In Malden, Massachusetts, the story always sits just beneath the surface — sometimes all it takes is a cell phone to uncover it.
That’s the premise of Chronosquad, a new augmented reality game that takes players on a guided historical tour of the streets of Malden, a small town north of Boston. It’s an unconventional way of showcasing the city’s 373-year history, but one that cities and tourism companies are now using to attract tourists in the age of COVID-19.
Designed by Celia Pearce, Professor of Game Design at Northeastern University, and a team of alumni, the game is similar to Pokemon Go, the global AR phenomenon of 2016. Players use their cellphone’s camera to scan real-world objects to play the game to initiate a stop on the tour. Characters from the game appear on screen at each stop, superimposed over the real world to teach players specific elements of the Malden story, ranging from abolition and suffrage to immigration and the famous bank robbery/murder with an heir the converse rich wealth.
In the world of “Chronosquad” the player must help the eponymous group of time travelers to discover Malden’s history. The time travel premise illustrates Pearce’s goal with the project.
“It’s a way of looking back into the past, but also connecting the present to history,” Pearce said. “We also thought that an activist theme is one that resonates with different generations and also connects it to what’s going on with activism today and celebrates progressive ideas in the past that we now take for granted.”
“Chronosquad” is part of a broader initiative by the City of Malden to create a gaming district in the city’s business heart, further showing that communities are beginning to understand the economic value of video game culture. According to Kevin Duffy, the City of Malden’s strategy and business development officer, the effort began in 2015 after Boda Borg, a “live video game” space offering “quests” featuring obstacle courses and puzzles, opened on Pleasant Street.
Immediately after opening, Boda Borg started doing business, mostly from out of town. Duffy, a self-proclaimed gamer, saw the potential for a larger gaming district in downtown Malden, something that would define the city and make the area the “next Kendall Square,” a thriving business and cultural center in Cambridge, Massachusetts .
In an effort to get Malden’s business back on track during the COVID-19 pandemic, the City reached out to Pearce, a well-known figure in independent game development and the digital/real world, to hear her ideas. One of her pitches was a spin-off of an app that “allows people to see historical scenes overlaid on the real world,” she said.
“The Mayor is a big Pokemon guy, and when I said to him, ‘Pokemon Go meets a historical scavenger hunt,’ he said, ‘Do it!'” Duffy said.
For a town like Malden, the appeal of Chronosquad was clear. Not only could it drive people to different areas of the city and shops, but also without a tour guide.
“The summer festivals and [gaming district] are a way to draw people in and take them around and exploring the new environment down here,” said Duffy. “My goal now was to spread it across the city via Chronosquad.”
The project, funded with dollars from the American Rescue Plan Act, took shape after Pearce met with Dora St. Martin, director of the Malden Public Library. Early on, Pearce and her team were struck by the history of activism in Malden. The game’s five episodes weave a historical tapestry that follows abolitionists, members of the Underground Railroad, suffragists and organizers of the labor movement.
“There’s a great story that a lot of people don’t know,” Duffy said.
“There was a black escaped slave who was one of the first black business owners in the state of Massachusetts who opened a hair salon and became a very prominent citizen of the town,” Pearce said of a story highlighted in Chronosquad.
As Pearce and Duffy discuss Chronosquad, they appear to be traveling through time, just like the in-game time explorers. Duffy is quick to mention that Malden was one of the first communities to break away from England. Pearce walks down a rabbit hole as she describes the circumstances leading up to the murder of Marquis Mills Converse’s son at a local bank – and the black business owner who helped catch the culprit.
According to Duffy, those who played “Chronosquad” got away with similar stories. A student at the mayor’s youth summer work program was shocked to learn the story of Anthony Burns, a black man who escaped slavery and fled to Malden, only to be hunted down and captured.
“For me, that’s the longer-term goal here: we keep Malden’s past relevant today,” said Duffy.
Triggered by the pandemic, the tourism industry has discovered the value of AR tourist experiences beyond the streets of Malden. Museums are integrating AR into exhibition tours, while travel app developers are taking full advantage of the technology.
Duffy and Pearce hope a game like Chronosquad will have lasting appeal. After all, AR games like Pokemon Go aren’t just for drawing attention to hidden stories, they’re incredible social tools at a time when people are still emerging from their pandemic bubble. Some psychologists have gone so far as to prescribe Pokemon Go to patients with social or emotional problems.
“Usually cell phones are a way of removing you from your surroundings,” Pearce said. “So it’s very interesting and compelling for people to use your phone to engage you with the physical environment that you’re in.”
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