In the Mu­seum

Air & Space Smithsonian - - Front Page - RE­BECCA MAKSEL

A game for your in­ner spy

RACHEL DUN­NING STANDS in front of 16 chil­dren—er, in­tel­li­gence an­a­lysts—gaz­ing out from be­hind a pair of ex­tremely cool dark glasses. “One of our air­craft on a top-se­cret mis­sion is miss­ing and we be­lieve it has gone down,” she says. “We brought you here to­day be­cause you’re the best in­tel­li­gence an­a­lysts in the area. You’ll need to col­lect and ex­am­ine ev­i­dence and make an im­por­tant de­ci­sion. Pres­i­dent John­son has given us au­thor­ity to use ev­ery re­source to find the air­craft.”

Wait a minute—pres­i­dent ent John­son?

That’s right. Ev­ery Satur­day rday at the Steven F. Ud­var-hazyy Cen­ter, it’s Septem­ber 1967,7, and vis­i­tors learn all about t the cold war in a role-play­ing ing game called “Smith­so­nian Techquest: Eye in the Sky.””

We an­a­lysts start the game by look­ing for clues in high-res­o­lu­tion aerial pho­to­graphs. Dun­ning ing en­cour­ages us to guess the time of day and the sea­son when the pho­tographshotographs were taken and to de­ter­mine whether it was on a week­end or week­day. We’re also told to take the pho­to­graphs’ res­o­lu­tion into con­sid­er­a­tion. Are the im­ages sharp enough to iden­tify a spe­cific air­craft, or is the qual­ity so poor that we see just a smudge, which could in­di­cate de­bris?

Our group in­cludes an ex­tended fam­ily of 16, which has split by gen­der into two teams; a fam­ily of four, with two young boys; and two teenage girls

who learned about the game while stand­ing in line for an IMAX movie.

Af­ter the briefing concludes (“You do not want to blow your cover by run­ning!”), the kids head out to the col­lec­tions. Us­ing four ar­ti­facts—and with the help of “se­nior ad­vis­ers” sta­tioned through­out the Mu­seum— par­tic­i­pants de­vise a plan to res­cue the downed crew and their top-se­cret tech­nol­ogy.

The game was in­spired by Colo­nial Wil­liams­burg’s Revquest, says Tim Grove of the Mu­seum’s ed­u­ca­tion de­part­ment. (Revquest is a role-play­ing game set in the sum­mer of 1775, which play­ers start on­line be­fore trav­el­ing to Colo­nial Wil­liams­burg. They re­ceive a “spy score,” and go un­der­cover and con­tinue play­ing once they ar­rive on site.) “Revquest has a strong nar­ra­tive, but it also has a lot of code-break­ing and puzzles that you solve along the way,” says Grove. “We thought the con­cept could be adapted to our very dif­fer­ent en­vi­ron­ment, and en­gage the au­di­ence we’re try­ing to reach: up­per el­e­men­tary school and mid­dle school.”

Ad­vis­ers greet each player with a pass­word; af­ter sup­ply­ing the cor­rect re­sponse, play­ers are given a piece of in­tel­li­gence—some­times en­crypted— to help lo­cate the downed air­craft.

With a lit­tle help from ad­vis­ers, the teams, us­ing satel­lite imagery, plot lat­i­tude and lon­gi­tude lines to de­ter­mine the crash site, de­code line/ word/let­ter ci­phers to find ad­di­tional clues, and ba­si­cally roam all over the vast Ud­var-hazy Cen­ter.

Once they’ve an­swered all the clues, play­ers at­tend a de­brief­ing, then ex­plain their res­cue plan to a se­nior ad­viser, who may sug­gest how to im­prove their strat­egy.

The Mu­seum has a four-year grant—funded by Mcdon­ald’s— to run the pro­gram, and the staff plans to change the game topic each year. “In the fu­ture,” says Grove, “we’d like to add an on­line el­e­ment. This par­tic­u­lar game doesn’t use tech­nol­ogy like smart­phones to play the game.” In­stead, he says, the “tech” in “Techquest” comes from the con­tent. “We’re deal­ing with ar­ti­facts that were highly tech­no­log­i­cal in their day,” says Grove. “Two of them were top se­cret, some­thing the gen­eral pub­lic didn’t know about.”

The game takes about 60 to 90 min­utes to com­plete, and doesn’t have to be played all at once, should vis­i­tors wish to stop for lunch or a movie.

“The game is for ages 10 and above,” says Grove, “but ide­ally it be­comes a multi-gen­er­a­tional group play­ing it to­gether.” The game is of­fered ev­ery Satur­day through­out the day, and one Fri­day each month. Visit airandspace. si.edu/techquest to learn more.

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