A few short months ago I spent the night locked inside the New York Public Library, playing an adventure game with hundreds of strangers. Just recently, the fruit of our labor— a book— was officially entered into the Rare Books Collection. I haven’t yet made an appointment to see it (there is a PDF version available), but with summer coming to a close, I thought it high time to share a bit about my experience.
You may recall this summer kicking off in a rather fictitious fashion, with billboards and posters popping up everywhere to warn us of the imminent end of our beloved world. A sliver of the population— fans of the radio personality behind the hoopla— began publicly detailing bittersweet plans to ‘wrap it up’ here on Earth and embark on eternal lives elsewhere. May 21st would be Rapture Day, and I’m guessing these people spent the night of May 20th wide-awake.
As did I. Less than 24 hours before Hell on Earth was scheduled to commence for most of us, I made my own ascent, up the steps of the New York Public Library’s Stephen A. Schwartzman building. There I spent the night, exploring its treasures with 499 others and writing of a future in which hell remained a theoretical place, supposedly located beyond the reaches of Google Maps.
We’d been invited to play Find the Future: a game masterminded by game designer and author Jane McGonigal in celebration of the NYPL’s centennial. I’d first learned of the opportunity back in March during McGonigal’s delightfully interactive presentation at South by Southwest.
The energy in the main lobby of the library was palpable. Many of us had once read and were now reminiscing about the children’s book From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, in which two kids run away from home, hide in and then stay overnight at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The eloquent marble sculptures and high, palatial ceilings of the Schwartzman building had temporarily dwarfed us back into excited little children.
Jubilant cheers greeted Jane and her colleague when they appeared on either side of the marble stairs. We were asked to split into two teams, named for the lions guarding the building’s entrance— Fortitude and Patience. After a moment of indecision, I scampered over to Team Patience, figuring it would be made up of easy going, pleasant-to-work-with folks, and seeing it as an opportunity to balance out my fast-paced NYC influences.
Once the crowd parted, both teams were led to Rose Reading Room— our writing headquarters for the night. There, we learned that each team would be required to find and “unlock” 100 historical artifacts from the library’s private collection (for example, The Declaration of Independence in Thomas Jefferson’s handwriting, the stuffed animals that brought on A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh series, and Charles Dickens’ letter opener– crafted using his deceased cat Bob’s taxidermied paw).
These relics of past human progress would serve to inspire us as we collaboratively wrote a future-facing book, preemptively titled One Hundred Ways to Make History.
The guidelines were outlined for us in the form of The Seven Secrets. Our mission was to write a book in one night and, quite frankly, we’d be screwed without a strategy. Some, but not all, of these “secrets” proved useful. To sum them up:
1) The Secret of the Artifacts: One hundred objects from the library’s private collection were “hidden in plain sight.” The Find the Future app mapped out which objects lay in which room. Once found, we could unlock each object’s QR code to reveal more about it.
2) The Secret of the Powers: The powers represented strengths we’d need in order to change the world. They were transferred over in a remarkably sparkly manner on our smart phones as we unlocked the QR codes, but proved inconsequential in the context of the game.
3) The Secret of the Stories: “These stories have never been told. You have to tell them,” Jane said of the artifacts on display in the library. After unlocking one, we could log in on the website to learn more about it. Each was paired with a future-focused prompt inspired by its own unique history. Some prompts required writing. Others, drawing or photography. Appropriately, many were collaborative tasks.
4) The Secret of the Teams: Team Patience and Team Fortitude existed in the spirit of fun, informal competition, but we were in this together and teams were encouraged to help each other out.
5) The Secret of Collaboration: Within the teams, we’d divide into smaller squads to make working together more manageable. Each team had to unlock every artifact and contribute roughly 300 pages, based on 100 prompts. Success meant that every player authored something in the final book— which they did.
6) The Secret of the Clock: In order to finish the book on time and win, deadlines were crucial. Stories one through five had to be submitted by 11 pm, stories six through fifteen by midnight, with another deadline hitting every hour or so until the last one, at 4:30 am. Also important to note: Certain rooms closed hours earlier than others.
7) The Secret of the Stacks: Only thirty people per day have access to the library’s underground stacks. That night, we were allowed fifteen-minute tours, of no ordinary sort. Five hundred messages “from the future” awaited us and we were each tasked with finding one and delivering it to its intended recipient. There was also a secret phrase to decode, which we’d use henceforth to identify ourselves as members of the “Find the Future First 500.”
I delivered the message I found with a little help from our Facebook group. (I posted my cell number and had the guy text me). Others walked around with blown up Facebook profile pictures, calling out names. There was even a designated corner where phone numbers and locations loitered on post-its, encouraging individuals to seek out their destinies.
We still don’t know what our shared code phrase, now de-coded, will give us access to. My first guess was freedom from library fees, but I’m not so secretly hoping for something more interesting.
The evening came to a close around 6 a.m. with tired but mostly happy players signing the last pages of the book, which was completed on time but for the binding. In true “pencils down” fashion, it exists as an unedited collection of thoughts, and for the rest of the year, anyone can contribute their own ideas by playing the game online. Who knows how many volumes will be completed by the end of 2011…
One thing is certain. The library itself escaped a massive budget cut (as I’m sure was the plan), following the Find the Future event and related publicity. Now it can continue on in search of its own future. (Cough. Old book scented e-books, please).
It’s already on its way with this ongoing, interactive game.
(See more great photos from the event on Flickr).