The game itself was one part scavenger hunt, one part writing exercise, and one part footwork. All over the library, QR codes were attached to 100 objects on display – from Malcolm X’s briefcase to marble-carved Gargolyes. Using a slick app on a smart phone, each code was scanned and facts about the object display on the screen. Working toward the goal of activating all 100 objects, you gained a lot of knowledge about history, and the Library's role in preserving it.
Once an object was activated, a special section of the game website opened up, with a writing prompt. These were mostly thought exercises on the greater meaning of an object, and how it relates to the future. Multiple players could answer the prompt for the same object, although the players tried to coordinate so that each object had a least two thoughtful entries.
At the end, all the objects were activated, and 653 stories were written. The entries created that night will be laid out and hand-bound in a wooden book, which will become part of the Library's permanent collection.
If this seems like a lot of work to take on voluntarily – that's because it is. Game designer Jane McDonigal writes in her book:
"Games make us happy because they are hard work that we choose for ourselves, and it turns out that almost nothing makes us happier than good, hard work."
This was apparent as bunch of 20-somethings chose to spend their night in the Library, running up and down marble stairs and hunkered down in front of computers, writing about history.
Despite sleep deprivation, I can look back and remember most of the objects, and even of many facts. I would certainly consider it one model for educational games. But mostly, I remember how much the players pushed themselves that night – to learn a new app, a building plan and construct essays. It proves that people are willing – eager even- to rise to challenges, together.
If mechanisms for meaningful reward are put into place around a goal, people don’t mind working hard. Volunteering projects – from construction to tedious cataloging – could benefit from instituting some game mechanics. Turn volunteers into players, and the "rules" of the game may gives them more reason to collaborate and try a bit harder.
But what about more ambiguous projects relating to social change? Certainly the tasks are hard, and the end goal is deeply meaningful. Many organizations with missions related to environment change, equality or poverty alleviation may benefit from taking a look at what game mechanisms work for their goals. Small tasks that require collaboration are an amazing way to engage people with a larger mission that may seem intangible. Breaking down campaign goals may help people unfamiliar to an organization to grasp a very complex issue, and feel they can do something about it.
The Library used it’s game as both a engagement tool and a celebratory promotion of its Centennial. For an organization 100 years old, creating a massive live-action game using new technology is no small feat. And certainly the great press coverage – and the lasting impact on 500 young– warrants the institutional investment. It cemented its status as an institution of open knowledge and a touchstone for the community of New York City. The New York Public Library created a lot of goodwill that night, and I am certain I and my fellow players, will remember what we learned about both history and creative collaboration for years to come.
For pictures of all the fun, check out the Flickr album!