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New York, New York

From the Mixed-Up Files of the New York Public Library

As some Christians prepared for the Apocalypse, 500 questers spent Friday night locked inside the New York Public Library with game designer Jane McGonigal.

Jonathan Blanc, New York Public Library

There were, I figured, as I was escorted from the loading dock into the New York Public Library’s main branch via cargo elevator last Friday at about 7:30 in the evening, a few things going against me in this all-night marathon to “Find the Future.”

There was my lack of a smart-enough phone; there was my gimpy post-op left foot (a significant handicap during a scavenger hunt with deadlines); and there was the possibility that the End of Times could cut short the very Future I had a date to find.

In the end, none of these proved insurmountable. But there was a larger impediment to tackle if I were going to embrace this night. I had to lose the scare-quotes I instinctively put around each mention of a “global quest” to “make history” and “change the world.”

The real thing that had the power to keep me from Finding the Future was the cynicism I brought from the Past.

 

* * *


Jane McGonigal is a leading scholar on game theory and a passionate believer in the power of collaborative games to solve global problems. She’s a bright star on the digital speaking circuit and a guru for virtual creatives everywhere. Jane McGonigal is, in the parlance of two minutes ago, trending.

But what she’s selling is not precisely what you might expect from the New York Public Library—an institution that in marking its centennial, could have easily celebrated in its trademark fashion. Regally. Conservatively. Traditionally. Not by opening its collections to 500 alternate-reality gamers armed with phones and Red Bull.

“We’re breaking a few rules tonight,” McGonigal belted through a bullhorn to the way-psyched players, each of whom (aside from me—I was officially in on a press pass) had beaten out 10 other aspiring futurists in an initial quest to be there. “And to be frank,” she continued, “we don’t know if it’s going to work.” Then she explained the Mathemagical Calculations and the Seven Secrets to unlock the 100 Ways to Make History so that we could, together, create a single Future Epic, “as vast as the NYPL collection itself.”

In short, we were to work together to write a massive book of essays about the future, inspired by objects from the past. There were nuances, both technical and cognitive, to the game, but after an hour or so I understood the drill: Find the artifact, scan the barcode that reveals the assignment; meditate; write; submit; repeat.

By sunrise, hoped McGonigal, we would have a 600-page ‘Find the Future’ epic, which would be added to the library’s collection. Nifty, I thought. A flash-mob in blank verse. Unreadable to all but those who would write it. But awesome in its own production.

So we got started. Five hundred Future-Questers spilled down the stairwells and swarmed the stacks. No one, official or non-, had said a word about fire exits, personal property, or flash photography.

“The library went way out of its comfort zone on this one,” the fellow from the public relations department would concede to me later, at about 4 a.m. But when the whistle blew to begin and one of my six teammates revealed to me that his sail is full and that he burns with an unquenchable fire for impossible ideas—I was only aware of my own comfort zone.

 

* * *


From 9 p.m. until about midnight or so, I gamely (if lamely) followed my team members through the crowded library, digitally collecting the clues to open up the 100 Artifacts that would inspire us to write the chapters of the book.

We scanned the QR barcode posted below Kepler’s Mysterium Cosmographicum and, following the instructions it gave us, dispatched L. to write a Prodemus of her own. J. wrote a hasty acceptance speech modeled after Hemingway’s Nobel address for his first assignment. B., a comely fashion designer who would later that night write a Declaration to Transform Negative Attitudes, snapped the tag on George Washington’s recipe for small beer. She explained that it would be the basis for a story about her ancestor, a beautiful redhead who was reputedly the first president’s first love.

There were multiple roads a player could travel toward success. I abandoned them all in favor of understanding my teammates better than I understood the game.We activated the tag under the map of Sir Francis Drake’s first voyage, earning five Power-Up points for a Jar of Seven Secrets and five more for a Burning Fire Flame. I scratched my head at the Mathemagic but didn’t ask questions. Suffice it to say there were multiple roads a player could travel toward success. I abandoned them all in favor of understanding my teammates better than I understood the game.

We secured the details on the original stuffed Winnie-the-Pooh (quest: create a mascot of the future), an original Beethoven score (quest: write instructions to future audiences in the form of a playlist), and the Pyle-illustrated ‘Lady of Shallot’ (quest: write a spell to break a future curse).

In the next room we pulled up around a large print of Audubon’s Green Parrots, now extinct. My teammates admired the creatures, and marveled that they should be lost. I piped up: Hey, just imagine what it must have been like when they were plenteous, swarming, careening like pigeons at dusk. I bet you wouldn’t have thought them lovely then. S., A., and J. all looked at me curiously, as if I had perhaps sneezed and left mucus on the glass vitrine encasing the print. Scott said he had owned two rare parrots. A. said she had worked in a bird sanctuary. J., too, was a fan of delicate winged creatures. Then S. put a hand on A.’s shoulder and told her this one was hers: What new species will we discover next? she was to ponder. Draw a creature in its natural environment that we might find someday.

