When my son Cole (16) was in the fifth grade, he told me, “History is stupid. Every year I memorize the same dates. I got it already! Can we move on?”
“No!” I cried. “History is the greatest story ever told!”
He laughed, his pity evident. “Is not,” He insisted.
“It’s not the history that’s stupid,” I explained. “It’s the way it’s being taught.”
He dared me to prove it.
“It’s on!” I said. And I made it my mission to do just that.
Today, I am happy to report, he is a self-proclaimed history buff. His Advanced Placement (AP) American history teacher recently told me that he is one of her best students. He loves history. And so does his sister.
Nothing changed in either of their schools – until he got to AP classes. But that dare changed a lot of things outside of school. We play games, watch movies, discuss books, and take vacations whenever possible that uncover the rich details and fascinating stories of human history.
Because of this, I love Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. This immersive history experience built on the site of the original Revolutionary era town is like a history amusement park. Using artifacts and interpreters in period clothing, it lets you step inside the story of the American Revolution and see and touch it. We have been several times since my son’s fifth grade dare.
So when its PR department asked if I’d like to try Colonial Williamsburg’s immersive, text-based game – RevQuest: Save the Reolution! - designed to engage kids (it was designed for kids 7-14 but I think it works for much older kids, too) in the Colonial Williamsburg experience, I quickly said yes.
As soon as I told my daughter Ava (14) she would need her cell phone and texting skills to solve a mystery set in Williamsburg, she was in. But Cole refused to come, insisting he was too old – and much too knowledgeable about American history – for such childish amusements. So my daughter enlisted friend and we went without him.
RevQuest: Save the Revolution! is an interactive alternative reality game that asks players to solve a historical mystery based on clues given out at the outset by finding clues embedded in the town, exhibits, and museums – some of which involved interviewing or bribing (with play money) the actors who play townspeople, and by texting clues to get more leads.
When we arrived, we picked up our tickets, (the packet to play the game is part of the standard entry ticket), registered our phones, and got down to business. We had to decipher a puzzle in our “Order Papers,” to meet with our handler, the agent who would explain our mission. He warned the kids it would be dangerous, that he needed agents who would not quit, and that they were risking their lives.
Awesome! My two teenage spies pretended to be too cool for this. But they were quickly trying to figure out who was a spy and who could be trusted. The search for clues took them through many of the exhibits and exposed them to a lot of history.
A technical glitch with our cell phones left me and my husband unable to text in clues. (Don’t register your phone the day before you play, as we did. The game resets every day.) So the girls were on their own. They went off to foment revolution while we toured the historical homes, investigated historical apothecaries, shoe makers, and milliners, and generally geeked out on the history, all of which was awesome.
While we were exploring, we – strangely since we were a long way from home – ran into a good friend of Cole’s from school. She was, apparently not too old for a family vacation, since was touring the Revolutionary City with her family. When we explained the game we were playing, they eagerly went off to get their own tickets.
Shortly after that, we ran into our teenage spies, seeming a little lost, in front of Chalmers Pub , which dates back to Revolutionary times. So we all sat down together for a meal. While we were eating, a man dressed in historical garb stopped by our table to say hello and ask where we were from. We told him. And he made an historical joke that my husband and I laughed at. Chuckling, he went away. And I was left to explain to the puzzled teens what was so funny. (It had to do with taxation in the 1700s. You try to get a teenager to listen to that sort of thing! But they were rapt and happy to be able to get the joke. I love this place!)
The girls shared the clue they couldn’t solve and we helped them decipher it, setting them back on track. Having proved ourselves useful members of the resistance, we were invited to help them see it to the end.
And the ending was as satisfying as the game itself. The mystery we solved was a true historical one with many questions unanswered to this day. It was the story of a slave who had changed the outcome of the war by acting as a double agent. Fascinating. As a reward, we were given a gold coin that gained us access to a further mystery that led us to the local art museum and took us to a Web site with more detailed history on our spy.
The episode of the game we played – RevQuest: The Lion and Unicorn - is no longer running. But a new episode debuts in June. It is called RevQuest: The Black Chambers. It, too, will follow a historical storyline, require texting, and ask players to engage with the exhibits and interpreters to identify secret foes to liberty. But the question of whose liberty – American or British – you are protecting isn’t revealed until you are well into the game. This, in itself, helps you get into the mood of the times. The question of where people’s loyalties lay – often even your own – was often a unclear during this Revolution.
By the time we got home, my son had heard all about the game from his friend and clearly wished he’d come with us.
“That’s okay,” I told him. “You can bring a friend when we go play the next episode.”
“Thanks!” He said. And he hugged me.
“Sure.” I said.
I think, when it comes to convincing my kids that history is cool, my work is done.