The future of historical tourism on your phone

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

That’s the premise 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 unconventional way to highlight the city’s 373-year history that cities and tourism companies are now using to attract tourists in times of COVID-19.

The game, developed by Northeastern University game design professor Celia Pierce and a team of former students, is similar to Pokemon Go, the global augmented reality phenomenon of 2016. Using the camera on their mobile phones, players scan real-world objects to start a stop on the tour. At each stop, game characters will appear on-screen, superimposed on the real world, to teach players about specific elements of Malden’s history, from suffrage to immigration and the famous bank robbery/murder involving the Converse heir. fate.

In the world of “Chronosquad”, the player must help the eponymous group of time travel enthusiasts to discover the history of Malden. The premise of time travel illustrates Peirce’s goal for the project.

“It’s a way to look back and 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 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 downtown gaming district, further evidence that local residents are beginning to understand the economic value of video game culture. 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, according to Kevin Duffy, a strategy and business development officer for the city of Malden. .

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

Immediately after opening, Boda Borg began to attract business, mostly from outside the city. Duffy, a self-proclaimed gamer, saw the potential for a larger gaming district in downtown Malden, something that would set the city apart and transform the area into “the next Kendall Square,” a thriving business and cultural center in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

In order to rebuild Malden’s businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic, the city reached out to Pearce, a prominent figure in independent game development and digital/real-world experiences, to hear her ideas. One of her proposals was an offshoot of the program that allowed “people to see historical scenes superimposed on the real world,” she said.

“The mayor is a big Pokemon person, and when I said to him, ‘Pokemon Go meets the historic scavenger hunt,'” Duffy said.

For a town like Malden, the appeal of the Chronosquad was obvious. He could not only take people to different areas of the city and businesses, but also do it without the need for tour guides.

“Summer festivals and [gaming district] is a way to bring people in, breed them and test the new environment here, Duffy said. “Now my goal was to spread it around town with Chronosquad.”

The project, which was funded by the American Rescue Plan Act, took shape after Pierce met with Dora St. Martin, director of the Malden Public Library. Malden’s history of activism caught the attention of Pierce and her team from the start. The game’s five episodes weave together a historical tapestry that tells the story of abolitionists, members of the Underground Railroad, suffragists, and organizers of the labor movement.

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

“There was a black runaway slave who was one of the first black business owners in Massachusetts who opened a barbershop and became a very prominent citizen of the town,” Pierce said of one story covered in Chronosquad.

When Pierce and Duffy talk about the Chronosquad, they seem to travel through time, just like the time explorers in the game. Duffy is quick to mention that Malden was one of the first communities to secede from England. Pierce goes down a rabbit hole describing the circumstances that lead to the murder of Marquis Mills Converse’s son at a local bank and the black business owner who helped catch the criminal.

According to Duffy, those who played Chronosquad came away with similar stories. One student participating 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 tracked down and captured.

“For me, this is a long-term goal: we’re keeping Malden’s past relevant even today,” Duffy said.

Driven by the pandemic, the tourism industry has discovered the value of augmented reality for tourists beyond the streets of Malden. Museums are integrating augmented reality into exhibition tours, and 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 drawing attention to hidden stories, AR games like “Pokemon Go” are also incredible social tools at a time when people are still emerging from the pandemic bubble. Some psychologists have gone so far as to prescribe Pokemon Go to patients with social or emotional problems.

“Usually a cell phone is a way to take you out of your environment,” Pierce said. “So using your phone to interact with the physical environment you’re in is very interesting and engaging for people.”

At the request of the mass mediaplease get in touch [email protected].

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