The future of historical tourism is in your phone

In Malden, Massachusetts, history is always just below the surface – sometimes all it takes is a cell phone to reveal it.

That’s the beginning of “Chronosquad,” a new augmented reality game that takes players on a historical tour of the streets of Malden, a small town north of Boston. It’s an unusual way to reveal 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, a professor of game design at Northeastern University, and a team of former students, the game is similar to Pokemon Go, the global AR phenomenon from 2016. Using the camera on their mobile phones, players scan real-world objects people to start a stop on the tour. At each stop, game characters will appear on screen, layered in the real world, to teach players specific elements of Malden’s history, ranging from abolition and suffrage to immigration and the famous bank robbery/murder involving a Converse heir. luck.

In the world of “Chronosquad”, the player must help the eponymous group of time-traveling history buffs to discover the history of Malden. The time travel premise illustrates Pearce’s goal with the play.

“It’s a way to look back in time but also connect the present with history,” Pearce said. “We also thought that an activist theme was one that would resonate with different generations and also connect it to what’s happening with activism now and celebrate the progressive ideas in the past that we now take for granted.”

“Chronosquad” is part of a larger initiative by the city of Malden to create a gaming district in the downtown business district, further evidence that localities are beginning to understand the economic value of video game culture. According to Kevin Duffy, strategy and business development officer for the city of Malden, the effort began in 2015 after the opening of Boda Borg, a “live video game” venue that offers “missions” with obstacle courses and puzzles on Pleasant Street.

“Chronosquad” is designed as an intergenerational experience that older adults and young children can do together. Photos by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

As soon as it opened, Boda Borg started bringing in 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 set the city apart and make the area the “next Kendall Square,” a thriving business and cultural center in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

In an effort to revitalize Malden’s businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic, the city reached out to Pearce, a well-known figure in indie game development and digital/real-world experiences, to hear her ideas. One of her props was an offshoot of an app that allowed people to see historical scenes over the real world, she said.

“The mayor is a huge Pokemon guy, and when I said, ‘Pokemon Go meets a historic scavenger hunt,’ he said, ‘Do it!'” Duffy said.

For a town like Malden, the appeal of “Chronosquad” was clear. It could not only take people to different areas of the city and to different businesses, but do so without the need for tour guides.

“The summer festivals and [gaming district] it’s a way to pull people in and move them around and check out the new environments down here,” Duffy said. “My goal now was to spread it across the city through Chronosquad.”

Funded with America’s Rescue Plan dollars, the project took shape after Pierce met with Dora St. Martin, director of the Malden Public Library. Early on, the story of activism in Malden stuck with Pearce and her team. The game’s five episodes compose a historical tapestry that follows abolitionists, members of the Underground Railroad, suffragettes, and labor movement organizers.

“There’s some great history there that a lot of people don’t know about,” Duffy said.

“There was a black runaway slave who was one of the first black business owners in the state of Massachusetts who opened a barber shop and became a very prominent citizen in the town,” Pearce said of a story highlighted in “Chronosquad.”

As Pearce and Duffy talk about the “Chronosquad”, they appear to travel through time, just like the time explorers in the game. Duffy is quick to point out that Malden was one of the first communities to secede from England. Pierce goes down a rabbit hole as she describes the circumstances that led 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 have played “Chronosquad” have come away with similar stories. A student in the mayor’s summer youth employment 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.

“To me, that’s the longer-term goal here: We’re keeping Malden’s past relevant even today,” Duffy said.

Fueled by the pandemic, the tourism industry has discovered the value of AR tourism experiences beyond the streets of Malden. Museums are incorporating AR into exhibition tours, while travel app developers have taken full advantage of the technology.

Duffy and Pearce hope a game like “Chronosquad” will have a lasting impact. After all, beyond paying attention to hidden stories, AR games like “Pokemon Go” are also incredibly social tools at a time when people are still emerging from their pandemic bubbles. Some psychologists have gone so far as to prescribe “Pokemon Go” to patients with social or emotional problems.

“Typically, the cell phone is a way to take you out of your settings,” Pearce said. “So using your phone to engage with the physical setting you’re in is very interesting and exciting for people.”

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