 

* * *


When Saturday rolled around, the Rose Reading Room was full of storywriters. There was talking, mingling, and spontaneous applause as players collaborated over laptops and colored pencils. We had 600 pages to produce.

I was easing into the game. I hadn’t made a wisecrack in over an hour. The glorious cathedral-like hall, always inspiring, seemed to be pleased at how it had been put to use. My teammates, I thought, looked radiant in the honey-colored lamplight. But without a proper user name, I had not gotten a chance to read the instructions for my artifact (“The 1939 World’s Fair”), and my entry, which described a ray of false hope between financial crisis and war, came out darker than the proscribed “Welcome Flier for the World’s Fair of 2021.”

I was walking through the hall when a player from another team asked if I wanted to collaborate on Quest 97. She said I should think of a question about my future, select a book off the walls at random, and find a line that answered the question. Given that the accessible books in the Reading Room are reference books, we both selected Collected Works. Hers was of an English poet I didn’t recognize. Mine, the slightly gloomier Thomas Hardy. She had asked, “Will I make a lasting contribution to society?” I had asked, “Will I be filled with remorse?”

Just then an unabashedly geeky gamer who had spent much of the evening decoding pictograms marched into the hall and fulfilled another side-quest of McGonigal’s multi-layered game. He shouted out the name of an unknown player, whose personal message from the Future he had just reclaimed from the stacks. From the far end of the room a heavyset girl in glasses jumped up and cried, “Yes!” and the two ran to embrace each other in the middle of the hall, fulfilling a piece of destiny. “Hooray,” shouted the Rose Reading Room; I wanted to write a story about how happy I was not to have missed that moment.

 

* * *


It was 3:45 a.m. when the first 24 pages of The Book came off the presses (by which I mean the printer attached to the terminal of the only designer employed in formatting our hundreds of entries). “Dada-esque,” proclaimed a pleased McGonigal as she reviewed them. The designer, who was displaying tremendous grace under pressure, did not respond, but continued his painstaking cutting and pasting.

I was sitting between the designer and the bookbinder, an Englishman named Gavin Dovey whose facetious wit was a comfort after many hours of upbeat earnestness.

Dovey has a shop in Chelsea, an apron of pointy tools and a replica of a 13th-century sewing frame. He knew a lot about linen hemp thread, and he was tired of waiting for the Future to be printed. “I was fresh as a daisy at 7 p.m.,” he told me. I rather hoped it weren’t the case.

I stayed with the designer and the bookbinder for another 40 minutes, but when pages 26 to 49 were still not forthcoming and the well-meaning crowd of eager authors grew larger, I ducked out to the break room.

That was where I found the public relations guy again. He was as relaxed and amused as he had been eight hours earlier when we had met at the loading dock. He asked me if the night had met my expectations and if I had enjoyed it. I assured him that it had and that I did. We talked about what an exceptional, unprecedented event it had been for the library, and he said that what was most amazing was that this group of people had come together for so short a period to change the world.

I had come to play a game. To stay up all night. To wander the library at midnight. Now I understood that the real purpose was to do all those things with others.“C’mon,” I said. “Change the world?”

But then I looked around at the tired, giddy gamers lounging on the floor in tight happy groups. I was in an environment I had not experienced since that summer in high school when I went to some gifted and talented program to learn to be an Individual in a Global Society. All around me were people who would keep in touch, and in their newfound relationships they had found some sort of Future.

I had come to play a game. To stay up all night. To wander the library at midnight. Now I understood that the real purpose was to do all those things with others. And that in itself had somewhat changed the history of the New York Public Library.

 

* * *


It was 5 a.m. and time for the closing ceremony. I found my team in the Reading Room: the senior citizen who laughed loudly at my jokes, the poet who knew his way around the library with his eyes closed, the wealthy scion who chose Social Good as his destiny, and the girl whose boyfriend ships out for the Gulf of Aden next month. “He’s in security and that’s about all I can tell you,” she had said in explanation to the manifesto she had written that night against modern piracy.

We applauded ourselves, all 500 of us, for writing The Book. “We did it,” McGonigal enthused, before conceding that the printing and binding had been a challenge given the group’s prolific output. “But when we do get it published and bound, it will be housed in this library for as long as New York City is standing,” she continued. There was laughter. We were aware of the much-heralded reports that the world was scheduled to end in less than 24 hours. But we had just faced our own deadlines.

In the doorway, Gavin Dovey the bookbinder was watching, a sheath of printed quest stories in one hand.

The Future remained boundless. It wasn’t the end of the world.
 

biopic

TMN Contributing Writer Elizabeth Kiem is the author of Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy. More by Elizabeth Kiem