Alternate Realities

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The Art Museum as a Game Platform. Presented at "Museum Narratives," the 20th Annual Salzburg Conference in English Literature and Culture, November 2009.

The Art Museum as a Game Platform. Presented at "Museum Narratives," the 20th Annual Salzburg Conference in English Literature and Culture, November 2009.

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  • 1. Alternate Realities: The Art Museum as a Game Platform
    Georgina Goodlander, Smithsonian American Art Museum
    Presentation Notes
    Intro
    [slide – title]
    The Smithsonian American Art Museum implemented the Alternate Reality Game (ARG) “Ghosts of a Chance” in 2008, which ran from July 18 through the end of October.
    [slide – American Art Museum]
    The Smithsonian American Art Museum shares a building with the National Portrait Gallery in downtown DC. Our collection actually dates back to the mid-nineteenth century, but we have been in this building since 1968. Currently, we get around 1 million visitors to this building every year.
    [slide – Luce Foundation Center]
    The game was based in the museum’s Luce Foundation Center, a visible storage facility that displays 3,300 artworks in floor-to-ceiling glass cases and pneumatic drawers.
    [slide – What is an ARG?]
    There are many definitions of what Alternate Reality Games are, and what they should do. But we had to come up with our own definition.
    [slide – What is an ARG?]
    For us, An ARG is
    An interactive story
    Demands players active participation – the story does not continue unless players do something
    Takes place in real time and using real-world elements (phones, web, e-mail, physical spaces, in-person interaction)
    Is inspired by and integrated with our collection
    [Slide – Why?]
    We had three board goals:
    Support branding efforts by increasing name recognition of the American Art Museum
    Encourage discovery and interactivity around the collections.
    Attract new audiences to both the physical and virtual museum.
    Risks
    Worried that we may receive thousands of unexpected visitors. Decided to carefully monitor online activity before each live event so that we could provide additional security measures if needed.
    Worried that we would compromise the museum’s credibility by supporting the fiction of the game in official museum materials. Decided to include the game’s logo on every piece of content produced.
    [Slide – Core Narrative - Characters]
    Used the collections of the American Art Museum as a launching pad to develop an intricate and entirely fictional story around six characters.
    Four of these characters were the “ghosts,” McDoggerel (McD), Blanche, The Reverend, and WhatFor. They lived during the nineteenth century and traveled the country together performing Shakespeare plays. Each had an eventful life and died tragically.
    The two remaining characters were Daisy Fortunis and Daniel Libbe. They were both eighteen, lived in the present day, and had been strangely drawn to the American Art Museum for employment.
    Daisy and Daniel realized they had a great deal in common.
    Each had a spirit guide and their spirit guides had known each other when they were alive.
    Blanche and McD.
    The ghosts were beginning to cause problems for Daisy and Daniel - placing their jobs and the museum in jeopardy.
    Central goal of the game - race against time to save Daisy, Daniel, and the museum from these restless spirits.
    [Slide - Telling the Story - Teaser]
    Dramatic pre-game teaser to generate interest and introduce players to the characters.
    Game designers hired a national-level bodybuilder, henna-tattooed his chest, and had him gatecrash one of the sessions at the annual ARGFest-o-con event in Boston.
    Dedicated ARG players at this event immediately recognized the unusual happening as part of a game. Within a couple of hours, they spotted the clue and found their way to the pre-game Web site.
    “You know, in thinking about it, this doesn't make any sense... Why would the Smithsonian send a stripper to a place like ARGFest to get this going? I mean, think about it, a borderline government agency sending a stripper to a convention in a hotel? That would be front page news on The Drudge Report!”
    [Slide - Telling the Story – Pre-Game site]
    Site included a countdown and asked players to complete two tasks: e-mail an image of an eye and record a Shakespeare incantation over the phone.
    Early press helped to further support the narrative
    ABC.com published an on-line article that included a hidden audio file of a spooky voice reading Shakespeare
    Smithsonian Magazine printed a visual clue
    [Slide – Telling the Story – Social Media]
    Daisy and Daniel posted videos and text to a variety of social media sites, including Facebook, MySpace, and YouTube. The videos documented their time at the museum, and started to reveal the story of the ghosts.
    [Slide – The Artifacts]
    Players learned that Daisy and Daniel needed to hold an exhibition in order to put the spirits to “rest,” and that they needed the players to create the artifacts for this exhibition.
    Each week, we released a new challenge that directly related to the story of McD, Blanche, The Reverend, and WhatFor. Players were required to create these objects and mail them into the museum
    As the submissions were received for each challenge, we uncovered a little more of the story on the Web site.
    The inclusion of these player-created artifacts served several purposes. By actively creating something the players themselves became part of the narrative. Without the objects, the story could not continue so both the puppetmasters (game designers) and the rest of the players were relaying on them for content.
