February 17, 2018

Finding the Future: Inside NYPL’s All-Night Scavenger Hunt | Cover Story

500 gamers gathered to connect to the future through the riches of the past via the tools of today

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Photo by Jonathan Blanc

They came wearing bowties and fancy hats, skinny jeans and peasant blouses. They came armed with smartphones, tablets, and laptops. On the evening of Friday, May 20, 500 young adults gathered at the New York Public Library (NYPL) to do what no one had done before: spend the entire night in one of the city’s great public spaces, indulging in an ambitious, interactive game that would test their collaborative abilities while introducing them to the library’s vast holdings.

“Find the Future at NYPL: The Game” was conjured up as part of a weekend of activities celebrating the library’s centennial. Participants were picked from a field of 5000 applicants based on their creativity and ability to dream big, as demonstrated through an online submission process where they were asked, “How do you want to make history and change the world?”

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ANTICIPATION Some of the 500 participants perched on NYPL’s front steps as the 8 p.m. start approached. They quickly registered in the main hall, divided into teams, and accessed the game app (inset). Film crews were on hand to document the night’s activities. Photos by Jonathan Blanc

The chosen arrived from locales up and down the Northeast corridor, with some flying in from as far as Texas and California. Upon reaching the landmark Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on 42nd Street and 5th Avenue, contestants ascended the first of many of the night’s stairways to gather in the library’s main hall. Scores of participants already recognized one another from a month’s worth of social media interaction via Facebook and Twitter, so laughter and friendly conversation soon echoed loudly off the high ceilings, fueled by anticipation, caffeine, and the running joke that if the Rapture arrived, as was being predicted by some, they could do worse than to meet their maker in such a divine space.

Indeed, if the weekend did not see the world’s end, it did mark the conclusion of a tough week for libraries’ tight link to print books. On that Monday, futurist Seth Godin had posted a much-debated blog entry entitled “The future of the library,” which touted online resources as the key to the next generation. Godin surmised, “We need librarians more than we ever did. What we don’t need are mere clerks who guard dead paper.” On Wednesday, the New York Review of Books published an essay on its blog by former U.S. poet laureate Charles Simic entitled “A Country Without Libraries,” wherein he lamented the bygone days when “study and reflection [came] more naturally to someone bent ove
r a book.” Then, on Thursday, Amazon announced it was now selling 105 ebooks for every 100 sold in hardcover and paperback. As for the gamers who gathered this night, they would come to delight in knowing that not only was the codex a vital part of the evening’s activities, but they would soon become authors of a printed book themselves.

A plan with perfect pairings

As the official starting time of 8 p.m. arrived, the players encountered a mashup of old and new technologies, logging into a specially designed mobile gaming app even as they were given paper name tags to stick to their shirts. Paper and Screen would prove to be an essential pairing throughout the night, more important than even the evening’s other dynamic duo, Patience and Fortitude. Those values, while of course also being the names of the famous marble lions that guard the library’s entrance, were a central game motif. Players chose which of the qualities they preferred and divided up into two large groups accordingly. The groups then subdivided into squads of four to eight players, choosing a leader and a moniker, and settled into the Rose Main Reading Room to hear just what the evening’s designer, gaming guru Jane McGonigal (janemcgonigal.com), had in store for them.

Perched on an elevated stage, beneath a huge chandelier, McGonigal revealed the secrets to the contest. One hundred artifacts throughout the library had been tagged with QR codes. Whenever a squad located one, they were to scan it using the game app on the squad leader’s phone. Notably, the app did not contain a map. Players were dependent on a print version, and one another, to ferret out locations. After finding a significant number of artifacts, players were to log onto a separate game website that tracked their progress. From there, a player could click on a virtual representation of a found artifact and a related essay assignment would be revealed. Large charts on easels in the reading room would help track which artifacts and essays had been claimed and by whom. The plan was to have 500 essays written about the 100 artifacts by 5 a.m. The writings would be printed out upon completion and hand-stitched into a book by a bookbinder who had set up shop amid the OPACs. All
the players from Team Patience and Team Fortitude would then sign the completed work, which is to be cataloged and housed at the library in perpetuity.

