Developing the Spy in the City Game at the International Spy Museum

2012 Brooking Paper on Creativity in Museums Honorable Mention

By Amanda A. Ohlke

Imagine running a top secret mission through the streets of a spy-filled city. Visitors to the International Spy Museum (SPY) wanted to do this, and now they can by playing Spy in the City (SitC). From surveys, staff at SPY knew our visitors fantasized about living the museum content.  They loved the museum's immersive exhibitions, but they wanted more. With only 25,000 square feet of exhibition space, SPY is already a compact experience. There was nowhere to expand but outside. With the desire to serve our guests and a passion to offer cutting-edge experiences, the museum's creative Spy in the City game was born.

In late 2007, as adult programs manager, I was in the early stages of developing an exciting activity for a group using espionage tradecraft and intelligence collection activities to move the participants through Washington, D.C., on an espionage-based mission. The goals were for participants to learn about tradecraft and its use in spying; collect information/intelligence and use it to solve an "espionage" case; and to develop and use tradecraft "spy skills" by observing and performing operational spy acts. I came up with a live-action story in which 20 people on two teams would interact with and operate against each other performing surveillance, analysis, data collection and counter-surveillance, while they observed "real spies" (actors) conducting a mission or missions. I wanted to create a once-a-week offering, as well as a program that could be pre-booked.  As I was doing initial research on the feasibility of this model, a new idea emerged.

I knew guests would enjoy having some sort of gadgetry, and I was toying with how cell phone messages, digital cameras and other devices could be included. Smartphones were becoming a must-have for a portion of our audience. We considered that an app might allow us to offer a spy mission to many guests on demand as opposed to by pre-arrangement. In late 2008, however, smartphones were far from being in everyone's pocket. We wanted to offer an experience that could be available to anyone visiting the museum—not just smartphone users.

Towards the end of 2008 we had been approached by BarZ Adventures. This company had created a handheld GPS-driven device called a Ranger that is used around the country at aquariums, cultural and historic sites, museums, parks and zoos. Typically the device's touch screen displays a map; when users reach a designated point on the map, they can touch that point and relevant information pops up on the screen. It could be info on an animal's habitat or a short video featuring a Ben Franklin re-enactor. The devices have a nice viewing screen (about the same size as a smartphone), and they handle video and graphics well. BarZ had learned that we offer a bus tour of key spy sites throughout Washington and suggested that we might want to do a pedestrian version using their device.

As Director of Exhibitions and Programs Anna Slafer and I worked with the Ranger, we began to consider using it for our spy mission. BarZ had created simple scavenger hunts for some of their locations that featured multiple choice questions and answers, so they had a basic gaming platform in place. Then we had a brainstorm: By creatively re-purposing the pre-programmed coordinates, we believed we could use them to simulate live, two-way communication. Rather than visible, pre-set, GPS-based coordinates on the navigation map that users activate, our points would be hidden and would automatically upload when a player arrived at a location. (Unlike games with location-specific content that can still be played by guesswork from other areas, in SitC the players have to physically be in the right spot to play.)

The BarZ staff were excited to support us in this experimental approach to using their device, and it has worked out very well. Players have to figure out where to go next based on creative thinking, logic and the plot. Players make choices at several points in the missions, and these put them on different paths through the city. Whatever they choose, once a pre-set location is reached, the GPS points "trigger" and a communication appears. The message or information can be from their handler at the "Special Security Division" (SSD), our fictitious spy agency; an intercepted message from hostile agents or agencies; or a contact from surprising sources. To help players keep track of who's contacting them, we developed an SSD logo and messaging style to simulate secure communications; distinctive graphics distinguish contacts from sources or hostile spy agencies. The messages look enough like text or e-mail to be familiar, but have enhanced-design aspects to up their cool factor.

