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game theory

From the Mixed-up Files of Jane E. McGonigal

At 8 p.m. Friday night, the New York Public Library guards locked the heavy front doors for the night. A select group of 500 nerds were still inside — and not even the nerds knew why.

Minutes later, gamemaster Jane McGonigal appeared from atop the library stairs to welcome them. The NYPL had hired McGonigal, a San Francisco-based game designer, to build "Find the Future," which would highlight the library’s archives and anchor its Centennial celebration. A teaser trailer offered few details except to say the participants would be “finding the future” on an all-night scavenger hunt. 5,000 people applied; 500 were selected.

From the stairs, McGonigal asked everyone to separate into two teams — Team Patience and Team Fortitude, after the Ralph Waldo Emerson quote — and then come upstairs so she could explain the rest.

Below, Kenny Mikey pointed his video camera at himself and said, “Since we’re from Florida, we’re going to go fortitude. They said Floridatude, right?” Mikey and his wife, Riley Roam, had come to the library straight from the airport after flying in from West Palm Beach. They’re a husband-and-wife team with a children’s entertainment business, which only partly explained why Roam was dressed as an archaeologist, and Mikey, a former Ringling Bros. clown, as a Mario Brother who perhaps wandered onto the Ghostbusters set.

Upstairs, with her 500 gamers lining the desks and walls of a reading room, McGonigal took the stage to wild cheers and a stray catcall. “Hello future, I’m so happy I found you,” she said. Then she outlined the “seven secrets” to the game, with everyone taking copious notes on paper, computers, iPads, Twitter, and video. The game she described was a potpourri of writing workshop, flash mob, self-help seminar, and the classic young adult novel From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, in which two children run away from home and live in the Metropolitan Museum. The chosen 500 would stay up all night and create a book that would enter the library’s catalog at the end of the night. To do so they had to find 100 “artifacts” strewn across the library, photograph them with a specialized iPhone app, and eventually arrive at the game’s website, which offered essay or drawing prompts for players to imagine their own future.

This all fits with McGonigal’s Big Idea, which she’s touted everywhere from a best-selling book, Reality is Broken, to the TED conference and the Colbert Report. All the world’s problems, she believes, could be solved if only we played a lot more games. In person, she sounds like a version of Deepak Chopra who is also expert at Halo: “It’s not that we escape our lives when we play games, it’s that we become the best versions of ourselves when we play.” She described “Find the Future,” as “kind of a big, chaotic, beautiful disaster.”

For Molly Ruslander, a 21-year-old from Westchester whose Facebook page says she “studied Defense Against the Dark Arts at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry,” it was also shaping up to be an uncool one. “There’s no end to the cheesiness tonight,” she said. (Editor's note: Ruslander later emailed us to clarify: "I meant that in a good way — there was no end to the cheesiness, but what can you expect spending a night in the library with 499 other literary nerds?") Her squad wasn’t following the scavenger hunt clues on the app, instead looking for large gaggles of people gathered in front of a painting or a kiosk, figuring that was a sign that an artifact was near. As she scanned a barcode next to Jefferson’s original Declaration of Independence, she admitted she didn’t really understand how the game worked. But she perked up when she saw the animation on her phone. “I’m enjoying the sparkling, though, that’s fun.”

Eight hours later, at 6 a.m., McGonigal went back on stage and declared that the players had “won the game” by writing enough to fill a book. But contrary to the original plan, the actual book wasn’t there for them to see due to a snafu with the book binder — the consequence and casualty of a big, chaotic, beautiful disaster.

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Photo: Ben Hider/Getty Images