Thursday, December 11, 2008

Guest Post: An ARG at the Smithsonian--A Success?

This guest post was written by Georgina Bath Goodlander, the Interpretative Programs Manger for the Luce Foundation Center at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Georgina will be monitoring the comments to respond to your questions.

The “Ghosts of a Chance” alternate reality game (ARG) ran from July 18 until October 25, 2008 and was a collaboration between the Smithsonian American Art Museum and CityMystery. For a complete report on this project, please download this PDF. The game website is here. Otherwise, enjoy this blog post about what I consider the successes and challenges of this project.

The Smithsonian American Art Museum originally decided to create and implement an ARG with three goals in mind: to get people talking about our museum, to attract a new audience, and to encourage discovery around our collections. The Luce Foundation Center for American Art, the museum’s innovative open storage and study center, seemed like the perfect fit for the project.

It is difficult to evaluate Ghosts of a Chance (GOAC) as a whole because there were so many different levels of game play, so I have divided it into three sections:
  1. The onsite, 5-hour live event on October 25
  2. The online, hands-on element in which people created and submitted artifacts over six weeks (September 8 – October 25)
  3. The online story development of the fictional curators Daisy Fortunis and Daniel Libbe and their spirit guides (July 18 – October 25)
1. The onsite event

I had a great deal of apprehension about the October 25 event because the quests that the game designers had created seemed to me to be extremely complicated and involved. People were prompted by text message and staff to take on six quests, including “shaking their booty,” finding secret codes, and eating cake. I did not think that many players would have the perseverance and patience to complete all six quests. On that I was happily proven absolutely wrong! Over seventy people played for more than three hours to complete the entire game, and many of those groups spent more than five hours running around the museum solving puzzles. 244 people played in total, and everyone completed at least one quest with the majority completing more than three. The feedback we received was outstanding, with comments that included: “Hopefully innovations like that will help keep art alive for our younger generation,” “I was surprised to have such a fresh and enjoyable experience in a museum. I wish more visits could be this uniquely satisfying and multifaceted,” and “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.” As a result, it is with confidence that I consider the live event to have been a resounding success.

2. The online contributions

I also consider the online hands-on aspect to have been successful. The tasks asked people to create artifacts according to unusual and sometimes obscure requirements with extremely tight deadlines. They also had to mail these to the museum at their own expense, with no expectation that their submissions would be returned. The first week I was on pins and needles as I waited to see if we would receive anything at all! Fortunately, over the course of the six requests, fourteen people participated to create a total of thirty-three artifacts. The most surprising and rewarding element was the high quality of the submissions with players putting a great deal of time and thought into each piece. Initially I had hoped for more submissions, but by the end I thought that the number worked out very well, as it would have been difficult from a logistical standpoint for the museum to have handled more. The feedback from the players about having their works temporarily included in our online collection and on view in the museum was overwhelmingly positive. It was quite a brave thing for the museum to do and definitely helped increase the buzz that was already starting to stir about the game, particularly within the museum community. Players helped with getting the word out too, as they couldn’t wait to share the news with friends and family that their work was going to be in the Smithsonian, albeit temporarily.

Of the people who created artifacts, seven were crafters who participated because of the opportunity to make something, five were hardcore players, and two were unknowns (I define “hardcore” by those players that were active on the ARG discussion forum Unfiction. This does not exclude them from also being crafters!). Many of the artifact-creators also attended the live event on October 25 to play the game and view their work. If we tried something like this again, however, I would extend the deadlines for the submissions so that more people might consider contributing.

3. The Online Story Development

The online story development is the trickiest part to evaluate. The pre-game happenings between the henna-tattooed bodybuilder at ARGfest-o-con on July 18 and the official launch of the game on September 8 actually generated a lot more online interest from hardcore ARG players than the game itself appeared to. During the initial period, the clue hidden in the henna tattoos led players to the GOAC web site, which asked them to send in images of eyes and record an incantation over the phone. The eye images were posted to the site, and the incantations were layered over the top of each other in an ever-growing audio file. We also hid teasers for the game on Smithsonian web sites and in articles about the game. The resulting discussions on Unfiction about these tasks and hints far exceeded the discussions after the game’s launch, with respect to the number of people involved and the frequency of posts. Why? My unconfirmed suspicion is that we lost some of that initial interest once we went “official.” Prior to September 8, the web site was a little haphazard in appearance. It wasn’t really designed further than a simple header, and the eye images were posted in a single column down the page. After September 8, however, the web site was beautifully designed, appeared much more professional, and became formally linked with the Smithsonian. Did this scare people away? I think it might have done. There were also some murmurings on the forum that we were just doing this to generate viral buzz about an exhibition and that it wasn’t really a game.

