I think it was around 4 am when I found myself staring at Jack Kerouac’s glasses, displayed alongside some of his other possessions, including an empty box of valium. I’d been in the New York Public Library since 7 pm and would soon see the sunrise out the windows of the Rose Reading Room. I wasn’t alone, there were at least 499 other people wandering the Stephen A. Schwarzman building around me, but considering how many people are usually swarming the library spaces, and that I was way under caffeinated, it was definitely a surreal, dream-like moment. In fact, the whole evening is a little like a dream, where I’m not really sure what I did for all of those hours. But I’ll share the vivid fragments of memory that I have.
I’d come to the library for an alternate reality game called Find the Future. The details were sketchy online, but since I have a bit of a book/library fetish that you may be aware of, I couldn’t resist signing up to see what would happen. The day before, I was interviewed by my beloved NPR affiliate WNYC, and it was only then that I realized that it had been a bit of a writing contest to get accepted. The prompt had been to say what you would be the first person to do in 2021, and I’d rambled something of my usual pastiche of horror and Oklahoma imagery. Apparently that met the sanity/writing qualifications they were looking for.
When I finally stumbled my way to the gathering point in the lobby of the library, there was already a pretty good size crowd. I luckily soon ran into some people I’d met at a happy hour meet up the night before (you know I can never miss a networking opportunity… or maybe I should replace the word “networking” with “happy hour” there). Eventually, the huge crowd was split into a “patience” and a “fortitude” team (named for the lions out front), although these weren’t exactly teams so much as a way to split the masses of people between the two sides of the Rose Reading Room. Actual teams did come later though, and I ended up in a group with Find the Future-ers (oh god, I’m going to forget someone…) Hannah, Matt, Leland, Chad, Chris, Rob, and Carl. All super sharp, tech savvy people. If the game had had any actual team winning involved, we would have killed that, but I’ll get to the game play analysis in a minute.
The night started with a greeting by the game designer Jane McGonigal, but I was too distracted by the fact I was being allowed to sit on top of a bookshelf in one of the most beautiful, and strictly monitored, reading rooms in the world.
I’ll just get this out of the way and say that rather early in the night I injured myself in a really ridiculous way, and then tried to pretend that it wasn’t that bad… but it definitely somewhat dampered my enthusiasm for the game. Anyway, I went to the doctor this week and get to have a mummy hand for a little while. I have zero motor and logic skills when I am without coffee, plus, I’m a naturally clumsy person, which inevitably combines for disaster. At least I only destroyed myself and nothing in the library.
Back to the game! So the way Find the Future worked was through an iPhone app that you used to scan QR codes that were scattered throughout the library. The idea was to have clues to lead you to “artifacts,” although most of the clues were pretty simple, like go to this exact room and find the code by this exact object. The more enjoyable clues to decipher had at least some thought involved. Although you were supposed to have just the team leader scanning objects and the rest of the group trailing along, we figured out that you could take the words that were below the codes and text those to the leader to unlock “chapters” more quickly. So we split into tasks and probably could have got all the codes if there hadn’t have been a few glitches with the app and some clues missing.
Once a code was scanned, a writing prompt was unlocked. The way the game was “won” was all 500 players collectively writing a 600 page book. Not too impossible of a goal when you divide it like that. Yet I found the writing prompts rather uninspiring, with things like “imagine a new technology for the future” or “warn people about a problem in the future.” It seemed ironic for a writing-oriented game to be so uncreative with its own text.
This would be a brilliant game for high schoolers on a library field trip to play, as it would take them to all the rooms in the library and then they could pick a writing prompt when they got back to class. But for tired 20/30-somethings staying up until sunrise, I at least found it hard to focus. Another problem was a lack of incentives. There was really no reason to do anything as a team, except that it would be a long and lonely night otherwise. It would have been awesome if each team had been assigned a chapter, or even just one of the objects in the Find the Future exhibit that’s going on in conjunction with the library’s Centennial, to make a team contribution more meaningful.
One really cool part of the event was going down into the library’s stacks, which are rarely open to the public. There are seven floors of books below the reading room, making up over 70 miles of shelves.
The stacks also offered one of the most engaging parts of the game. Postcards had been placed in between books from ourselves in the future, in response to what we’d written on our application prompt. However, you didn’t get your own and instead had to deliver a postcard to someone else. Since there was a reason to interact with the rest of the gamers, and a definite, tangible goal, it was definitely the most popular part of Find the Future.
I hope I haven’t made any of this sound too negative, because it really was an incredibly unique experience to be able to roam the library after hours. I’ll never look at the building the same way again. I do think that the game could have been better planned, and I wish that at least some mention had been made of the drastic budget cuts the library is facing. It would have been an invaluable opportunity to get support from this pre-selected crowd of people who are obviously interested in the library and the potential of new technology to preserve traditional publishing. Nevertheless, I met some wonderful people, fulfilled a literature nerd’s fantasy of spending the night in an iconic library, and got to stare as long as I wanted at the letter opener Charles Dicken’s made to memorialize his dead cat (including the poor cat’s paw as the handle). Here, you can see it, too: