MW2009 Ghosts of a Chance Presentation (Learning from Games Session)
Museums and the Web, Presentation Notes
• Last year, the Smithsonian American Art Museum worked with game designers
CityMystery to implement an Alternate Reality Game named “Ghosts of a Chance.”
• The game ran on-line and at various live events for three months
• Based in the Luce Foundation Center, the museum’s visible storage facility.
• In this presentation, I aim to provide an overview of each part of the game together
with a summary of the challenges we faced and the lessons we learned.
• Slide 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 For us, An ARG is
o An interactive story
o Demands players active participation – the story does not continue unless
players do something
o Takes place in real time and using real-world elements (phones, web, e-
mail, physical spaces, in-person interaction)
o Is inspired by and integrated with our collection
• Slide Why?
o Create an interactive experience in an art museum (traditionally serves
interpretation in a very passive way)
o Attract a new audience – on-line gamers who would otherwise not visit an
art museum, on-line or on site. Potential for building a loyal audience by
creating an inventive and memorable experience
o Marketing – we hoped the game would help make more people aware of
the Luce Foundation Center, and even draw more people up to the 3rd
o We 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.
o We 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 Pre-Game
o Game was due to launch September 8
o Game designers proposed to produce a “teaser” for the game by gate-
crashing the annual ARGfest-o-con, an event for hardcore ARG players
o Very successful – photos on Flickr and conversation on Unfiction within
24 hours of the event.
o Players googled “Luce’s Lovers Eye” to find an object page on the Luce
web site. This in turn led them to the game web site.
o We received over 150 images of eyes and 250 calls
• Slide Press
o Also concealed clues in ABC.com article and Smithsonian Magazine
o However, had to carry momentum for six weeks – some hardcore players
felt we could have done more during this time, including introducing them
to the game characters. One player said that a “loud and clear message”
with more information about the game would have been useful.
• Slide Main Game – Artifacts
o The story of the game focused around two young curators, Daisy and
Daniel, who were being haunted by restless spirits. As they learned more
about the spirits, they discovered that they needed to hold an exhibition.
So they invited players to create a series of artifacts.
o Each artifact linked to the story of the ghosts, and to the museum’s
o Players had just a couple of days to create each artifact and mail it in to the
o Each artifact had to be delivered by courier & had to fit within a shoe-box.
o Received 33 artifacts from 14 players
o Slide Artifacts were of extremely high quality – especially considering
tight deadlines, the need to use a courier, and the somewhat obscure
o Artifacts were temporarily catalogued into the collection so that we could
show them on the Luce Center web site and in-gallery kiosks. Participants
wrote their own labels, which were also included on-line.
o Both hardcore players and crafters participated in this aspect of the game.
o The Smithsonian brand may have put some people off:
o “When you are scribbling doodles to write to some abstract character in a
funny little game no-one will ever see, it’s easy to come up with
something. But when the SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION (spoken in big
impressive voice) asks you to submit a portrait or something, it’s a little
• Slide Narrative
o With each group of artifacts, Daisy and Daniel posted bite-size pieces of
the story on-line
o They also shared elements of the story through videos and comments
posted on YouTube and Facebook
o Museums supported the story with blog posts, a press release, and staff
interaction with Daisy and Daniel.
o Some players found the connections between the artifacts and the story a
o At this point we noticed that there was a reduction in activity on Unfiction.
However, we learned that this was not necessarily a bad thing as Unfiction
is used primarily for Meta Conversation, or conversation about the game
itself – who was running it, how it would unfold, etc, rather than what was
going on in the game. The lack of discussion could actually be a positive,
as it meant that players didn’t have anything to complain about.
o One benefit was that the story and the artifacts attracted a large number of
players who did not have any prior experience of ARGs.
• Slide Main Game – Mini Events
o To further support the story…
o NMNH – tour of the anthropology department with Dr. David Hunt
o Forensic evaluation of human remains – fake police reports
o Skeletons belonged to two of the spirits
o Cemetery – tour of the Congressional Cemetery with Patrick Crowley,
Chair of the Board of Directors
o Players saw ghostly figures in the distance flashing lights, found a
flashlight and Morse-code key in a tomb, started communicating with the
figures – they wanted “rest.”
• Slide Main Game – Final Event
o Daisy and Daniel revealed that to save them from the spirits, they had to
hold an exhibition in the museum of all the player-created artifacts.
o Alongside this one-day exhibition, players were tasked to complete a
series of scavenger-hunt-like quests in the museum. There were six quests
– one for each character.
o We asked players who were unable to attend to create a code for us, based
on a nineteenth century quilt
o The game included a cake inspired by one of our artworks, a protestor
holding a sign outside in the rain (players had to look through the
window), a code inspired by a stone sculpture, foil craft, a mysteriously
ringing phone in a coat pocket, and arrows.
o Players interacted through text messages, phone calls, and by responding
to actors and volunteers
o 244 people played, 70 people completed all 6 quests
o Fastest team to finish took three hours, average time in museum was 3-4
o Who played? Several people who had created artifacts, and several people
who had been following the story. Many people, however, just stumbled
upon the game. It was a satisfying experience either way.
o For anyone who couldn’t attend – we posted an epilogue on the web site.
o Great feedback, including:
“It turned an already interesting museum into a place of wonder”
“I never would have spent the time staring into a painting and
trying to understand it if it weren’t part of a task.”
“This is the first time that it felt like the museum was meant to be
fun and interactive rather than somber and pensive.”
“A fantastic way to examine the collections and pay specific
attention to the various works on art on display.”
• Slide Ongoing Game
o Created a shorter version of the final event for the museum to run on a
o Over 600 people have played this since we started it in December
o Goal to change the perception of art museums among teenagers
• Slide Useful links