The story of Daisy and Daniel was emerging on the GOAC web site as well as on Facebook, YouTube, MySpace, Flickr, and the museum’s blog Eye Level. Each artifact submission unlocked another layer of the story, and videos illustrating Daisy’s and Daniel’s descent into madness were posted as if by the two young “curators” themselves. The story was detailed and creative, and the videos were wonderfully believable, but there didn’t seem to be much player discussion around them. We know that people were reading the story and watching the videos, and some players even interacted with Daisy and Daniel on Facebook, but they didn’t seem interested in figuring out the mysteries that we presented. We did maintain a solid core of hardcore players that followed the game to its conclusion, but I was disappointed that we lost a fair amount of the original interest. Conversely, the story combined with the artifacts succeeded in drawing in a wide audience of players who did not have any prior experience of ARGs. Could we do it differently to capture both audiences, or would catering to the hardcore crowd scare away the larger audience of non-ARGers? I’ve also been warned by those-in-the-know about ARGs that the activity on Unfiction does not necessarily reflect overall ARGer participation, so it’s a difficult one to judge.

[Deep breath]
Finally, to return to our original goals…

Ghosts of a Chance did spark discussion about our museum. It helped increase name recognition nationwide with articles in ABC.com, the Smithsonian magazine, this blog, and the Learning Games Network, as well as mentions by the Washington Post, National Public Radio, and several local blogs and news sites. We captured a new audience online with almost 40,000 page views and more than 6,100 unique visitors to the GOAC web site. This boosted traffic on the Luce Foundation Center and the museum’s web sites as people clicked through to view the player-created artifacts and the museum’s blog. We did not draw a new audience to the bricks-and-mortar museum as the people who played the onsite game on October 25 were generally local and had visited the museum before. However, visit length and level of engagement did increase. I am also optimistic that some of the people who played across the country might now consider including us in their itinerary next time they visit D.C., particularly if we consider the opinion of one hardcore player from New York: “I, for one, have really enjoyed the experience. Even from afar, my interest in the Smithsonian has been raised. I haven't visited for quite a few years, and the last couple weeks I've been pondering how much I can let myself spend for a weekend visit.”

The game absolutely encouraged discovery around the museums collection, both virtually and in the real world, as the tasks led people to new artworks, galleries, and interpretation. And most importantly to me, a whole lot of people had a whole lot of fun, staff included.

What now?

The project with CityMystery also included creation of a packaged game that SAAM can run on a recurring basis. This is essentially a shorter version of the onsite event, capturing the most successful quests and clues, and will be available by appointment (starting in January) and as a recurring public program (starting sometime in the spring). After hearing such positive reviews from players on October 25, I’m extremely excited about the chance to play the game with more people. I’m hopeful that teachers in particular will pick up on this as a great activity for their students.

I also believe that the Smithsonian has an opportunity to create an ARG across several if not all of its museums. How wonderful would it be to create an experience that would take players across the entire Institution (physical and virtual) in search of clues?

Thanks so much to Georgina for writing this! I found her thoughts (and the exhaustive PDF report on the project) quite useful. And you?

1 comments, add yours!:

Suzanne Hall said...

The project sounds like a grand success! The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts had a similar interactive experience designed by Richmond-based Ravenchase Adventures for its Look Here: Mystery exhibition several years ago. Fortunately, Ravenchase took on many duties, including the production of over a thousand decoding wheels and prizes for the winners.

My observations about the project were very similar: concern about the difficulty of the project; and delight in many hundreds of participants who definitely engaged with the art in a different and probably more intensive manner.

Our reality is that we lack the resources to consistently provide such experiences, although we value creative and interactive ways to engage our audience. It certainly was fun!

Suzanne Hall
Associate Director, Communications and Marketing