February 5, 2016

Toronto Public Library Enters Alternate Reality (Gaming)

Every April, the Toronto Public Library (TPL) runs its Keep Toronto Reading program, a month-long celebration which includes a big community read of a single title. But this is the first year patrons will be able to enter, and interact with, the world of the chosen book.

2013’s book is Fahrenheit 451, which was a “huge influence” on Toronto-based science fiction author and award-winning game developer Jim Munroe. So when Munroe heard about the selection serendipitously, at a meeting on gaming programming for the library, he was moved to pitch something more ambitious in honor of the Bradbury classic: an alternate reality game (ARG).

ARGs are interactive narratives that take place in the real world, not just online. They use multiple media to tell a single, overarching story, a technique known as transmedia storytelling. Players interact directly with characters and solve puzzles, and ARGs are often collaborative rather than structured to reward a single winner. Munroe described the library’s ARG as “part scavenger hunt, part audio drama.”

Ab. Velasco, communications officer of the TPL, told LJ that TPL was instantly smitten with Munroe’s idea. “We just loved it,” he said. “It worked so well with the themes of the book: censorship, media saturation, memory and storytelling, the importance of reading.”

In addition to fitting well within the mission of Fahrenheit 451, the ARG fit equally with the mission of the library itself. “Innovation is a big priority for the library,” explained Velasco, as are collaborations with creative community members and maximizing the use of technology. The ARG does all of the above.

To join the game, Torontonians must call a phone number and speak to a character from the book who assigns them the missions. “By taking them on, you are joining the literary resistance,” Velasco said. To foster the illusion of being part of a grassroots underground movement, posters were deliberately designed to look hand written, “Like something you’d see on a telephone pole,” Velasco told LJ.

Munroe has previous experience creating ARGs, but this is his first attempt at creating something on this scale: his previous games totaled 30 people or less, he told LJ, while TPL got 120 calls on the first day alone, driven in part by a publicity boost from being featured on popular blog BoingBoing.

No one need worry that TPL is wasting tax payer dollars on frivolous activities. “It’s meant to be a fun innovative and loving tribute to Bradbury, but it also achieves several marketing objectives,” Velasco explains. To successfully complete the missions, players must visit both a physical library branch and the library website, as well as interact with the library on social media. (They can do so from the library computers, ensuring that the digital divide does not prevent some Torontonians from joining the fun.)  At the end of the campaign, TPL plans “a thorough analysis” of its reach.

For the first mission, players must choose a book from the library and recite a passage into the telephone, thus providing the library with a number of recordings it can showcase in future. For the second, they must discover a clue embedded in Bradbury memorabilia from TPL’s special collections and use it to “wipe out the enemy database.” And for the third, they must show the people of 451’s future that “there was a time when people loved books unabashedly” by taking pictures and posting them on social media.

These challenges are much less complicated than the usual ARG fare, which can take weeks of concentrated, collaborative effort to unravel. “We wanted to keep it simple to encourage participation,” Velasco explained. Munroe elaborated, “given the scale of it, it couldn’t be super in depth or challenging, because it is for a general audience. What I’ve done is a very modest kind of entry level ARG that will give people a sense of what makes these games engaging or interesting that will encourage them to seek out others.”

The budget for the whole project is only $6,000, including support from the foundation, and that includes a live event at the library’s main event venue on April 22. The event is open to everyone whether they completed the missions or not, but those who did will be celebrated as a hero or champion of the resistance.

Meredith Schwartz About Meredith Schwartz

Meredith Schwartz (mschwartz@mediasourceinc.com) is Executive Editor of Library Journal.

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