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UNLOCKING THE ARTIFACTS (from l.) After gaming guru Jane McGonigal took center stage in the Rose Main Reading Room to outline the rules of the game, teams spread out through the library in search of some of the 100 artifacts tagged with QR codes to “activate” each artifact (inset, page opposite) via the game website to learn more about it, to be rewarded a special power related to it (inset, near right), to take time to contemplate images of it, for instance, Charles Dickens’s cat-paw letter opener (inset, far right), and to receive essay assignments-which in at least one case included writing a declaration and proclaiming it, as one participant did from a table top in the middle of the night . Standing on table photo by Stan Friedman; all other photos by Jonathan Blanc

McGonigal observed that “the real challenge of the night” would be collaboration. Here was a space that for most of the past century had served as an outpost for the individual. Could it be transformed into what Godin predicts for libraries in his blog post: “a place where people come together to do co-working and coordinate and invent projects worth working on together”?

The app and the website

The Find the Future app, which users could not download until shortly before game time, came with a few glitches. While Android users were in luck, both early and late adopters of Apple products felt the pain as they learned that the software could not run on iPhones that had not been updated to the iOS4 operating system, nor could it function on the new iPad 2, owing to its camera’s lack of autofocus. Other players experienced authentication problems. But since each squad needed only one smartphone, and tech support was plentiful, disaster was averted, and the players embraced the app’s functionality, scanning objects with ease. If anyone currently doubts the popularity of the QR code, a survey of this crowd would change their thinking: the overwhelming majority displayed immediate familiarity with the technology.

The game layout within the app resembled a layered scavenger hunt. Where the game’s early ancestors might have employed the term dungeon, here the 100 artifacts were placed within thematic “chapters” such as The Road of Trials and A Vow To Continue. Once a single artifact in Chapter 1 was scanned, the player was rewarded with the unlocking of Chapter 2, where the next set of artifacts was revealed, and so on. Each artifact page within a chapter included a descriptive paragraph of the item, but perhaps the app’s cleverest feature was that it intentionally worked slowly. Scanning a QR code resulted in a lengthy “powering up” sequence that no doubt was intended to provide time for its user to appreciate the physical artifact at hand. In addition to collecting artifacts, the app also awarded powers such as Electric Heart, which were, to quote McGonigal, “mathmagically calculated” to change the world but w
hose purpose within the game was comparatively limited.

Serving as an online companion piece to the app, the website findthefuture.nypl.org was also built to make the players slow down and take notice. After viewing data about an artifact but before receiving the prompt for an essay, users had to hold down the keyboard spacebar for several seconds. Following that, they received the message, “Artifact meditation ­successful.”

Taking over the space

It would be hard for any library system not to be envious of NYPL, given its current exhibitions and the permanent artistic elements of the building itself, all of which make for a stunning environment in which to contemplate the past while hoping for a future free of budget cuts.

Artifacts viewed by the players included a draft of the Declaration of Independence written in Thomas Jefferson’s own hand, the stuffed bear that inspired A.A. Milne to write Winnie-the-Pooh, Charles Dickens’s cat-paw letter opener, Malcolm X’s briefcase, and Jack Kerouac’s harmonica. Murals, carvings and even the old, nonfunctioning pneumatic call slip tubes were highlighted. In a clever use of library services, many of the artifacts were books that needed to be requested from late-working staffers. QR codes had been placed on the book covers, and the smartphone app instructed players to turn to specific pages to find the necessary words of wisdom.

While the staff capably handled the book requests, and even turned over their employee lounge to feed the masses, they also willfully kept a blind eye to the goings on in the main reading room, which probably had never been so noisy. For this one night only, folks could stand on tables to make pronouncements, yell out at one another freely, and partake of waves of spontaneous applause.

The social diversion

A game within the game was a surprise addition to the evening’s activities, and among this generation of multitaskers the challenge was welcome. It began with a rare treat: 15-minute tours of the massive underground stacks, an area normally off limits to patrons. Groups of 25 signed up throughout the night to take their turn.

Once they had maneuvered the narrow stairwells, they discovered that 500 postcards had been placed between books throughout the stacks. All were postmarked “20 May, 2021.” Each card was addressed to a specific player and contained a handwritten message from the future that referenced back to that player’s contest submission, revealing how his or her actions had made a difference. Players were instructed to pick someone’s card at random and then seek that person out to deliver their future to them.

Strategies for achieving this goal varied from the serendipitous to the high-tech. In the snack room, a woman sat down next to a man who happened to have her card and then found that the card she held belonged to a man sitting across from her! Some took to Facebook to find what their person looked like, or to post whose card they held, while others opted for handwritten signs taped near doorways. Still others simply shouted out names every few minutes. It was as much a lesson in problem solving as it was a study in human interaction.

