The future of historic tourism is on your phone

The future of historic tourism is on your phone

In Malden, Massachusetts, history always lies beneath the surface: sometimes a cell phone is enough to discover it.

This is 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 showcase the city’s 373-year history, but one that cities and tourism companies are using to attract tourists in the COVID-19 era.

Designed by Celia Pearce, a 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. Using their cell phone cameras, players scan real-world objects. to start a stage of the tour. At each stop, the game’s characters will appear on-screen, layered in the real world, to teach players specific elements of Malden’s story, ranging from abolition and suffrage to immigration and the famous murder / bank robbery involving a heir to the Converse fortuna.

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

“It’s a way to look back in time, but also to connect the present to history,” Pearce said. “We also thought that an activist theme was able to resonate with different generations and connect it to what is happening with activism now 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 business center of the city center, further proof that locations are beginning to understand the economic value of video game culture. According to Kevin Duffy, head of strategy and business development for the city of Malden, the effort began in 2015 after Boda Borg, a “live video game” space offering “missions” with obstacle courses and puzzles, was opened on Pleasant Street.

“Chronosquad” is conceived as an intergenerational experience that seniors and young children can have together. Photo 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 player, saw the potential for a larger gaming district in downtown Malden, something that would set the city apart and transform the area into “next Kendall Square”, a thriving commercial and cultural hub in Cambridge. in Massachusetts.

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

“The mayor is a great Pokémon, and when I told him, ‘Pokemon Go meets a historic treasure hunt,’ he said, ‘Do it!'” Duffy said.

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

“The summer parties and [gaming district] they are a way to attract people, take them around and take a look at the new surroundings down here, “Duffy said.” My goal now was to spread it all over the city through Chronosquad. “

Funded with dollars from the American Rescue Plan Act, the project took shape after Pearce met Dora St. Martin, director of the Malden Public Library. Early on, the story of activism in Malden stuck with Pearce and his team. The five episodes of the game weave a historical tapestry that follows 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 about,” Duffy said.

“There was an escaped black slave who was one of the first black entrepreneurs in the state of Massachusetts to open a barber shop and became a very important citizen in the city,” Pearce said of a story highlighted in “Chronosquad.”

While Pearce and Duffy talk about “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 separate from England. Pearce goes to a rabbit hole as he describes the circumstances that led to the murder of Marquis Mills Converse’s son at a local bank and the black businessman who helped catch the culprit.

According to Duffy, those who played “Chronosquad” had similar stories. A student from the Mayor’s Summer Youth Employment Program was shocked after learning the story of Anthony Burns, a black man who escaped from slavery and fled to Malden, only to be hunted and captured.

“For me, this is the long-term goal here – we keep Malden’s past relevant even today,” said Duffy.

Driven by 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, in addition to bringing attention to hidden stories, AR games like “Pokemon Go” are also amazing 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 who have social or emotional problems.

“Usually, the cell phone is a way to remove yourself from your environment,” Pearce said. “So using the phone to engage with the physical environment you are in is very interesting and compelling for people.”

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