The Smithsonian's Got Game

An alternate-reality gamer, typically very tuned in and tech savvy, enters a game through a rabbit hole a la Lewis Carroll.

Well, almost. Lewis Carroll didn't have a computer -- but just as Alice followed the white rabbit into his hole to discover Wonderland, gamers dive into their alternate realities via text messages, e-mails, podcasts, blogs or mysterious phone calls, to name a few ways. All it takes is one entry point.

Now, the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., has gone where no museum has gone before, providing a rabbit hole for the new alternate reality game, or ARG, called "Ghosts of a Chance."

In partnership with the ARG design company City Mystery, the Smithsonian has become the first museum to sponsor an ARG, a move it hopes will inspire other museums to follow suit.

"I hope other museums do follow, and I think they will," said Smithsonian's Georgina Bath, the interpretive programs manager for the Luce Foundation Center of American Art. "The idea of game-playing is much more common in science museums, and we are not as familiar with the practice in art museums."

Seeking to engage their visitors at a deeper level, the museum hopes to show artwork in a new, more intense light, allowing for unprecedented interaction with their collections.

What interaction, specifically, will be unveiled by gamers and remains to be seen, but the Smithsonian American Art Museum will wield its powerful presence throughout the game. Confused yet?

ARGs are not your standard board game. There are no rules, no goals, no apparent finish line, and in fact, no board at all.

ARGs are massive, multiplayer games that allow players to interact with an alternate reality using real-world events and clues to do so.

The games are designed by "puppet masters" who effectively begin the games, but can lose control of the game's direction once the curiosity of the players leads the game down other paths. Remember Alice's surreal journey from mad tea parties to the croquet grounds with the queen of hearts?

"Ghosts of A Chance" was introduced on July 19 in Boston at "ARGFest-O-Con 2008," an annual event where some of the most die-hard players on the planet gather to whet their appetite for the newest arrivals on the ARG scene. The official launch will come September 8, 2008.

About 100 people turned out to see the teaser in Boston. What they saw was a speedo-clad and oiled up Mr. New England, sporting multiple tattoos. Not even Alice had a view like this.

But ARG-ers aren't easily distracted, and after some brief ogling they got down to business at hand -- or on the body, as it were.

Discovering the first clue hiding in multiple (henna) tattoos, they were off and running. Within half an hour, pictures were online and at the fingertips of eager gamers who missed the launch.

Soon enough, gamers had stumbled upon the Web site ghostsofachance.com, and the game had begun. The curiosity of the ARG-ers perpetuates the game.

For gamers, the lines quickly blur between the real and the imagined, as characters develop and gamers themselves become invested in the game.

Bath said she hopes people discover things through the game that they have never seen before, and view the artwork in completely new ways.

"We definitely saw 'Ghosts of a Chance' as a really good fit for us," said Bath, noting that once she understood the concept of an ARG, she realized how in sync the game's goals were with those of the museum.

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