As part of the One Book NJ initiative, each year four books are chosen around which NJ libraries will have discussions and programming as a way to promote literacy around a single book. A book is chosen in each traditional age population from children, YA, teen, and adult. This year’s adult title was The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon. So… we decided that we wanted to try something a little different in support of One Book NJ and do an alternate reality game (ARG).

As a brief background, an ARG is basically a game in which the movements, actions and goals take place in the real world. However, the other part of this equation is not only the real world application of the gaming elements, but that the “game world” is created by having a story in place that creates the “alternate reality”. The players as such are invited to be part of this story that is taking place in the real world and to themselves engage in the game play elements within that context. Also, there is usually a website created where information can be shared and disseminated, as well as a place for active players to be able to communicate and collaborate with each other to work on the different parts of the game.

ARGs have been becoming ever more popular as they are used to promote new video games, television programsmovies.. even jeans! These types of games work well for marketing new products and services because they actively engage the player or participant, and in many cases offer real world rewards for their participation.  If you want to know more about them, or even play one yourself, check out ARGnet.

So… I proposed the idea of doing an ARG as a program to support the One Book NJ initiative to our professional staff, and they really seemed to like it! So for a few weeks we got together and discussed our story, the gameplay elements we wanted to incorporate and developed a timeline for how the game would progress. While being a little intimidated by the process at first (it is our first ARG after all!), we were able to get all the pieces in place by mid August, when we officially “launched the game”.

The story of the game goes something like this: In mid August, the library received a shipment of books that were to be used for programming for One Book NJ. Mysteriously, the books were not here more than two hours, before they went missing. We announced that the books were missing using our website and social networks and “asked” if anyone saw anything mysterious during that time, and to report it if they did. This basically began the story.

The story continued through updates to our website, twitter, and facebook, where we started receiving letters from a person identifying his/herself as “The Mystery Thief” and claiming responsibility for the theft of the books. Finally, we also created a separate website, off of our regular website, where people could visit to find updates and additional information related to the game.

We created ficticious notes with a font resembling magazine cut-out letters and posted them on the website as well. The letters contained hints to a live event during our town’s annual street festival. The event hinted at an opportunity for participants to be able to “find” the books. We also created a book display with additional copies of the book, and copies of the notes referencing our missing copies.

The live event took place on 9/11 during our town’s annual street festival. The library had a table and per the final letter we received, released a clue to the wherabouts of one book each hour. Needless to say, the live event went better than expected with more than thirty teens/tweens dashing around town working the clues to find the books. That day all six books that were hidden were found. When a player found a book, it was theirs to keep as a prize for finding it. It was really was a cool thing to be a part of.

Currently, the game is still going, with four books hidden after 9/11. These are the final four books that were taken by the “Thief”. The clues have been released, this time a little harder as we encrypted them with simple ciphers. We currently have a smaller core of kids working with them. As of yesterday (9/16), one had been found with three remaining. We may also add an element to the story arc and have players work on discovering who the mystery thief is.

This has really been a great experience for us, and a learning experience as well. It was amazing to watch as every copy of the book from our display was checked out, as well as have so many people talking about the book itself, and about reading it after this all started. The real goal of this whole thing was to promote the book, and one book NJ, within the context of the game. We really marvel at how well this was accomplished (considering, again, it was our first go at something like this.) Furthermore, it was an engaging program that promoted literacy and only cost us the copies of the books we gave away.

Interest in our game? Here are some links you can use to see how we conducted the game:

http://www.cranburypubliclibrary.org (our main website, a WordPress blog, where we started our game with posts to the site) – start with the 8/18 post

http://www.cranburypubliclibrary.org/wellington – this was the companion site that was setup to allow players to immerse themselves the alternate reality, follow what was going on, and obtain information.

http://www.twitter.com/cranburypl – Our Twitter account where we posted information about the game, and tried to build buzz toward our live event.

If you are interested in seeing how another library approached doing an ARG, check out the Finksburg branch of the Carroll County Public Library (MD) and their games: The Mystery Guest and Find Chelsea. They did a really awesome job in both story development and incorporation of digital media (esp. video) and were an inspiration  for us in developing our own ARG.

Any questions.. just email me

-Doug

Cranbury Day 2010