Part of the lure of the Smithsonian museums lies in what visitors can see: the meticulously curated and researched exhibits. But an equal part of the lure lies behind closed doors, where a lot of the Institution's work goes on. These research rooms are classified realms, accessible only to Smithsonian staff.
Maccabee enticed players by inviting them to an underground, secret laboratory in the depths of the Museum of Natural History. In keeping with the macabre theme of the game, players examined the skeletons of long-dead people and learned how to determine a cause of death. The ultimate goal was to connect two "mystery" skeletons with characters in Maccabee's story. These characters, who died of distinctly unnatural causes, became ghosts. Drawn by the art in the Luce Center, they took up residence there.
A few weeks later, a clue led players to a benign-seeming tour at the historic Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C. There, we toured thousands of graves and stumbled upon a mysterious message from Maccabee's ghosts in one of the crypts. Actors, dressed in black, spoke to us in Morse code from the shelter of the trees. Later, I would learn that the ghosts in the graveyard were meant to be the ghosts in Maccabee's story, the same ghosts who had haunted the Luce Center. As with all the clues, these were immediately posted and analyzed online.
The haunting came to a head on October 25 at the American Art Museum, when a crowd of museum-goers and gamers solved a series of six quests that took them through every floor and past most of the artworks in the museum. Along with hundreds of other players, I trudged from first floor to fourth. I collected clues from artworks, from docents and from text messages sent to my phone. Maccabee told me afterwards that he partnered with the Playtime Anti-Boredom Society, a group that organizes nighttime street quests in San Francisco, to create the complex series of clues that greeted players.
It took four hours, but in the end, we banished the ghosts and finished the story.
4: The Future
When I wrote my first story about alternate reality games, I spoke with Jane McGonigal. Jane is a veteran game designer, but her most recent work focuses on using the ARG's collaborative model to address real-world questions.
"ARGs work best when players solve actual mysteries," she said then. In her opinion, museums were perfect for such mystery-solving, if only because the history of many artifacts is obscure or unknown.
It's no secret that mystery clings to museums like a coat. Despite this, Maccabee's story was not a true mystery. The final solution was as much explication as discovery. I always knew the players would defeat the ghosts, because the main point of this ARG wasn't to expel sprites but to see the artwork that had enticed them. This is what is meant by an "educational" ARG.
Jane also that "ARGs are not the future of gaming."
ARGs are not the future of museum-going, either. Or at least, not the entire future. There will always be those—perhaps the majority—for whom seeing a museum is a closed experience. But for those who played "Ghosts" on the Web and those who attended the various live events—estimates range as high as 6,000 online participants and 244 attendees at the live events—the game became a doorway into the museum and into a discussion. We didn't just look at the exhibits; we played with them.