Unlocking the Future at the New York Public Library
Growing up, my parents had me convinced that one of the local librarians lived the building’s basement. For years, Jim Caccamo was an archivist at the Hudson Library and Historical Society, and spent countless hours preserving the library’s collection of artifacts. He spent so much time there, it was a relatively simple matter for the librarians, with a little help from our parents, to convince many younger library patrons, myself included, that he never left the building. I suspect that one of the reasons we were so willing to believe this local urban legend was because the prospect of staying overnight at the library with all of its artifacts from history was such an exciting one. Sadly, Jim is no longer with us, but the legend he inspired stuck with me through the years. On May 20th, the New York Public Library invited five hundred people to stay overnight as part of the Centennial celebration. I was lucky enough to be one of the attendees at the launch of Find the Future, letting me live out the fantasy Jim planted in my head so many years ago.
Find the Future is a game developed by Jane Mcgonigal and her husband Kiyash Monsef along with Natron Baxter Applied Gaming and Playmatics, on behalf of the New York Public Library. The game itself involves a mobile scavenger hunt to discover one hundred artifacts including a fireproof copy of Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451, Malcolm X’s briefcase, the stuffed animals that inspired A.A. Milne’s stories of Winnie-the-Pooh, and Charles Dickins’ letter opener with a handle made from his cat’s paw. QR codes near each object can be scanned in using iPhone and Android apps to unlock writing prompts that ask players to think about their futures. The game provides individuals with a casual way of exploring many often overlooked details of the library along with prompts designed to make visitors think about how each artifact is relevant to their own lives. Interacting with the experience is a deeply personal, contemplative experience that plays out over time as players gradually return to the library and post their responses online. Players are rewarded with points for unlocking artifacts and submitting stories, allowing them to level up their writer level and receive achievement badges. Players can then assemble their favorite stories into an online Epic. Visitors to the public library can play the Find the Future game through the end of the year.
The Write All Night event invited 500 players to experience an intensely collaborative version of the Find the Future game. Players were selected from a pool of 5,000 entrants who explained what they would accomplish by the year 2021. The goal for the night was to create a 600-page book collecting player responses to each artifact prompt between 7PM on May 20th and 5AM on May 21st: in turn, the library promised to preserve and protect the book as long as New York City exists. Paper Dragon Books’ Gavin Dovey was on hand to bind the entries into a book before the night’s end, and editors made themselves available to help participants polish submissions. Before the event started, McGonigal assured players, “we have not rigged this game so you will win: it’s up to you.”
At its heart, the game mechanics I experienced that night are the same that you can experience today. Players divided themselves into two teams named after the library’s marble lion guardians, Patience and Fortitude. Each team further divided themselves into eight-person squads that shared credit for unlocking artifacts. Using the library’s Rose Room as a base of operations, players had to locate artifacts and unlock QR codes before responding to the numerous prompts on the Find the Future website. Time constraints created by way of room closings and story deadlines were added to further challenge players as well as distributing the workload for the team preparing each section for binding. The pace was frenetic as squads rushed around from room to room, locating objects and scanning codes.
Two additional challenges centering around the library’s underground stacks made the night even more chaotic. Over the course of the night, small groups of players were led on tours of the library stacks, a section of the library that is ordinarily restricted to a handful of people a day. Handwritten postcards dated May 20, 2021, addressed to each of the 500 players were strewn throughout the stacks. Each player was instructed to take one card from the stacks and deliver it personally to its intended recipient. Assembling ten other pieces of paper found underground in the proper order revealed a secret phrase intended to identify veterans of the Write All Night experience.
While the focus of the event was on writing, the variety of tasks and activities for the night ensured a different experience for each participant. I spent the bulk of my time during the night making sure my team was on track to locate the artifacts and unlock all of the stories in time for the deadlines: some were busy exploring every nook and cranny of the library in search of some of the more obscure artifacts, while others dedicated their efforts towards preparing submissions, or documenting the event. Impromptu yoga sessions, discussion groups, and games of tag provided alternative distractions throughout the night. In short, everyone got to be a kid again and have the run of the library.
By the end of the night, the book remained unbound. Technical difficulties delayed the submission of many early entries, preventing the publishing team from starting the bookbinding process until relatively late in the process. Still, over the course of the night players managed to locate all of the QR codes associated with each artifact and provided the editorial team with multiple submissions for each writing prompt. Based on the online submissions accessible at the Find the Future website, the resulting book will be an eclectic mix of typewritten responses, photographs, and drawings that provide mostly hopeful glimpses of the future.
I returned to the library on May 22nd to gain a sense of how Find the Future has evolved since its initial run, and was heartened to see players roaming the library and following in our footsteps. Players have registered to experience the game from countries including South Korea, Portugal, Sweden, and Italy. Players who made it through the Write All Night event are going back in to unlock codes and add additional stories. I am not more hopeful for the future as a result of playing Find the Future, nor am I better equipped to face the challenges I will inevitably challenge as I make my way through the next ten years. However, for one night, I had the opportunity to get to know the New York Public Library in an intensely personal way, discovering bizarre artifacts I wouldn’t have believed existed save for Find the Future. So while I may not have taken up residence in the New York Public Library, spending a night there reminded me of the man who planted the idea in my head. And for me, that’s enough.