The future of historical tourism is on your phone

In Malden, Massachusetts, history always lies beneath the surface; sometimes all you need is a mobile phone to discover 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 to showcase 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 of 2016. Using the camera on their mobile phones, players scan real world objects to get started. a stop on the route. At each stop, game characters will appear on screen, layered in the real world, to teach players about specific elements of Malden’s history, ranging from abolition and suffrage to immigration and the famous bank robbery/murder with a Converse heir. fortune

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

“It’s a way of looking back in time, but also connecting 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 now with activism and celebrate the progressive ideas of the past that we now take for granted.”

“Chronosquad” is part of a larger initiative by the city of Malden to establish a gaming district in the city’s downtown business district, further proof that localities are beginning to understand the economic value of video game culture. According to Kevin Duffy, manager of strategy and business development for the city of Malden, the effort began in 2015 after Boda Borg, a “live video game” space that offers “missions” with obstacle courses and puzzle, opened 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 getting 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 commercial and cultural center in Cambridge, Massachusetts. .

In an effort to revive 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 his ideas. One of his presentations was an offshoot of an app that allowed “people to see historical scenes overlaid on the real world,” he said.

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

For a town like Malden, the appeal of “Chronosquad” was clear. Not only could he drive people to different areas of the city and businesses, but he did so without the need for tour guides.

“The summer holidays and [gaming district] they’re a way to bring people in and move them and check out the new surroundings down here,” Duffy said. “My goal now was to spread it across the city through Chronosquad.”

Funded with American Rescue Plan Act dollars, the project took shape after Pearce met with Dora St. Martin, director of the Malden Public Library. From the beginning, the story of activism in Malden stuck with Pearce and his team. 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 history there that a lot of people don’t know about,” Duffy said.

“There was a black fugitive 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 of the town,” Pearce said of a prominent story in “Chronosquad”.

As Pearce and Duffy talk about “Chronosquad,” they seem to travel back in time, just like the game’s time explorers. Duffy is quick to mention that Malden was one of the first communities to secede from England. Pearce 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 after learning the story of Anthony Burns, a black man who escaped slavery and fled to Malden, only to be chased and captured

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

Due to the pandemic, the tourism industry has discovered the value of AR tourism 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 drawing attention to hidden stories, AR games like “Pokemon Go” are also incredible 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 suffering from social or emotional problems.

“In general, 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 attractive to people.”

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