The future of historical tourism is on your phone

The future of historical tourism is on your phone

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

That’s the premise of “Chronosquad,” a new augmented reality game that takes players on a historical guided tour through the streets of Malden, a small town north of Boston. It’s an unconventional way to reveal 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 Pierce, 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 start tour stop. At each stop, in-game characters will appear on screen, layered over the real world, to teach players about specific elements of Maldon’s history, ranging from abolition and suffrage to immigration and the famous bank robbery/murder involving an heir to the Converse fortune.

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

“It’s a way to look back in time, but also to connect the present with history,” Pierce said. “We also thought an activist theme was one that would resonate with different generations and also connect it to what’s happening with activism now and celebrate the progressive ideas of the past that we now take for granted.”

The Chronosquad is part of a broader initiative by the city of Malden to create a gaming district in the city’s business center, further evidence that local residents are beginning to understand the economic value of video game culture. According to Kevin Duffy, strategy and business development officer for the city of Malden, 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.

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

Immediately after its 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 make the area “the next Kendall Square,” a thriving business and cultural hub in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

In an effort to re-energize Maldon’s businesses 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 her ideas. One of her suggestions was an app fork that allowed “people to see historical scenes superimposed on the real world,” she said.

“The mayor is a big Pokemon guy, and when I told him, ‘Pokemon Go meets historical scavenger hunt,’ he said, ‘Go for it!'” Duffy said.

For a town like Maldon, the appeal of the Chronosquad was clear. He can not only drive people to different areas of the city and businesses, but also without the need for tour guides.

“Summer festivals and [gaming district] are a way to bring people in and take them around and explore the new environment down here,” Duffy said. “My goal now was to spread it around town via Chronosquad.”

Funded with dollars from the American Rescue Plan Act, the project took shape after Pierce met Dora St. Martin, director of the Malden Public Library. Early on, the story of activism in Malden came across Pearce and her team. The game’s five episodes weave together a historical tapestry that follows abolitionists, members of the Underground Railroad, suffragists, and labor organizers.

“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 the state of Massachusetts who opened a barbershop and became a very prominent citizen of the town,” Pierce said of a story highlighted in Chronosquad.

As Pierce and Duffy talk about the Chronosquad, they seem to travel through time, just like the temporal explorers in the game. Duffy is quick to mention that Maldon was one of the first communities to secede from England. Pierce goes down 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 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 to learn the story of Anthony Burns, a black man who escaped slavery and fled to Malden, only to be hunted down and captured.

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

Spurred on by the pandemic, the travel industry has discovered the value of AR travel 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 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 dealing with social or emotional problems.

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

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