Media & Technology on the Go

Spy in the City: The GPS Game of Washington DC

Posted on | August 19, 2009 | 4 Comments

Have you ever spied on someone? Have you ever wanted to be a real spy?

The International Spy Museum in Washington, DC now offers an amazing taste of what it’s like with a GPS-triggered game and tour of the city. Inspired by two real FBI cases – Operation Lemon-Aid, conducted in 1977, and KITTY HAWK in 1966 – Spy in the City is a 1.2 mile (1.5 hour), $16 experience using the BarZ Adventures GPS Ranger device. Code-named ‘Geo-Cobra’, the multimedia handheld uses Flash to simulate the experience of receiving text messages, audio, video, photographs and other breaking intelligence from headquarters as you track a foreign agent. You scan for fingerprints, descramble audio messages and decipher local monuments to identify your quarry.

It’s an ambitious application of the new technology, offering lots of important lessons for others interested in trying the treacherous world of location-based mobile, as well as exploring the value of gaming in education. For those less intrepid, this interview with the tour’s author, Amanda Ohlke, and the Museum’s Executive Director, Peter Earnest, also shares ideas on lower-tech mobile programs like scavenger hunts, and how they can be leveraged for team-building and other group experiences. After all, “it’s not about the technology” – though I do try to get some hints from Peter, a former spy with the CIA himself, as to what new mobile tricks we might inherit from the clandestine services in the next generation!

So don’t be surprised if this podcast self-destructs after you’ve heard it…


4 Responses to “Spy in the City: The GPS Game of Washington DC”

  1. MuseumMobile Wiki » Fresh From Twitter today
    August 20th, 2009 @ 6:20 pm

    […] @arts_marketing: Great game! Great museum! New blog post-Spy in the City: The GPS Game of DC #mtogo fresh, twitter « Fresh From Twitter […]

  2. David Klevan
    September 3rd, 2009 @ 12:58 pm

    Hi Nancy.

    A bunch of my colleagues and I took a whirl with the Spy in the City tour this morning. It was a valuable experience, and I give the Spy Museum a lot of credit for their willingness to jump feet first into using this technology. Here are a few observations that I can share for anyone planning to try similar types of mobile tours:

    1. About 1/3 to 1/2 of the devices we used either failed completely during the tour or took so long to register a signal that in the end we relied upon only 3 of the 6 devices we had on tour. The type of device hardware is incredibly important and can make or break a project. In this case, the tour relied on GPS technology. Despite the fact that it was a beautiful clear sunny day, we had a lot of trouble registering signals in a timely manner. Given the type of content we accessed and the activities in which we engaged, I couldn’t help but wonder if it would have worked more reliably using different technology.

    2. The tour itself was very basic. Presumably the authors wanted to appeal to a certain common denominator and age range. However, I got bored fairly rapidly, and my cohort couldn’t help but wonder why – if the tour was based on two actual espionage cases – did the museum not develop a tour around actual historical events and allow us to learn about true events as we progressed. In the end, I felt like I was engaging in simple “word scramble” type activities and being shuffled from place to place, with no real purpose (ie, the locations had no real relationship to the story). There were fake finger print, chemical and code scanners that required the visitor to spend time clicking on their touch screen in order to pretend they were collecting forensic data. It would have been much more interesting to utilize a REAL scanner to scan a simple bar code or RFID tag. Even though that doesn’t sounds sexy (the way a fake chemical or fingerprint analysis might); at least I would have known I was actually collecting and processing data onsite.

    3. At the beginning of the tour, we were asked to choose code names (in which each person was personally invested); however, these code names were never referenced during the entire tour, leading us to feel like everything was just a “put on.” Scanners that didn’t actually scan anything. Code names that were never used. It all felt very inauthentic in that sense.

    4. We were in a group, but there was no opportunity to compete against each other, nor really to collaborate with each other. When we chose code names at the beginning, I was looking forward to receiving messages or data from my fellow spies. But that wasn’t in the offing. Compare this to the “canned” version of the Luce Center’s ARG. There, you are also compelled to rush around from place to place, but each clue is linked to artifacts and artwork in the collection. Sometimes the linkage is quite meaningful; sometimes it is frivolous. Groups are able to compete against each other and race to the finish. And the technology is very simple to use. In fact, the technology is really secondary to the collections which it serves. This is part of why I think the folks at SPY would have done better to integrate authentic content into the game. With the SPY tour, I knew that what I did didn’t really matter most of the time, and by the time my device ceased to work, I really didn’t care that I couldn’t finish the tour; at that point, I was tired of mindlessly clicking on icons to progress through a fake story which I didn’t find motivating.

    5. My takeaway from the experience is that for anyone planning such a tour (and these are NOT easy to do) that authenticity is key. Pretty much any time we ask our visitors to do something, it should have a sound pedagogical purpose AND should ideally contain some intrinsic (and/or extrinsic) reward for the visitor. As a visitor, it helps to know if you are progressing toward a goal, feel like what you are doing really matters, sense that there is a real chance of failure (otherwise, it’s not much of a game), have a chance to recognize your errors and correct them yourself, etc.

    I’m not trying to be unfairly harsh, because I do think the Spy Museum courageously took on a difficult challenge. They scripted an interesting tour concept and tried to convey some very basic concepts about espionage work. But, in the end, I couldn’t help but think about all the things it could have been but wasn’t for the reasons above.

  3. Eric Gressier_soudan
    August 10th, 2010 @ 3:10 pm

    Hello David,

    In the context of a french research project we provided a serious game to learn museum content. The bame of the project is PLay Ubiquitous Games and play more (PLUG). The museum is Musee des Arts et Metiers in PAris. It is a museum of sciences and technologies.

    The name of the game is “PLUG Paris Overnight University”. Visitors become players, and they have to be under cover agents to report was is going on in the museum where a secret organization is supposed to do unexpected activities.

    You underlined five key points. We tried to address the fith as best as we can in te game.

    1. The technology needs to be improved, hardly improved. Visitors/players have to forget the technology. And if the technology fails, the game should be able to continue… your scenario and game design have to take into account this problem. If all is well designed and you are able to send staff to help players, they live an unexpected experience and it is cool.

    2. Flow, as defined by Csikszentmihalyi, is a key issue. To help, you need a scenario and non player/visitor characters. It fosters immersion.

    3. Anything defined for players should be used during the game, else, frustration occurs. We had this feedback when we used heart rate sensors in first trials of the game.

    4. Collaboration/Competition is part of the game and the scenario. It is mandatory.

    5. Immersion, gameplay and flow are mandatory features of the game design in a museum… but don’t forget content !!! People are there to learn.

    We tryed to pay attention to all these aspects. I guess we succeeded because people who tried the game enjoyed. But it was a lot of work for every members of the project.

    I was the leader of the project, I am not a game designer nor a scenarist (both skills were represented in the project) so I can’t give too much details on the game design process. Sorry no video available now… I can provide an url as soon as it is ready but not before october.

    Sincerly, Eric.

  4. Corina Mihaela Paraschiv
    November 17th, 2010 @ 5:34 pm

    Hi Nancy!

    My family just moved to Washington DC which means I’ll get to visit over the break. I think it’s fascinating to have bits about the “behind the scenes”/making-of exhibits, iphone tours, etc. — I really love to discover how things are made and I think I experience them differently when I understand what went into making an object, an event, an exhibit, an audio-guide. I’m excited about that particular app!

    I’m starting to think now of planning my christmas break in Washington DC. Are there any other cool iphone-related experiences I can get with museums in the area? (or just other museum experiences even non-mobile would be cool too).

    Corina 🙂
    Curious :p

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