NYC Haunts: Bronx Teens Discover Their Neighborhood Through an Interactive Look at the Dead

by H. Jack Martin, Assistant Director for Public Programs/Lifelong Learning for Children, Teens and Families, The New York Public Library

Who's dead in your neighborhood? What was the cause of their timely or untimely demise? The New York Public Library has the answer. This spring, the Library partnered with Global Kids Inc., an organization dedicated to educating youth about world issues and social media to inspire youth to learn about the Fordham/Kingsbridge neighborhood in the Bronx.

The project, NYC Haunts, harnesses a mobile, geographic location-based alternate reality gaming techniques that teach players and game designers about their local neighborhood history through the lens of the dearly departed who once inhabited the streets, the shops, and the tenements.

The game asks players to consider: What kind of legacy do the dead leave behind?
How can that legacy be traced? How can youth create an exciting interactive experience to teach others about this person and their legacy?

Under the leadership of Global Kids' Juan Rubio, ten middle school students from Angelo Prati Middle School 91 used iPads and smartphones to build the first iteration of the game. NYC Haunts uses the popular mobile app SCVNGR as a platform, which pings players back and forth between the physical, online, and mobile environments.

In the first installment of the game, a detective awakens in the library with no memory. By uncovering clues hidden in a copy of a book by Edgar Allen Poe and deciphering riddles embedded in SCVNGR that take them all over the Bronx -- Poe Cottage, a synagogue once important to Poe that's now a dollar store, and more --the detective begins to learn more about his client and what he/she was hired to do as the game progresses.

Along the way the players come face to face with neighborhood issues such as interfaith tolerance, air quality, and racism, and learn the historical context and climates under which the characters dealt with this issues. At the end of the journey, the players realize that the only way they can win the game is to understand their client's plights and record a video of what they would do to help them. Then, and only then, their client can rest in peace.

Another crux, however, comes to light during the game when the players themselves discover that they, too, are dead. Creating this additional layer was simple: when the students were told the game was called NYC Haunts, one replied "Oh of course. Because you are dead." As ghost detectives, they have to uncover why and how they died, and why are they here on earth helping other ghosts move onward.

Visiting the Edgar Allan Poe Cottage was a highlight of the game for many of the teens. "They [the students] knew of Poe but never knew that building they often passed was his house," says Barry Joseph, Online Leadership Program Director for Global Kids. Joseph also says the teens were also surprised to find out that a nearby Mundo store was formerly a synagogue.

These kinds of connections between youth, the community, and the neighborhood geography are exactly what NYC Haunts strives to integrate. Teens are already familiar with their own haunts in the neighborhoods, where they live and where they go to school. NYC Haunts mashes the past and the present together, bringing light to people, stories, places, and ideas that might otherwise go unrecognized.