Using SCVNGR to Build Playful, Mobile History “Treks”

Each year, over 40 million people travel to see the sights in New York City. I see tourists everyday; they arrive by bus, train, and plane, find a place to stay, take their chances on the subway and/or hail taxi cabs, and spend time visiting museums, monuments, restaurants, and bars. Two years ago as I started researching nineteenth-century guidebooks for a digital exhibition project with a colleague, I began to wonder: Do these visitors realize they are participating in a relatively new phenomenon, visiting many of the same sites as their intrepid nineteenth-century counterparts? Do New Yorkers realize how much tourism in the nineteenth century shaped their city? And in what ways could historians engage locals and visitors with that information?

I was able to address that last question when I took a course that encouraged exploring various modes of displaying and curating artifacts through digital media projects. My first concern was the content: How could I discuss the social lives of certain monuments, emphasize that the city was rapidly changing at the end of the nineteenth century, and refer to key concepts in the history of urban tourism (e.g. transportation, sightseeing)? Since I continued studying those nineteenth-century guidebooks for my master’s qualifying paper, I chose my favorite to serve as the basis for the project. Manhattan: Historic and Artistic, written by Cynthia M. Westover Alden and published in 1897, comes close to the type of guidebook that tourists use today. It has helpful maps, an itinerary for six-day trip complete with site-specific information, and a brief history of the city for new visitors.

Cover of the guidebook I used to create a playful, mobile history “trek” in SCVNGR, Manhattan: Historic and Artistic (left) and the first page of its guided itinerary that starts in downtown Manhattan (right).

Why create a playful mobile experience to teach history?

My next thought was of my audience: how could I inspire a sense of exploration in both visitors and locals? Then presentation: what platform makes the most sense for displaying site-specific information about urban tourism and guidebooks? It made sense to choose a mobile platform, since guidebooks were the original mobile information device for visitors (which is why they were often called “handbooks” in the nineteenth century). The benefit in creating a scavenger hunt is that engaging users in a playful and informative experience would give them a motive to travel to the different locations mentioned in Manhattan: Historic and Artistic. Learning about the city and the history of tourism would be integral to completing challenges because I could design them for that purpose. I planned on designing something that would function like an augmented reality version of an historical plaque, with players having to find the historical “plaques” and engage with them through a challenge, and then be rewarded with part of a story or perhaps a digital version of the original guidebook.

Why SCVNGR? How does it work?

Description and leaderboard for the trek I created, “Alden’s Manhattan.”

I chose to experiment with the location-based gaming platform called SCVNGR because it was an easy and accessible way to create a playful, mobile experience based on specific historic sites. Players check into locations (like with Foursquare or Facebook), but also complete challenges at those places and earn points. Most people access SCVNGR as an iPhone or Android application, but there is also limited SMS functionality, so the application is fairly accessible and comes with its own user base.

Third party applications like SCVNGR give people and organizations with limited resources the opportunity to deliver content digitally and tap into a new audience. Historians, teachers, and museum professionals would only need to make an account and watch some tutorial videos to get started. But like all third party applications, SCVNGR has a set structure and design that their “builders” might not have chosen for their own projects. This presents a challenge for builders to determine if SCVNGR will further or compromise their project’s goals.

For a walkthrough of both builder and player access in SCVNGR, check out this Prezi I made documenting my experience creating “Alden’s Manhattan.” Feel free to zoom in to read specific challenges or descriptions, and click “more” for the fullscreen option. [EDITOR NOTE : PREZI NO LONGER AVAILABLE]

Advice for using SCVNGR and other third party social applications

  1. Be flexible and explore the limitations of the platform before making the decision to use the application. My willingness to engage with a third party application knowing that limitations were inevitable made the process less frustrating than it might have been for someone with strict goals and ideas for their project.
  2. Weigh the benefits of the application’s convenience against the limitations it would impose on project’s content. In the case of my project, the content and my goals for “Alden’s Manhattan” were not compromised by SCVNGR’s platform, so its convenience was well worth the effort in navigating its limitations.
  3. Compare your goal audience with the application’s user base. My target audience was any adult with a smartphone in the downtown Manhattan area, so SCVNGR’s audience matched with my own. Had I been developing a scavenger hunt for elementary school students learning about New York’s history, I would probably need to reconsider using SCVNGR since most young children don’t have smart phones.
  4. Playtest any trek or challenges that you create, and think about the weather. Is your trek doable in one afternoon or multiple sessions? Is it only possible to complete in the summer? Will people avoid your trek when it’s raining?
  5. Set reasonable goals for usage based on similar projects that others have created with the same application and evaluate the success of your project based on those goals.
  6. Reflect on the entire process to better inform your next project!

And most importantly, good luck and have fun!

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