Another reason the Ranger was a great solution to our spy mission problem is that we needed to simulate spy technology in a convincing way. The Ranger is able to handle Flash animation, which some smartphones could not display at that time. Flash gave us the high-quality graphic capability to convince our users that their Ranger was actually a device that encapsulated many other spy gadgets. When players begin SitC, their handler at SSD, Alex Stephenson, introduces them to the case and the device. Stephenson, appearing in a sleek, high-tech environment, reveals in his smug, British accent that the device is a Geo-COBRA—a Geosynchronous Covert Observation and Reconnaissance Analyzer. He explains: "This is a very powerful tool. It is a secure communications device that can also scan and process a full range of signals, fingerprints, chemical traces and GPS coordinates, as well as run numerous biometric programs."  So with ingenuity and creativity, we had our gadget and, through it, the chance to simulate many others. Now on to the actual spy mission.

That our spy mission should be challenging and fun was a high priority, but more importantly, it had to be meaningful and educational. Guests should learn about real espionage and tradecraft. They should confront the complexities of a spy case: the ethics, the difficulty of staying on mission and not following tantalizing red herrings, the need to assess sources for their current reliability and future usefulness, and the repercussions for those who commit treason. To build a solid basis for our game, we agreed that the missions should be based on real spy cases. We did not want our guests to do anything that was not actually possible. The stakes would be high, but the players would not be counted on to save the world. We wanted more realism than that.

We used our network of current and former intelligence professionals to discuss realistic possible scenarios. We picked through historical and current cases looking for spycraft and content that would inform our game design. For the first game, which launched in June of 2009, we crafted a mission that would involve the players picking up a series of secret communications from a potential source, code-named CATBIRD; figuring out who the source was; whom he worked for; and whether he was legitimately alerting the SSD to a threat to Washington's electrical grid.

This mission was inspired by two real FBI cases: Operation Lemon-Aid, conducted by the FBI in 1977, and KITTY HAWK in 1966. In Operation Lemon-Aid a U.S. Naval officer pretended to share secrets with the Soviet KGB. This information was left at a series of meticulously planned "drop sites" along the New Jersey Turnpike. This method of information exchange at multiple sites in a busy area was perfect for explaining why the player had been collecting messages all over D.C. KITTY HAWK was the code name the FBI assigned to a KGB officer who offered to become a spy for the CIA. His code name and offer to work with "the enemy" inspired the story of the SitC terrorist who approaches SSD.

For the second game, which debuted in June of 2010, we draw players into the world of the would-be spy. Participants must figure out who SLYFOX is and the secrets she is trying to sell to the Russians; if possible, they intervene in the transaction by convincing her that they are Russian operatives. If players are successful, they block the Russians and get the secret info she is selling. For this game we drew from the case of Thomas Patrick Cavanaugh, a Northrup Grumman aerospace engineer who was short on cash and decided to solve his money problems by volunteering to spy for the Soviets. The FBI became aware of Cavanaugh's plans, and before the Soviets could act to get information from him, the FBI deceived Cavanaugh into thinking that he was working with the Soviets. They set up meetings with Cavanaugh, and he ultimately took classified documents about stealth bombers to his "handlers." He received a sentence of life imprisonment. At the completion of both SitC games, players learn about these real espionage stories through a video message from our executive director. They even view real footage of Cavanaugh's arrest. It's a great chance for guests to see how close fact and fiction can be.

As players work their way through one or both SitC missions, they get to try the following spycraft: running facial recognition software, performing chemical scans for traces of "spy dust," detecting and reading microdots, cracking codes, analyzing visual and audio information, retrieving fingerprints and observing signals in the environment to see if they should proceed with their missions. Activities involve both national and local landmarks, as well as ordinary or interesting locations. Book codes are broken by reading the quotations carved on the front of the Newseum or the plaque by the FDR memorial. Secret passcodes are revealed by entering the correct word from an obscure temperance fountain or an inscription at the National Archives. Guests must use their wits and their observation skills to figure out answers, but they are also called upon to use their judgment.

