At the Spy Mu­seum, you can crack codes, be a hero your­self

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - By Amanda Lewis

Wan­der­ing down a city street some­where in the Mid­dle East, you can hear the chat­ter of mer­chants and smell their ex­otic wares. You slip into a com­mand cen­ter to re­ceive in­struc­tions from your boss back at the CIA, and then you and the rest of your op­er­a­tions team snap into ac­tion, mon­i­tor­ing the se­cu­rity cam­eras of a nearby ho­tel.

Wash­ing­ton, D.C., has al­ways been home to intelligence gath­er­ing and clan­des­tine mis­sions, but soon reg­u­lar cit­i­zens will have the chance to ex­pe­ri­ence life as a se­cret agent — at least, for an hour — when the In­ter­na­tional Spy Mu­seum’s interactive ex­hibit “Op­er­a­tion Spy” opens to the gen­eral pub­lic.

While hid­ing from se­cu­rity cam­eras in a dark tun­nel or in­ter­ro­gat­ing a sus­pect via video­phone, par­tic­i­pants must work to­gether to fig­ure out who to trust and stop a nu­clear-trig­ger­ing de­vice from fall­ing into the wrong hands. “Op­er­a­tion Spy” rep­re­sents the next level of im­mer­sive gam­ing, in which the player de­ter­mines the out­come through his de­ci­sions and abil­i­ties.

“Peo­ple are look­ing for a learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence be­yond sim­ply see­ing some­thing ly­ing on a shelf or in­ter­act­ing with a sort of juke­box-sized de­vice,” says ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the mu­seum Peter Earnest, who led the team of re­tired CIA, FBI and even KGB op­er­a­tives who de­signed “Op­er­a­tion Spy.”

The plot was in­spired by the case of A.Q. Khan, the Pak­istani sci­en­tist who in 2004 was dis­cov­ered to be sell­ing nu­clear tech­nol­ogy and ma­te­ri­als on the black mar­ket.

“We were try­ing to cre­ate a sit­u­a­tion in which time is of the essence and not ev­ery­thing goes right,” Mr. Earnest, a CIA vet­eran, ex­plains.

If a par­tic­i­pant misses an im­por­tant clue or can’t crack a safe, the game con­tin­ues. With six dif­fer­ent end­ings and count­less op­por­tu­ni­ties for mis­takes, “Op­er­a­tion Spy” re­veals that not ev­ery­one was meant to gather intelligence.

Par­tic­i­pat­ing in “Op­er­a­tion Spy” oc­ca­sion­ally feels like watch­ing an episode of “24” with a dim-wit­ted friend who can’t fig­ure out how Jack Bauer knew where the bomb would be. While some of the ef­fects felt forced and elicited snick­ers from par­tic­i­pants, rush­ing down a hall and up the stairs to a wait­ing he­li­copter ac­tu­ally got my adren­a­line pump­ing — that is, un­til I heard the faint mu­sic in the back­ground, ush­er­ing us on.

“Op­er­a­tion Spy” is nei­ther the first nor the last im­mer­sive game to hit the United States. “Tomb,” an Egyp­tian-themed ad­ven­ture that opened in Bos­ton in 2004, chal­lenges par­tic­i­pants to solve an­cient mys­ter­ies or be forced to leave the game through the “death hall­way.”

Matthew DuP­lessie, di­rec­tor and CEO of the com­pany that de­signed and op­er­ates “Tomb,” thinks im­mer­sive games, which “al­low peo­ple to be the hero, to be the main char­ac­ter in the movie,” rep­re­sent the fu­ture of en­ter­tain­ment.

Mr. DuP­lessie’s firm, called 5W!TS, had al­ready been con­sid­er­ing an es­pi­onage-themed fol­lowup to “Tomb” when the In­terna- tional Spy Mu­seum called, ea­ger to col­lab­o­rate. Mr. DuP­lessie was the project man­ager for the de­sign and pro­duc­tion of “Op­er­a­tion Spy,” which is twice the size and sev­eral times the com­plex­ity and bud­get of “Tomb.”

“When a theme park calls a ride interactive, you may be strapped into a seat and rolling through. Some­thing scary hap­pens, and maybe a jet of air hits you be­hind the ear.” he says. “ ‘Op­er­a­tion Spy’ is very dif­fer­ent. You are mak­ing the de­ci­sions. You’re not strapped in a car go­ing through a pre­de­fined ex­pe­ri­ence.”

Ne­gone, a com­pany owned by Dif­fer­end Games, al­ready op­er­ates at­trac­tions far more com­plex in Spain than those state­side and plans on ex­pand­ing im­mer­sive gam­ing world­wide. In “The Es­cape,” a high­in­ten­sity interactive ad­ven­ture in Madrid, the player must es­cape from a 31st-cen­tury prison by solv­ing a se­ries of puz­zles and over­com­ing phys­i­cal chal­lenges. RFID chips mon­i­tor each player’s progress, and fail­ure to es­cape re­sults in be­ing taken back to your “prison cell” — game over.

The Spy Mu­seum has also be­gun of­fer­ing less in­ten­sive pro­gram­ming geared at show­ing the pub­lic what it’s like to be a spy.

An “Elite Sur­veil­lance Team” led by for­mer CIA agent An­to­nio Men­dez be­gan meet­ing last month. For an an­nual fee of $180, mem­bers of the team will learn to mon­i­tor a “sur­veil­lance zone” just like ac­tual agents do, even if they may never ac­tu­ally need that par­tic­u­lar skill in real life.

The peo­ple who paid $48 to par­tic­i­pate in last week’s “Body Lan­guage 101” work­shop will likely use any new­found abil­i­ties when play­ing poker, not in­ter­ro­gat­ing ter­ror­ists.

Those who de­signed “Op­er­a­tion Spy” ac­knowl­edge that the ex­pe­ri­ence might not be the most re­al­is­tic rep­re­sen­ta­tion of life as a spy.

“To be fair, it’s cer­tainly ro­man­ti­cized.” Mr. DuP­lessie said. “In re­al­ity, es­pi­onage is a very drawn out, painstak­ing process. Many agents may have a life­long ca­reer and only on a cou­ple of oc­ca­sions ex­pe­ri­ence that type of stress.”

But per­haps th­ese ex­pe­ri­ences will help av­er­age Joes sym­pa­thize with how dif­fi­cult it is to be an ac­tual intelligence agent.

Near the end of a re­cent test drive of “Op­er­a­tion Spy,” one wo­man who dis­agreed with one of the choices the group had made com­mented, “We made a ter­ri­ble de­ci­sion. It looks like we’re all go­ing to die.”

Her com­pan­ion smiled and said, “Just like real life, huh.”

Bert V. Goulait / The Wash­ing­ton Times

Sta­tion op­er­a­tions of­fi­cer Greg Mack­lin (cen­ter) breaks into a coded ac­cess door in the tun­nel area at the In­ter­na­tional Spy Mu­seum’s soonto-open at­trac­tion, “Op­er­a­tion Spy.”

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