The Computer History Museum in Mountain View has never been mentioned in a list of California’s Most Haunted Locations. Its exhibits may celebrate ghosts of computers past and the remnants of now-defunct websites, but the museum has remained resolutely apparition-free…but thanks to The Tessera, that’s about to change. Because starting January 17th, the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California is launching an educational alternate reality game designed to teach computational thinking through a host of spectral guides.
Last December, I received a cryptic introduction to The Tessera from computational pioneer Ada Lovelace. In addition to a letter warning of the return of “S” and a punch card, the envelope contained dossiers detailing two other deceased computing pioneers, Steve Jobs and Charles Babbage. The reverse side of Ada’s note featured one of her more famous quotes:
They say that coming events cast their shadows before. May they not sometimes cast their lights before?
Pairing Ada’s quote with the punch card lead to the final destination, featuring a preview of the full Tessera experience.
Solving the punch card-based puzzle, itself an homage to computational history, led to The Tessera website. According to the game’s lore, two centuries of computational discovery were brought into the world to combat “S” – a force that follows in the footsteps of innovation. “S creeps behind us, inching closer day by day. It hunts us down, tears our ideas to bits, tells us that they are nothing – that we are nothing.” And S is after the technology standing in its way.
Entering the codes featured on Charles Babbage or Steve Jobs’ dossiers unlocks a preview of Tessera: Light in the Dark, an online point-and-click adventure that guides players through a haunted Victorian-era tavern. The initial mission challenges players to solve a series of three increasingly difficult logic puzzles to unlock the door to the tavern. Completing the challenge unlocks 20 additional cards of famous figures from computational history. Seven more cards are hidden within the elaborate paintings that serve as the backdrop for the game – when paired with the two promotional cards sent in the mail, 29 cards are available. These virtual collectible cards can be used to play card games designed to complement The Tessera experience.
New installments of The Tessera will roll out in real-time over the next few months. While thetessera.org will serve as the focal point of The Tessera experience, elements of the game will ask players to extend their investigations online across social media, and might even ask players to conduct their investigations in computational thinking away from their computers. While some of these offline challenges can be completed anywhere in the world, an additional level of interactivity is available for class groups that visit the Computer History Museum.
The live experience, Tessera: Ghostly Tracks, guides student groups through the museum’s “Revolution” exhibit, serving as an introduction to computational thinking as well as the ghastly world of The Tessera, and their ongoing fight against S. While details about the live experience remain sparse, Tessera co-creator Derek Hansen did note that the experience would feature “a mysterious crate and box that goes into it”.
The Tessera is partially funded by the National Science Foundation, and is a collaboration between teams at Brigham Young University, the University of Maryland, Tinder Transmedia, and the Computer History Museum. The experience is designed for teens ages 13-15 with educational components focused on acclimating players to computational thinking skills like problem decomposition, algorithmic design, pattern recognition, data representation, and abstraction/generalization. It won’t teach participants how to code, but it will introduce them to the fundamental skills that drive coding. Older players are also encouraged, although for the time being, the live experience at the Computer History Museum is exclusive to school groups.
Seeing museums experiment with alternate reality games designed to recast educational visits in a different light is always a delight to witness. Experiences ranging from the Smithsonian’s Ghosts of a Chance and Pheon experiences to the Springfield Art Museum’s Art Hunters Online and the Franklin Institute’s Wright Bros themed behind-the-scenes tour delight in recasting the objects curators have been entrusted with preserving in new and unusual ways. But it’s difficult to find a subject matter more tailor made for alternate reality games than computational thinking, making the Computer History Museum’s Tessera experience uniquely suited for the format. I’m more than a little envious of the students who will follow ghosts of computers past through their history over the coming months, both through the game’s initial run and its second life as a replayable teaching unit after this initial run.
Educators interested learning more about the Tessera experience are encouraged to reach out to explore the educational brief and reach out to the Computer History Museum for details on the museum experience.