The future of historical tourism is in your phone

In Malden, Massachusetts, history always lives 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 through the streets of Malden, a small town north of Boston. It’s an unconventional way to highlight the city’s 373-year history, but one that the city and tourism companies are now using to attract tourists in the age of Covid-19.

Designed by Celia Pierce, a team of game design professors and alumni at Northeastern University, the game is similar to the 2016 global AR phenomenon Pokemon Go. Players scan real-world objects using the camera on their cellphones. stop on tour. At each stop, game characters will appear on screen, layered into the real world, to teach players about specific elements of Malden history, from abolition and suffrage to immigration and the heirs to the famous bank robbery/murder. fate

In the world of “Chronosquad”, the player must help an eponymous group of time-travelling history buffs discover the history of Malden. Time travel illustrates Pearce’s goal with the base project.

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

“Chronosquad” is part of a broader initiative by the city of Malden to establish a gaming district in the city’s downtown business center, further evidence that locals 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 Boda Borg, a “live video game” space that offers “quests” with obstacle courses and puzzles, opened on Pleasant Street.

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

As soon as it opened, Boda Borg began to bring in business mostly from outside the city. Duffy, a self-proclaimed gamer, saw the potential for a large gaming district in downtown Malden, which would differentiate the city and make the area “the next Kendall Square” in a thriving business and cultural center of Cambridge, Massachusetts.

In an effort to re-energize Malden’s businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic, the city reached out to Pearce, a well-known figure in independent game development and digital/real-world experiences, to hear his thoughts. One of her pitches was an offshoot of an app that “allowed people to see historical scenes in the real world,” she said.

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

For a town like Malden, the appeal of “Chronosquad” was obvious. It can not only drive people to different areas of the city and business but can do so without the need for tour guides.

“Summer Festivals and [gaming district] It’s a way to draw people in and get them around and checking out new environments here,” Duffy said. “My goal now was to spread it across the city through Chronosquad.”

With the help of American Rescue Plan Act dollars, the project took shape after Pierce met with Malden Public Library director Dora St. Martin. Early on, the history of activism in Malden stuck with Pierce and his team. The play’s five episodes weave together a historical tapestry that follows abolitionists, members of the Underground Railroad, suffragists, and labor movement organizers.

“There’s some great history 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 barbershop and became a very prominent citizen in the town,” Pierce said of a story highlighted in “Chronosquad.”

As Pearce and Duffy talk about “Chronosquad”, they travel through time, like the temporal explorers in the game. Duffy soon noted that Maldon was one of the first communities to secede from England. Pierce goes down the 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 played “Chronosquad” came up 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 fled slavery to Malden, only to be hunted and captured.

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

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

Duffy and Pearce hope a game like “Chronosquad” will have lasting appeal. After all, beyond paying attention to hidden histories, AR games like “Pokemon Go” are also incredible social tools at a time when people are still coming out of their pandemic bubbles. Some psychologists have gone so far as to recommend “Pokémon Go” to patients dealing with social or emotional problems.

“Basically, a cell phone is a way to remove you from your setting,” Pierce said. “So, using your phone to engage you in your physical setting is very interesting and compelling for people.”

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