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Night at the New York Public Library

As part of the New York Public Library's centennial celebration, 500 hand-selected people went on an interactive "quest" to discover the treasures of the library.

As part of its centennial celebration, 500 lucky participants were allowed to spend the night in the New York Public Library on Fifth Ave.
CNET/Marguerite Reardon

NEW YORK--The New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue turns 100 years old on Monday. As part of the centennial celebration, 500 people spent the night in the library's Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on Friday finding clues as part of a scavenger hunt designed by game developer Jane McGonigal and collectively writing a 600-page book in a single night.

And even though no inanimate objects came to life when the doors were locked at 8 p.m., a lot was accomplished in a single night.

"We did it," McGonigal shouted as the sun rose over Manhattan around 5:30 a.m. Saturday. "We wrote a book that will be kept in the permanent collection of the New York Public Library...Some people spend their whole lives trying to achieve this goal. And you did it one night!"

McGonigal, author of "Reality is Broken" and developer of several alternate-reality games, spent the past six months designing the game for Friday night's hunt.

The object of the game, which is called "Find the Future," is to locate 100 "artifacts" that have been selected from the libraries archives and use the information unlocked with each object to write about the future. As part of Friday night's scavenger hunt, McGonigal tasked the 500 participants with collectively writing and publishing a 600-page book based on these artifacts that would be bound on-site by a bookbinder using a medieval technique of sewing pages of the book together. Once the book was put together, participants were expected to sign it, and the book would be entered into the library's permanent collection.

Five hundred people gathered at the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue to participate in the "Find the Future" game. CNET/Marguerite Reardon

While the group managed to complete all 100 "quests" and write all 100 chapters of the book, they fell short of having the book bound. Technical printing snafus prevented the bookbinder from getting the job completed by morning. Still, McGonigal, who views her games as sources of inspiration for participants, said the main goals of the evening had been achieved.

"This night has been a success," she told me around 2 a.m. before any pages of the book had actually been printed. "I can judge that by the looks on people's faces. They are smiling and high-fiving each other. They have looks of curiosity on their faces."

She explained that writing the book in one night was a way to give people something tangible that would offer them a life-long connection to the New York Public Library. But she said the bigger goal was getting the participants to think about the future and to connect with each other.

"Tonight is supposed to serve as a spring board for the rest of their lives," she said. "My hope is that people are transformed by the experience as they come here and are challenged to think of big ideas about the future."

The hunt itself required participants to use a mobile app downloaded onto their smartphones to find the objects in the library. And then using a QR reader, they were able to use their smartphones to discover additional information about the objects that they would use to fulfill their other task of the evening: writing the 600-page book that was due by the end of the night.

Each object was supposed to make up a chapter of the book, so participants, who were divided into squads of about seven people, were tasked with selecting an object and chapter to write about.

McGonigal said the overnight aspect of the game was inspired by the novel, "From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler," which chronicles the adventures of a brother and sister who run away from home to live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan.

The idea behind the hunt was to find a way to highlight some of the treasures in the library's archive, such as the stuffed animals that inspired A.A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh stories, Charles Dickens' letter opener--made from the paw of his beloved cat; and an original copy of the Declaration of Independence.

"When the Library asked me to create a game, I knew I had to come up with a really good idea," she said. "So I thought, 'Hey wouldn't it be cool to have people stay over all night at the library.'"

Janet Namkung checked her smartphone for clues in the map room of the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue as part of the "Find the Future" game designed by Jane McGonigal. CNET/Marguerite Reardon

Getting started
At 7:45 p.m. on Friday, the downstairs lobby of the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on Bryant Park was filled with 500 of the most creative and interesting contestants selected by McGonigal and her team based on the answers they wrote to the question: "How do you want to make history and change the world?"

I was immediately drawn to a couple standing just a few feet away from me dressed in costume that looked as if they were characters who had just jumped out of the Ben Stiller movie, "Night at the Museum."