The designer

One does not find her way to becoming the director of game research & development at the Palo Alto research facility Institute for the Future by being a pessimist. McGonigal’s tenure there is testament to an approach to dilemma resolution that involves a lofty mix of statistics and idealism, funneled into the firm belief that the invincibility a player feels in a powerful video game can be translated to real life. With a Ph.D. in performance studies from the University of California–Berkeley and more than a decade of experience in gaming research, McGonigal is a frequent lecturer and the author of the best-selling book Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World (Penguin Pr: Penguin Group [USA], 2011).

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TAPPING THE FUTURE Quick, and rare, tours in small groups through the underground stacks revealed another layer to the game when participants discovered handwritten cards from the future tucked among the volumes; each player was charged to deliver one to its addressee by night’s end, when they would all sign the author pages of the print book, bound on site, filled with their 500 essays
on “ways to make history and change the future.” Photos by Stan Friedman

Her studies have turned up some captivating data. By age 21, the average gamer has logged 10,000 hours of play time. That is roughly equivalent to the number of hours a person spends in school. Today, there are 500 million gamers spending three billion hours a week at video games. McGonigal contends that if that number can be boosted to 21 billion hours, then the critical mass to create world-changing solutions would be obtained.

She points out that we like people better if we’ve played a game with them; we bond and build trust. And contrary to popular thinking, she explains that games are not so much a tool for escapism but rather a way to use our best selves. Gamers are extremely productive and collaborative within the realm of a game.

McGonigal’s mission is to develop a means of osmosis to carry the successes gained in virtual spaces—with their virtual risks—to the truly risky physical world in order to achieve her twin goals of “blissful productivity” and “epic wins.”

The players

The free and unlimited energy drinks probably didn’t hurt, but it would be hard to imagine a more upbeat, engaged, and clever crowd willing to test McGonigal’s latest creation. The vast majority of the group were Millennials, ages 18–30, and they easily lived up to their generation’s trademark qualities of being hypersocial, task oriented, and tech savvy. Weeks before the event, nearly 300 members had joined the official Facebook group, posting hundreds of messages and initiating real-world get-togethers in the form of happy hours and library tours.

Once the game began, the mechanisms of group dynamics engaged, with leaders and hunters emerging in each squad. Many seemed immediately comfortable, perhaps reflecting their years of participating in similarly structured groups in school. Teammates stayed connected via a flurry of texts and emails. One squad quickly set up a shared Google doc to act as its bulletin board. Tweets employing the hashtag #findthefuture streamed across Twitter, and Flickr tags were created for the hundreds of pictures that would be uploaded to that photo-sharing site.

Not surprisingly, many players figured out ways to game the game. Several squads realized that even though only one smartphone could be the official team phone, other teammates could spread out to different artifacts, take photographs of those QR codes, and then return back to base to have those photos in turn scanned by the leader’s phone; a collaborative process if probably not one that was intended. And at least one player deprived himself of the meditative process when he learned to bypass what he referred to as the “annoying delay” built into the app by turning it off immediately after scanning, then restarting it.

With many of their essays written, the players discovered there was time to kill in the early hours of the morning, so they sought out distractions. Games of Hide & Seek and Zombie Tag ensued. A group of a dozen could be seen practicing yoga at 3:15 a.m., and at 4 a.m., a “mixer” was held to match up anyone who had yet to deliver their postcard from the future.

The book at the end of the game

Sporadic printing problems meant that the book was not wholly stitched by morning, but as the players lined up to sign the author page, few found any genuine reason to be disappointed, beyond the game having reached its conclusion. That the fun ended just as Saturday morning began was merely the last of several contradictory experiences for their tired minds to ponder. They had played a game, though taken it seriously. It was a game about tomorrow, heavily reliant on yesterday (and vice versa). It produced a book that could not have been written without an app that was focused largely on other books.

At dawn, the century-old building, no worse for wear, seemed more than Godin’s “place where people come together.” Perhaps its overnight guests had just witnessed the next step in an evolution from a library being a lender of games to it being a place in which video and board game play is encouraged within its walls to a point where the library itself becomes the game. Not so much sociologist Ray Ohlenburg’s famous “third place” (a locale that is neither home nor work), but a fourth place that is both real and virtual, perfectly balanced between the future and the past.

For the remainder of 2011, both app and website will remain freely available for anyone interested in playing. Visitors to NYPL can bring their smartphones along on their own leisurely hunt. Visitors to findthefuture.nypl.org can partake in a virtual version of the game, write their own essays, and read any already submitted.

Author Information
Stan Friedman (@StanfordF) is the Senior Research Librarian for Condé Nast in New York City, and a freelance critic, poet, and novelist (his novel, God’s Gift to Women , was published in ebook format last year by Scott & Nix, Inc.). He was one of ten librarians invited by NYPL to observe the Find the Future game night


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