I was awarded an Adventure Lab! They’re a new (sorta) offering from Geocaching.com and at least for now, are by invitation only. Lab Caches as they were once called, have been around for a while. They were an experimental (for Geocaching.com) form of geocaches, usually not involving finding a real container, but offered for large events as an extra activity for attendees to pursue. Lab caches would typically be basic questions about the environs to answer, and you’d plug that answer into a special webpage. The web experience was clunky, however, especially when you were at an event where your phone’s signal was limited thanks to all the tech-happy geocachers jamming up the nearby cell towers. But, Lab Caches solved the problem of offering location-based fun at events for hundreds, if not thousands of people, that physical containers simply can’t offer. With physical containers at large events you get what I call, “conga-line geocaching” with a long line of people waiting to “find” the container, completely eliminating any sense of discovery inherent to the fun of geocaching.
Over time you could see Geocaching.com realizing that a changing world was starting to leave them behind. The explosion in popularity of Pokemon Go seems to me to be the main kick to their pants. The creation of new “virtual” geocaches was once disallowed, but in recent years the company has been quietly awarding new virtuals to some geocache creators for placement. I got to see firsthand at the 2018 GeoWoodstock, the use of some light augmented reality for that event’s Lab Caches. Geocachers are too creative and too tech-savvy for Geocaching.com to stubbornly refuse to adapt to their audience’s interests.
Thus, Lab Caches have been rebranded as Adventure Labs, officially spun off into their own app, and geocachers have been invited to create content to explore beyond just event offerings. I’m curious as to what Geocaching.com’s plans are for this new self-competing product. One day open it up to everyone? Keep it closed to select, curated tours? In its current form, the Adventure Lab app offers a limited gaming experience. Also, there was zero oversight of my submission, where regular geocaches at least get a cursory glance by a volunteer reviewer. There’s no way that lasts.
Being awarded an Adventure Lab was a surprise and I was absolutely thrilled. My sudden panic was then, what to highlight? Would I write a fictional adventure or highlight some historical site? Could I do both? If historical, I wanted it to be in the area where I live, which could use some geocaching love.
I’m close to a place called the Bladensburg Dueling Grounds and that little patch of green has long held my fascination. I’ll let you explore my new Adventure Lab tour to learn more, but the place has a dark and sordid history. Its most famous victim was a man named Stephen Decatur Jr., an early American war hero with extraordinary luck– until that luck ran out.
Holding an interest in military history, doing the field research on Decatur was a delight. Soon, I had written quite a bit of background material and had a solid idea for how I’d communicate that historic fact amid a fictional story I had in mind. Prepped and ready to build the thing, I suddenly realized that I had made a mistake.
The online builder interface for Adventure Labs is much more limited than I expected. It has tight character counts and not many options for the puzzle side of things. Without giving away too much of my own secret sauce for reasons I explain below, there are some glaring features missing. For instance, if you set up a puzzle where the answer is “2”, there’s only one answer field in the builder. What if the player spells out “two”?
I have strong opinions about the design of these kind of location-based virtual adventures since I work for Traipse, an app where we build out self-guided tours with location-based puzzles. We do the very thing that Adventure Labs is trying to do, but better. (Hard sell, hard sell, shameless promotion.)
Suddenly, my idea for a narrative-wrapped adventure for my Adventure Lab was out the window. There was no way to properly communicate the real story of these places and also tell my own story, even when leaving the bulk of the history lesson to the interpretive signage at each location.
I’m professionally and personally curious to see where Geocaching.com goes with this app and how they’ll use it in conjunction with their core product. I’m mostly happy with how my adventure turned out. I hope people like it, and if not, we can meet with pistols at dawn.