Interview with Mystery Guest 2010 Creator Heather Owings
This August, the Finksburg Library in Carroll County, Maryland, finished up Mystery Guest 2010, its second alternate reality game to encourage summer reading for middle-schoolers and high-schoolers in the area. Linked with the summer reading program, players earned Library Bucks to use at the Auction Wrap-Up Party where there were prizes like a hockey puck signed by Washington Capitals right-winger Mike Knuble or tickets to Geppi’s Entertainment Museum in Baltimore, MD.
As reported previously on ARGNet in July, participants were challenged to identify (and deal with) the rather unpleasant Mystery Guest, a literary character that fell out of a book. The game played out mostly through the Mystery Guest 2010 blog, with 4 teen voluneers acting as main characters and liaisons, along with the Librarian to keep things in line. Just as the Mystery Guest was identified, however, he escaped from the library.
ARGNet had the opportunity to ask a few questions to the organizer for the library’s first alternate reality game, Find Chesia, and for Mystery Guest 2010, Library Associate II Heather Owings, about what it’s like to create ARGs for local teenagers.
Jane Doh: For Mystery Guest 2010, how many participants played, and what was the age range for participants? How many Library Bucks were distributed through the course of the game?
Heather Owings: We had a handful of core players (about 8), with about 20 participating throughout the summer. But the blog and YouTube videos generated a lot of hits, so interest is there but the build is gradual (this is however a larger core group than we had last year). We targeted the game for the students playing our Teen Summer Reading game (those entering 6th grade and up) so the age range is about 11-17. Because some of the challenges could be turned into any branch (and they would pick up their library bucks there), I would say all totaled the library system distributed somewhere between $500-$700 Library Bucks.
JD: How long was the planning process for this game? All told, how many people were on your team, and how did you recruit them?
HO: We began planning in October 2009. The masterminds of the game were 4 teen volunteers; they played the parts of Alyson, Kitty, Caroline and Kyra in the game. You also see them in the videos. Melanie Fitz (another librarian) and myself were also on the mastermind team. Directing and editing was done by Melanie, with camera work (filming) being done by Melanie or myself. We conned other librarians into taking part (like Scott, he played the role of [Mystery Guest]) by bribing them with Starbucks gift cards.
JD: Was the Mystery Guest himself available for participants to meet this summer? If so, how did you manage the live event?
HO: While we would have loved to have done some live events, we found (during the first year we launched an ARG) that getting our teen players to a physical location is difficult because they don’t drive. So we did physical challenges that could be done at home and turned in at whatever library branch was most convenient.
JD: Was there anything unexpected about how the game played out? How did you change or alter your original plans to account for this?
HO: Working with teens, the unexpected is a way of life : )
We did alter this year’s game (Mystery Guest 2010) from last year’s (Find Chesia) quite a bit. As I said earlier, we found that the live events were not well attended, so we tweaked that so we could still have “real world” challenges but we dropped the need to be at a specific location at a specific time. Also, the Find Chesia game was built along the model of how adults play an ARG. We found fairly early on that teens are not approaching the game the same way. Because of concerns about Internet safety, this year we made a point of creating the blog, YouTube, Twitter, etc. with the Finksburg Library’s name and included the “Librarian” character. One parent concern with the Find Chesia game was that anyone could create a website/blog/Twitter with that name; she wanted to know how she could be sure her child was participating in a library run game.
Other unexpected game changes were things like: Caroline’s character going missing through most of the summer or the videos featuring only 1 or 2 of the volunteers. Basically, because of schedule conflicts (camps, vacations, etc.), the entire mastermind team was not always available throughout the summer. So Melanie and I conducted the game as best as we could, and while the volunteers contributed from home or camp, it is not the same level of energy as when all 6 of us are together. (It may not be obvious to players but I definitely see the peaks and valleys of our game).
JD: What lessons learned from Find Chesia did you apply to this summer’s game? Any new lessons from the Mystery Guest?
HO: As I mentioned above, the lessons we learned from Find Chesia pertained mostly to the differences in how adults approach an ARG and how teens do. Teens are also a much harder sell. They’re not going to participate just because it looks fun or interesting. Most of advertising targeted towards teens is selling fun and interesting. That is why we offer the Library Bucks (increase their purchasing power during the Teen Summer Reading auctions). And actually the new lesson we learned this year is that the Library Bucks were incentive enough. We also had some random gift cards to giveaway, etc. but the Library Bucks are what the teens really wanted.
JD: What advice would you give would-be game designers about making an interactive project like this for kids?
HO: Ask the kids or teens what they want because it is never what you think it is going to be. Also be ready to fail, tweak and change your idea as you go along.
JD: How did you go about convincing the library to do games like Find Chesia and the Mystery Guest? Was it a hard sell?
HO: It was not a hard sell actually. Our Director and Deputy Director (now retired) thought this was a wonderfully inventive opportunity to create an interactive element to the Summer Reading program. The entire library system has been very supportive of our efforts. I think it helps that the technology to build the game is all free Web 2.0 tools. The games themselves (other than staff time & meetings) are inexpensive to create. And the ARG has the added benefit of including both Internet safety practices and technology literacy for teens.
JD: What inspired you to start creating alternate reality games for kids through the library?
HO: I was lucky enough to attend a conference that included Jane McGonigal as a guest speaker. When she presented on ARGs and how interactive they are, plus how they use Web 2.0 elements that are available to anyone to build the games (no fancy gaming software required), I was intrigued. I approached the then Deputy Director and the Director of our library to see if they would allow me to give it a try. And they did.
JD: What’s in store for the next game at the library? Will the now-fugitive Mystery Guest be making a comeback?
HO: I don’t think the Mystery Guest will make another appearance… but I could be wrong. Next year’s Summer Reading theme is about travel, so we might do something pertaining to that.