Images courtesy of the MIT Education Arcade
Scientists from the future reached out to present day scientists as part of Project Phoenix to investigate a natural disaster that wiped out the historical record as part of Vanished, an alternate reality game designed exclusively for children. The game was a collaboration between the MIT Education Arcade and the Smithsonian Institution, and sought to engage kids and teens in the role of scientific detectives and inspire scientific learning through an epic story. Prior to the game’s launch, ARGNet provided a sneak peek at the upcoming campaign. Now that the game has come to a conclusion, I followed up with Caitlin Feeley and Dana Tenneson of MIT’s Education Arcade to take a post-mortem look at the game.
The true heroes of Vanished were the players, who uncovered the mystery by making scientific progress week by week. The game was also populated by a full cast of characters; the most prominent was Lovelace, an artificial intelligence who traveled back in time to assist in the investigation. Moderators had in-game personas, like Storm and Megawatt, who played the roles of guardians and guides. The journey also involved interacting with real-world scientists from a variety of fields, and players even encountered a few villainous trolls and hackers among their own ranks before reaching the end.
There is a mystery afoot, and scientists at MIT and the Smithsonian are investigating. But they project that before the next full moon, they will need the help of middle-schoolers across the country to understand an impending environmental disaster, secrets that they alone can uncover.
Vanished is a science-fiction themed alternate reality game launching on April 4th, created and run by MIT’s Education Arcade and the Smithsonian Institution. Vanished invites kids and teens 11-14 to participate in the role of scientific detectives, although older participants can also follow along with special “watcher” accounts. Players will uncover clues, form and test scientific hypotheses, collaborate with their peers, engage online with scientists, and learn about a broad range of scientific fields. Over the course of eight weeks, they will encounter multiple scientific mysteries that require real scientific methods to solve.
Each of the eight weeks of Vanished comprises a chapter with its own activities, scientific content, and another layer of a larger mystery. Online, players will engage with scientists from the Smithsonian via video conferences, play games that will help to illustrate concepts, and unlock clues and hidden messages. Offline, players need to explore their own neighborhoods for scientific data. Journal entries from in-game characters will lead players to visit Smithsonian-affiliated museums for exhibits to gather clues and learn more about each scientific field.
Players will share their offline discoveries with others online to advance the story. They might document what plants are blossoming or what animals live in their area. Contributions are shared so that other kids can see the differences across the country. In forums, moderated by MIT students, players can discuss their findings and how they might apply to solving the mystery. The participating museums aren’t being used for scavenger hunts; rather, they are a way for kids to explore subjects further as the game progresses. Museum staff at the Smithsonian have been warned to expect anything from Vanished players, as participants may have questions the creators did not anticipate.
Two warring factions, the Staves and the Knaves, try to restore balance after intruders from the “real world” (the Seers) have upset their virtual world called Terra Tectus. From the makers of Ghosts of a Chance, the Smithsonian’s new game Pheon will debut this month with a live event at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, in Washington, DC, on September 18, from 12pm to 6pm. In addition to creative activities, the live event will feature clues somehow encoded into a belly-dancing performance.
A modified version of Capture the Flag, Pheon will divide participants into one of the two factions, and an online questionnaire will determine if you are a Stave or a Knave. Individual players and teams will complete various missions and tasks related to the museum’s art collections to earn points and advance the game’s plot. Players will go through three levels of play (Neophyte, Acolyte, and Lamplight Council) before they reach the final stage and are able to “write” missions to challenge lower-level players. Gameplay will be enhanced by character interactions, with the ultimate goal of capturing the Pheon, a virtual talisman that will restore balance to Terra Tectus.
This year, the Boy Scouts of America celebrates its 100th anniversary and has teamed up with the Smithsonian Insitution to create ScoutQuest, an “interactive citywide hunt” this Saturday and Sunday, July 24-25, in Washington, DC. Uncovering “links between Scouting and some of our greatest national treasures,” participants will seek out QR codes in eleven locations on or near the National Mall. By collecting codes, players increase their chances of winning a mountain bike.
Sponsored by AT&T and the smartphone company HTC, ScoutQuest involves six US government locations, including the National Air and Space Museum, the Museum of American History, and the relatively new Museum of the American Indian. Two of DC’s private museums—the National Museum of Crime and Punishment and the (highly interactive) International Spy Museum—are also included in the itinerary, as are two Boy Scout landmarks. The two private museums may or may not be charging their usual admission fees, but all the government-run museums are free, and the Boy Scout locations are public spaces.
The Smithsonian Institution has been something of a vanguard in weaving interactive, collaborative, and transmedia elements into the museum-going experience. The highly regarded alternate reality game Ghosts of a Chance from 2008 involved puzzles and ciphers integrated with exhibits at the American Art Museum and used text messages for game play. More than a scavenger hunt, a half-naked trailhead for Ghosts of a Chance dropped at ARGFest 2008 in Boston. Players from around the world were asked to create and photograph their own artifacts, which were then integrated into the narrative. Even now, two years after the full alternate reality game, a module version of the scavenger hunt is run at the museum occasionally, or at the request of groups. The American Art Museum is also participating in ScoutQuest this weekend.
A map of all the ScoutQuest locations is available here, but interested players should probably start at “Adventure Base 100,” which will be located just north of the Washington Monument. The event will be playable on July 24th and 25th during museum hours (generally 9am to 5pm, but some museums may have extended summer hours).
The Luce Foundation Center at the Smithsonian American Art Museum is hosting a ghostly scavenger hunt later this month as a part of the Ghosts of a Chance ARG. Attendees will participate in a series of code-breaking, puzzle-solving and ghost-hunting quests designed to help rid the museum of its “mischievous spirits”. The scavenger hunt will take place at the museum on October 25th from noon until 5pm. While exploring the museum, make sure to check out the Ghosts of a Chance art display which showcases art created by players for the ARG.
For those who can’t make it to Washington D.C. for the event, the ghosts of the Smithsonian still need your help! They would like players to work together to create a quilt code to be used during the scavenger hunt.
There were so many game launches, puzzles, and events at ARGFest this year, it’s a wonder anyone had any time to attend any of the panels. What follows is a brief summary of some of the events that robbed this columnist of his much-needed beauty sleep.
The first game launch of the night was a subtle one. Upon arriving at the Cocktail Party at 7pm, Lewis Murphy handed me his business card. He even went through the trouble of writing my name on the card before handing it over. Upon closer inspection, there was a symbol on the back of the card. Sixteen other specially marked business cards were handed out over the next few hours. Thanks to some quick footwork by Mapmaker, the symbols were all collected and assembled to reveal the website for Alpha Agency.
Eight days before the start of ARGFest, a number of players received emails leading to a series of highly technical puzzles and a countdown page. When the countdown ran out, something happened at the cocktail party. The general buzz of conversation was replaced with the rantings of a mad man with a manila folder sticking out of his pants. The natural reaction, of course, was to steal the folder from the crazy man, which is just what EGo did. Inside the folder was a CD containing a video as well as a photo that led the partygoers away from alcohol and into the streets, where they eventually found the following letter marking the end of the scavenger hunt.
The Dark Knight
Luckily, the scavenger hunt ended with just enough time to make it to Loews theater to catch a screening of The Dark Knight, courtesy of ARGFest sponsor 42 Entertainment. Watching the film, I appreciated how aspects of the alternate reality game added to the movie viewing experience.