Riley Roam and Kenny Mickey, a married couple from West Palm Beach, Fla., own, operate and perform in the children's theater troupe Page Turner Adventures. They were dressed in the characters they perform for their shows. Roam was decked out in a felt hat, vest and riding jodhpurs as Page Turner, a "storyologist" who is a cross between Mary Poppins and Amelia Earhart. Mickey, a former Ringling Bros. clown, was dressed as her bumbling assistant, wearing coveralls, a cap turned backward, and goggles.

While Roam and Mickey came as a set to the Find the Future game, most of the other participants came on their own. One participant--Ana from New York City--who didn't want her last name used, said she and a friend had each applied hoping to participate in the night's activities together. But her friend wasn't accepted.

Ana joined Roam and Mickey along with three other new team members: TJ Morris a graphic designer from New York City; Janet Namkung, a college student from Wayne, NJ; and Lucia Chan, an educational book publisher also from New York City.

The first couple hours of the evening were spent trying to figure out the details of the game, which were somewhat murky. While everyone knew the overall objective, which was to find objects and then write about them, exactly how many objects they needed to find and write about was somewhat unclear. Also, to ensure that groups didn't duplicate efforts, there was a somewhat chaotic sign up process for claiming objects or chapters of the book to write.

But by 10 p.m., two hours after the game had begun and one hour before the first set of chapters were due, the group was on its first quest: the search for the stuffed animals that inspired "Winnie-the-Pooh." In the next couple of hours, the group completed several quests. Namkung, the chosen team leader, was busy scanning QR codes.

Kenny Mickey and Riley Roam came to the "Find the Future" hunt at the New York Public Library in dressed as "storyologists." CNET/Marguerite Reardon

And finally, the group chose an artifact on which to base its chapter. And they sat down to write. The artifact they wrote about was a copy of a New York City policeman's rule book from 1850. As a group, they wrote about what they envisioned a policeman's future rule book might contain.

Keeping it social
Another important element of the live quest on Friday night was to facilitate social connections between game participants. To ensure that people mixed with other gamers, McGonigal used each participant's answer to the question "How do you want to make history and change the world?"

McGonigals' team copied these messages on individual postcards signed by "The Future" and addressed to each game participant. The postcards were hidden in the stacks of the library, and when people took the guided tour through the library's closed book stacks below the main reading room of the library, they were told to choose one postcard, which they would deliver to its owner.

All night, people roamed the halls and massive reading rooms of the library calling out names looking for their postcard's owner. It felt like a massive college orientation exercise. Some people posted messages on Facebook. And sent Tweets on Twitter to find the person who had written their postcards.

Mickey went to Facebook and used his postcard owner's own profile picture as a mug shot that he used to go around the group asking, "Has anyone seen this woman?" At around 2:30 a.m., he eventually found her, after another participant on Twitter tweeted: "@c_gonzalez someone's looking for you - the guy in the goofy goggles! maybe he has your future? #findthefuture"

McGonigal said that this social aspect of bringing strangers together as part of the collective experience of the game was as important as the quests and completing the book.

"I want people to make connections that will stay with them long after they leave here," she said. "This should be a night that people never forget and that they will be able to reflect on for the rest of their lives."

By 6 a.m. as each group lined up to sign their names to blank pages that will eventually be bound into the book that they wrote together, there were hugs, smiles on exhausted faces, and exchanges of e-mail addresses, Twitter handles, and Facebook contacts. Whether any of the 500 people gathered there was transformed by the night's events is difficult to say.

Namkung said she hopes to have a reunion with her "Find the Future" teammates one day. She also said she plans to keep in touch with the person who found her postcard from the future. A day after the hunt, she said she and her "future finder" had already been texting.

The library is keeping the "artifacts" on display throughout this year, and McGonigal said she designed the game so visitors to the library could do the hunt on their own and upload their own chapters online. Namkung said that even though her team was not able to find all 100 artifacts on Friday night, she plans to return to the library this summer with her younger sister to "finish the journey."

And of course of she said she'll never forget being able to spend the entire night in the New York Public Library.

"I've been telling my friends a lot about my experience," she wrote in a Facebook message to me the day after the hunt. "And they think that it was so cool that we were able to roam around the library without the congestion and almost feeling that it was like home. I am so glad that I was able to be a part of this experience and also to meet great people, including you!"