Both games give players a chance to make decisions. Players can fail.  If they are not answering correctly, they receive a varied series of messages from their SSD handler that help them get the answers. Their handler has a distinct personality; in crafting the character, we channeled a smart person who's frustrated that he can't be out on the street with the player. When the player is performing well, the handler is supportive, but can get annoyed when the player is "blowing it." During an enciphering activity, if players consistently mistype, the handler texts them, "What are you doing? All you need to do is retype the message to encipher it." It's a no-nonsense persona, and one that can at times be judgmental.

This comes through when we confront players with an ethical dilemma. One of the challenging aspects of spying is that in certain cases, people seem to be almost coerced into treachery. An intelligence operative might actively set people up to follow through with espionage so that they can be arrested. But would they have gone through with it on their own? In the SLYFOX mission, there is a moment when it seems the traitor is losing her nerve. We let the guests off the hook by ultimately revealing that she is just pushing for more money, but we want players to consider that they may be pushing someone to commit a crime. In the words of SSD, it "seems she's got cold feet. We shouldn't force her to be a traitor, but it isn't adding up." A few exchanges later, and it's resolved: "OK, it's not cold feet; she's just being greedy." It's my hope that engaged players will feel a moment of compassion for the potential wrongdoer—a chance to really put themselves in her shoes. Later in this same game, players get to focus on their own personal integrity when they are offered money for the secrets they are transporting. For those who decide to collude with the enemy, a withering message arrives: "We hope that was a typo. That was a test. You've disappointed us, but you have one more chance." A rare chance to be shamed in a game!

Players also are scored in a behind-the-scenes way. We wanted players to focus on performing their mission well as opposed to doing it for points. The scoring is based on doing the mission in a thoughtful way. Points are deducted for sloppy work, unethical decisions and not following SSD's directives. Upon completion, guests receive a point score and rating: Spy Master, Station Chief, Case Officer or Agent. Guests can compare their aptitude score to other players by going to a website where scores are posted. For the lowest scorers, they receive this advice: "You can increase your ranking by paying closer attention to mission directives, sharpening your observation and tradecraft skills, and performing your operations more efficiently."

SitC provides a great opportunity for us to go beyond our walls and give guests a substantive spy experience. I am delighted when I walk by players in the neighborhood diligently scanning for fingerprints or searching for the electronic dead drop site left by their contact. Through our use of the built environment and reality-based gadgets, I feel that we are able to place a meaningful spy overlay on our neighborhood. Players see passersby as potential surveillants; the real world becomes part of their play space. In the SLYFOX game, players must enter a number from a game wheel in the window of Ollie's, a popular restaurant. This number changes whenever the wheel is spun in real life, so the game was programmed accordingly. The number the players enter from their moment in time is the "correct" number. This increases the reality factor of the game exponentially. The wheel is not fixed, so dubious participants can figure out that the game is responding to their input and not just to pre-set data. I was thrilled when several museum colleagues played the game and revealed in a post-play debrief that they thought the Geo-COBRA really could scan for fingerprints. The tech-savvy among the group realized that the device was running animation, but for the others, the quality was so good they really thought they were picking up latent prints.

In a serious world, SitC is a chance for guests to bring their inner Bond to life and also to learn more about our content while they are at it. Since the launch of the first SitC in 2009, more than 18,500 guests have played. TripAdvisor reviews of the museum go up for guests who have played or enjoyed another of our specialized experiences. The first game made a huge P.R. splash for the museum. The Associated Press was so intrigued that they asked for an exclusive on the launch; resulting coverage provided SitC with a reach of more than 903,556,000 impressions. In 2010, I was invited to speak about SitC at a conference devoted to "Meaningful Games," where the game was warmly received. We are proud of the very creative way that we have used gaming to explore our content, and we look forward to applying the expertise we developed in future gaming apps and for a live action game that we hope to offer later in 2012.


Amanda A. Ohlke is adult education director, International Spy Museum, Washington, D.C.