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What’s the Opposite of Voicemail Hell? Giskin Anomaly

Giskin AnomalyGuest post by Ken Eklund

One year ago a strange story began to unfold in Balboa Park. An official-looking decal for the “GISKIN ANOMALY SURVEY PROJECT” appeared on the ticket window of the Old Globe Theatre. It has a 800-number on it (877-737-3132) and a three-digit ID number (131). But “official” it is not. When San Diego visitors dial the 800-number and then the ID number, they get past the smoke screen and hear Pandora, who finds where an anomaly is, leave messages for Drake, who turns the anomaly signal into intelligible speech. The “anomalies” are ghost thoughts from the past – you hear the internal voices of people who were in Balboa Park during World War Two – still embedded somehow in the landscape.

As I said, a strange story. Mysterious! Intriguing! And of course not exactly true. GISKIN ANOMALY is a free “historical fiction” cellphone adventure created for park visitors by the Balboa Park Online Collaborative. It’s an experience that aims to transform how you perceive the Park – whether you’re new or have lived in San Diego all your life. It’s widely accessible – you can play any time, as much as you like, using any cellphone. And it’s a way to get inside history, to have stories whispered in your ear that put a human face on the extraordinary events and cultural movements in wartime San Diego.

The “secret path”

GISKIN hasn’t been heavily promoted, yet in the year since it launched it’s a rare (and usually rainy) day when nobody plays. In a year’s time the adventure has averaged over 25 calls a day and delivered about 25,000 minutes of airtime to its players. Its popularity is a testament to two things, according to Rich Cherry, BPOC’s director: “One, the large community we have in San Diego that feels connected to Balboa Park and curious about its history and culture. And two, the coolness of the Giskin experience. It’s not like anything else people have ever done. It’s the sort of secret path that, if you like it, you definitely recommend to your friends.”

A “very innovative” award-winning experience

Earlier this year GISKIN won a Silver MUSE Award in the Games/Augmented Reality category from the American Association of Museums. The judges were impressed by the way GISKIN harnessed the most basic mobile technology to deliver “a very innovative experience... that makes great use of the park space and invites the audience to discover a different perspective on the park by involving them directly within the narrative.”

Giskin Play

Game marker at the Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden

What’s the story? (Who was Erhard Giskin?)

What if people who think something very intensely actually leave an imprint of that thought embedded in the landscape? GISKIN pretends this is true, and that a man named Erhard Giskin invented a device that reveals where these “thought imprints” are located. But he was never able to decode their signals, so he never knew exactly what they were. He just called them “anomalies”...

Meet the contemporary characters

A woman who calls herself “Pandora” now has the Giskin Anomaly Detector. (Actually, she doesn’t own it: she’s able to borrow it because she’s a paralegal working for the firm that’s handling the Giskin estate.) She’s working with a man, “Drake,” who’s developed a decoder for the thought imprints. They don’t trust each other, so they never meet. Instead, they leave voicemails for each other – these are the voicemails that you eavesdrop on. The messages enable you to walk in their footsteps as the two follow a chain of connected thought imprints in Balboa Park.

(Did you recognize Pandora’s voice? She is played by San Diego’s own Danielle LoPresti, one of the founders of IndieFest.)

Meet the historical characters

The story that Pandora and Drake uncover revolves around young lovers Jerome and Kimi. The first episode takes place shortly after Pearl Harbor, when an air-raid warden interrupts the lovers’ tryst on Honeymoon Bridge. (Honeymoon Bridge? Where’s that? Good question!)

Jerome’s in the Navy, and sent to sea; he comes back to find that Kimi, a Japanese-American, has been interned. Kimi’s friend Rosario gives him the news near the Japanese Tea Pavilion (the original one).

With Kimi in a camp and Jerome back at sea, their friends mobilize to keep their love alive. Rosario meets Jerome’s friend Buddy and they trade information about the lovers as they stroll the Fine Arts Gallery, the Park and the Zoo.

By now it’s 1943. All of Balboa Park is a Navy hospital. At Movie Night in Spreckels Pavilion, Buddy and Rosario meet an Australian nurse who bears some disturbing news about Jerome.

– And so on through all seven episodes of GISKIN. The last episode takes place shortly before the end of the war. You follow the story by listening to fragments of thoughts straight from a character’s mind, and listening to Pandora and Drake’s messages to each other as they try to put together the full story of what is happening.

Inside World War Two history

As you unravel the story, you find yourself inside history. The thoughts of the historical characters put some of the major sweeps of history in context. War hysteria and resolve, the Japanese-American internment, the military presence in San Diego, the rise of the aerospace industry, the development of Mexican-American identity, the Rosie The Riveter movement in women’s rights, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other realities of war, the role of art and culture – all these themes come forward as the characters live and love during the war years in Balboa Park. You hear all this whispered in your ear as you stand where they stood.

Why do you play?

In messages to Pandora, people say: “we’re San Diego natives, and we learned things about the Park that we never knew” “a wonderful way to get through the Park” “that was phenomenal”  “just finished this adventure, it was a really great experience and I learned a lot” “absolutely fabulous” “you are doing a fantastic job here of sharing the history of the Park in a very creative and engaging way.” GISKIN is informal, experiential education.

Giskin Decal

Game marker at the Mingei International Museum

What do you do to play?

At base level, GISKIN plays like a treasure hunt: you hunt for special markers in Balboa Park. At each marker, you call the Giskin 800-number and then press in the marker number, and listen to the next chapter in the story. At the end, Pandora tells you where to look for the next marker. This hunt is a thrilling navigational challenge for kids!

For older kids and adults, the challenge is assembling the story as it emerges from the often-mysterious messages. Pandora and Drake help each other (and you) to understand some of the puzzling narrative strands, but many others let the listener “connect the dots.”

How do you start?

Go to the ticket window of the Old Globe Theatre. Do you see the GISKIN decal? Call the number – and do what the voices tell you...

(Remember to charge your cellphone – and bring an earbud if you have one; the Park can get noisy.)

GISKIN’s mythic power

At heart, GISKIN taps into something mythic: we wish places really could talk and tell us about events that happened there and the people who were there before us. It’s hard to explain this well in words, but it’s dead obvious when you’re in Balboa Park and listening to a spooky-sounding voice from World War Two: you wish this were really real.

I’m writing this on Veterans Day 2011. Next month, Pearl Harbor will have happened 70 years ago. Jerome and Kimi, 20 and 19 years old at the time, would be 90 and 89. To me, GISKIN is a new way for us to pay attention to the voices of that pivotal time in San Diego history, to feel what they must have felt, and appreciate what they tell us about what gets transformed and what is eternal in human experience.

p.s. More about GISKIN ANOMALY at http://giskin.org. Or call 877-737-3132.

p.p.s. GISKIN ANOMALY will be operational in Balboa Park through May 2012.

p.p.p.s. Many thanks to all the Balboa Park organizations that support the game and contributed research and ideas.

 Ken Eklund, writerguy, is a game and experience designer. He created GISKIN ANOMALY for the Balboa Park Online Collaborative.