museum's? Will young gamers, with their notoriously flexible attention spans, be interested? And will regular museum-goers find the players and their quests disruptive to a more private, reflective experience?
When I asked Maccabeeall these questions, he told me I could only find the answers if I crossed the curtain: in other words, if I became a player.
The game took me from Wikipedia pages to online forums, from Washington, D.C.'s Congressional Cemetery to a dark lab hidden in the warren beneath the National Museum of Natural History. It also revealed a great deal about the Luce Center, and how the Internet has changed the museum-going experience.
1: The Game
When I started playing, I didn't know what an alternate reality game (ARG) was.
Maccabee sent me to Wikipedia, that great library of contemporary knowledge, which describes an alternate reality game as follows:
"An interactive narrative that uses the real world as a platform, often involving multiple media and game elements, to tell a story that may be affected by participants' ideas or actions."
Finding that only marginally helpful, I followed the trail to Unfiction.com, a Web site that serves as a hub for the alternate reality gaming community. Here, players meet up on message boards to swap clues and information about the games they're playing. Unfiction.com had an entire board dedicated to the history of alternate reality games. There, I learned that the first alternate reality game was "The Beast," invented in 2001 by Microsoft to promote the Steven Spielberg movie Artificial Intelligence. The game's creators crafted a murder mystery and scattered the clues to its solution across Web sites, voicemail messages, fake ads and e-mails. Players worked together online to solve the clues and find the answer to the mystery. This collaborative model, in which players take on the roles of investigators, is the "traditional" ARG. In as much as any ARG can be considered traditional.
But I also learned that no two ARGs look the same. Some, like the LonelyGirl15 franchise (also a popular YouTube series) have "live events" in addition to their online storyline. At live events, players descend on a real location and role-play the story with hired actors. Since live events aren't scripted, players' decisions can change the outcome of the game.