    [Slide – On-line Collections]
    The player-created artifacts were added to the online collection as if they were real accessioned objects.
    By adding the fake art objects from the game we led players to explore real objects in the collection.
    The artifacts also aimed to fulfill a broader goal - By placing the objects clearly within the context of a narrative, the game designers provoked players to think about the importance of context and narrative for all art objects and, hopefully, triggered thoughtful inquiry around our “real” collections.
    [Slide – Player-created narratives]
    “These unique prediction disks were found in an abandoned apartment. We do not know where the rest of them are, or how to use them. We can only guess at their meaning and how seriously they were taken.” Lydia Burris, Predictor of Imminent Doom.
    “He was the last one. He made sure of it. The line ended with him. What was left of the ones before could be fit into one bottle. Not that it mattered much. Each of them had left more permanent things behind.” Memories. Hatred. Scars.” Michelle Senderhauf and Eve Senderhauf, Memory Vessel.
    [Slide – Supporting the Fiction]
    ARGs blur the line between reality and fiction. Players needed to believe that Daisy and Daniel were staff members, that they were responsible for curating an exhibition, and that the player-created artifacts had been accessioned into the collection.
    The Public Affairs Office issued a press release.
    Several “in game” posts on museum’s blog.
    Entered fake artifacts into our master database and Web site.
    Staff members interacted with Daisy and Daniel on social media sites.
    These endorsements legitimized the story and made it difficult for players to distinguish between in-game and out-of-game content.
    [Slide – Supporting the Fiction – Live Events - NMNH]
    The live events also helped to reinforce the fiction.
    Dr. David Hunt toured a small group around the anthropology department then ended in the forensics lab, in which were seven skeletons.
    Five of the skeletons were identified, and Dr. Hunt showed the group how to determine gender, age, race, and cause of death for each.
    Challenged the players to answer these questions for the two remaining bodies.
    Belonged to WhatFor, who was hit by a train, and the Reverend, who shot himself.
    NMNH supplied fake forensic reports, which supported the identity of the remains.
    [Slide – Supporting the Fiction – Live Events – Cemetery]
    Patrick Crowley, Chair of the Board of Directors, - tour of the cemetery, history as well as trivia about the people who were buried there.
    Puppetmasters staged an elaborate conversation with WhatFor and The Reverend, both of whom were represented by actors.
    Players asked the ghosts who they were and what they wanted. From this, players learned that the ghosts wanted “to rest.”
    [Slide – the Final Event]
    Opportunities for people to connect and interact with artworks in the museum’s collections.
    Players needed to complete a series of quests based around the six in-game characters.
    The quests were designed around six themes – food, memory, map, domino, dance, and tattoo – which connected the artworks and activities involved in each.
    Quilt code created by remote players
    Cake inspired by an artwork
    Protest sign on the street outside
    Foil sculpture inspired by a piece of folk art
    Answering a mysterious phone in a coat pocket
    Looking over railings and following arrows.
    [Slide – the Final Event]
    Intense study of artworks
    stone sculpture that was used as the key to decipher a complex code,
    Color Field painting Faces by Morris Louis, which players had to stare at until they uncovered a “distant memory.”
    The game experience enabled participants to make meaningful connections with the artworks. An unexpected result was that the game also helped orient visitors to the museum and its exhibits in a way that was intriguing and memorable.
    “It was a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon, and turned an already interesting museum into an exciting place of wonder, where every question led to another new discovery.”
    “Even though we were ‘exposed’ to the whole museum, I also liked that there were a couple of pieces of art that we actually had to sit and ponder. […] I never would have spent the time staring into [a] painting and trying to understand it if it weren't part of a task.”
    244 people played, 70 people completed all six quests
    [Slide – The End]
    Posted an epilogue to the game Web site confirming that the day was a success, and Daisy and Daniel had been freed from their torment.
    “They rest. They really do. All of them. McD has vanished, his fame secured by the artifacts that players of Ghosts Of A Chance made in his honor. Blanche escaped the traps of life; she is free to discover whatever there is to discover, and this time in peace and comfort. WhatFor is free for all time. The Reverend is beyond temptation; he languishes in a goodly repose.”
    Conclusion
    Game has given museum staff a new perspective on our collections and the spaces in which we display them.
    Museums have for a long time been one-way experiences, with content delivered to the visitor in a way that provided limited opportunity for feedback. The ARG transformed this passive encounter into a conversation, and gave people an opportunity to interact with the collections and the staff.
    The use of narrative empowered visitors to think about the stories, both real and otherwise, behind the artworks and to realize that they didn’t have to necessarily accept or agree with the official museum interpretation.
    Transformed the way that people interact with our collections, our sites (on-line and off), and us.