The End of the Game, a Mystery in Four Parts

In a first-hand account of participating in an alternative reality game, one player gets caught up in the challenge

The Luce Foundation Center is a three-story exploratorium located in the top levels of the American Art Museum. The final quests in "Ghosts of a Chance" took place here on October 25. Nearly 250 people participated. (Georgina Goodlander)

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Meanwhile, newer educational ARGs add interactivity to academic subjects. This is what "Ghosts" attempts to do with the collection at the Luce Center: create a communal experience in a space that's normally meant for individual reflection.

Museums exist in a strictly bounded world. There are necessary rules about how closely visitors can approach an artifact, and under what light and humidity conditions. There are even apocryphal tales of visitors being thrown out of museums because they mistook a priceless Edo-era Japanese teacup for a drink holder, or tried to tell time with an Egyptian sundial. Ghosts began with the lofty goal of narrowing the divide between observer and observed, by incorporating the interactivity possible through the Web.

2: The Story

Once I understood what ARGs are supposed to do, I was ready to join the hardcore gamers on the Ghosts thread at ARGs have multiple types of players. Some are hardcore gamers, those who solve clues and advance the storyline. Others are casual observers, who hang around on the forums and let the more experienced players handle the actual grunt work. I was of the second variety.

When Maccabee revealed his first clue, players were flummoxed by the unorthodox presentation, and many refused to believe the Smithsonian could be involved. In essence, Maccabee had hired a professional bodybuilder to crash an ARG conference in Boston, with clues tattooed (temporarily!) all over his body. Some of the players at the conference snapped pictures of the body art and posted them online, and within hours a player had traced one of the tattoos, labeled "Luce's Lover's Eye," to a matching painting that appeared in the Luce Center collection.

"I hope we shook [the players] up a bit," said Goodlander, with a mysterious smile, when I asked her about the bodybuilder bit.

From there, the story got even more bizarre. The basic premise, as Maccabee revealed to me early on, was that certain artworks in the Luce Center collection had become "haunted." Players had to figure out who the ghosts were and why they had died. Then they had to banish the sprites back to the realm of the dead, or…well, in the real world, nothing. But in the world of the game: catastrophic destruction.

Maccabee's penchant for bodice-ripping Victorian drama meant that the story was always juicy, and I checked players' progress frequently on Unfiction.

But the clues that got me the most excited came from the live events.

3: Close Encounters in Congressional Cemetery

About Anika Gupta
Anika Gupta

Anika Gupta’s writing has appeared in India and the United States, including in Business Today magazine, where she served as its first digital content editor, the Hindustan Times newspaper and Smithsonian magazine. Currently, she is a Master's student at MIT, where she studies user-generated content and mainstream media culture. She's also a science writer, media blogger, and essayist.

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