Image: Spy games
Jacquelyn Martin  /  AP
Luke Metzger, 8, left, and Brooke Sturgeon, 11, play a game from the Spy Museum using GPS computers in Washington, D.C., earlier this month.
updated 6/23/2009 11:02:49 AM ET 2009-06-23T15:02:49

An Ohio family of five recently went undercover in the nation's capital to help foil a cyber "terrorist attack." Their attire wasn't very suspicious: Shorts, T-shirts and jackets tied around their waists.

They were playing a new game at the International Spy Museum that sends tourists trolling through the city with handheld GPS devices to search for clues and codes to stop the attack before it starts.

The game, called "Spy in the City," was developed by former intelligence officers who want to teach the public a bit about their craft.

Carol Metzger, Brock Sturgeon and their three kids — Brooke, 11, Luke, 8, Alaina, 6 — thought they were up to the task, squeezing it in with a recent beach vacation in Delaware and a trip to Capitol Hill.

The mission: Find a hidden password to deactivate a terrorist device that could wipe out computers in the nation's capital. Players also must test clues from a source, code-named Catbird, to see if he can be trusted.

The first clue — a photo of their first destination — sends the quintet down the block to an old bank's night deposit box, then on to Ford's Theatre where Abraham Lincoln was shot and past the real FBI headquarters.

Game creators at the Spy Museum believe their game is a first of its kind, and they're planning more scenarios with varying levels of difficulty.

"The old days of a museum being just dusty artifacts in a display case that you walk by and admire, I think are long gone," said Peter Earnest, the museum's executive director who was in the CIA for 35 years.

Games, in fact, could play a big role in keeping museums relevant in the future, according to a recent American Association of Museums lecture by Jane McGonigal of the California-based Institute for the Future. She urged curators to recreate museums as places where visitors can interact, perhaps through games that solve real-world problems, and have fun at the same time.

The spy museum has been a popular draw for about 700,000 visitors a year since opening in 2002, despite its $18 admission fee. It has also benefited from the buzz of spy-themed movies and video games over the years. Recently, Angelina Jolie was filming at some of the same D.C. sites as those in the museum's game for the upcoming spy movie, "Salt."

That blend of pop culture, reality and a dose of education is key for how the museum hopes to nab visitors willing to pay $14 to play.

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"You actually get to feel what it's like to be a spy," said Anna Slafer, the museum's education director. "That's what our public has told us they want."

The plot is based on a combination of real spy stories, the creators say. One was the Kitty Hawk case, in which the FBI used a double agent to help identify Soviet intelligence officers.

It also draws on practices that date back to the days of George Washington, who used secret, invisible writing with some of his agents. The spy game includes similar secret messages the players must uncover.

"When you don't know who to trust, when you don't know the answers, when you're sort of dropped into a situation and you're not sure what to do, that's real espionage," Slafer said.

Slafer said the museum's game can spark curiosity among players about real challenges the intelligence community faces, namely the idea that terrorists would try to knock out computer systems.

"With this particular plot and in this city, the idea of cyber warfare is very real," she said. The game is not "just run, run, run, fun, fun, fun. It's really more reflective."

The players find clues at the National Archives and in small fountains and statues. The toughest task is decoding a message from the words of the First Amendment, engraved in stone at the Newseum, a journalism museum on Pennsylvania Avenue.

The Metzger and Sturgeon family, from Findlay, Ohio, completed the mission, despite a few wrong turns on city streets.

Brock Sturgeon, 38, said he liked it but felt like "a fish out of water" as they tried to find their way.

"Keeping track of where you're at is kind of hard," he said. "I don't think it's for little kids."

Brooke and Luke said the game was fun and that they might like to be spies someday. "I'm sneaky like that," Luke said, hiding behind a museum display.

It didn't always hold the attention of younger sister, Alaina, though. By the end she had other thoughts: "I'm hungry."

The family didn't quite foil the terrorist plot on their own, after hitting the wrong button and failing to deactivate the cyber terrorism device. "Spy agents" who were directing the operation had to step in.

"Although your work today wasn't stellar," they were told by spy HQ, "we definitely think you have potential as a covert spy agent."

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Dreaming of D.C.

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  1. A view from the top

    The Washington Monument sits on one end of the National Mall, with the Capitol on the other end in Washington D.C. The monument, one of the city's earliest attractions, was built to honor George Washington, the first U.S. president, and was finished in 1884. (Andy Dunaway / USAF via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A model of Freedom

    The plaster model of the Statue of Freedom, which was used to cast the statue atop the U.S. Capitol Dome, and other statues are on display in the Emancipation Hall of the Capitol Visitor Center, which opened in 2008.

    American sculptor Thomas Crawford created the model in 1858. It was shipped in five separate pieces from Crawford's Rome studio. (Alex Wong / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A contemporary canopy

    The Robert and Arlene Kogod Courtyard, with its elegant glass canopy designed by world renowned architect Norman Foster, is at the historic Patent Office Building that houses the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery.

    Foster worked with the Smithsonian to create an innovative enclosure for the 28,000-square-foot space at the center of the building that is sensitive to the historic structure. The "floating" roof does not rest on the original building, which was built in phases between 1836 and 1868. (Tim Sloan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Monumental blossoms

    In the spring, blooming cherry trees frame the front of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial at the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C. The memorial is modeled after the Pantheon in Rome. (Karen Bleier / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. United in honor

    The pillars that represent different states of the U.S. lie at the World War II Memorial. The memorial, which commemorates the sacrifice and celebrates the victory of "the greatest generation," was designed by Friedrich St.Florian and opened to the public in 2004. (Alex Wong / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Honoring FDR

    The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial near the National Mall traces 12 years of U.S. history with four outdoor rooms, each one devoted to one of FDR's terms of office and feature a sculpture inspired by him. Here, at the beginning of the memorial, is a statue showing Roosevelt seated in a wheelchair like the one he used. (Destination D.C.) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. A spirtual power house

    The National Cathedral is the sixth largest cathedral in the world. It was designed in an English Gothic style and features gargoyles, angels, mosaics and more than 200 stained glass windows. There is even a sculpture of Darth Vader on top of the cathedral's west tower.

    Officially named the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, it's a cathedral of the Episcopal Church, but it honors all faiths. (Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Strolling by the tulips

    Tourists walk among the blooming tulips in Lafayette Park across from the White House. Mild temperatures in the spring often bring tourists out in great numbers. (Karen Bleier / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Just like old times

    U.S. park rangers dressed in period costumes guide "The Georgetown" up the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal using mules for power during the first canal tour of the season in the Georgetown section of D.C. The Georgetown is an 1870s-period replica used by the park service for tours that depict the history of the canal and the families who lived and worked on it. (Karen Bleier / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Hustle and bustle

    When Union Station was completed in 1908, it was one of the largest train stations in the world -- if put on its side, the Washington Monument could lay within the station's concourse. It is considered one of the best examples of Beaux-Arts architecture.

    In the 1980s, the building was redeveloped as a bustling retail center and intermodal transportation facility. It currently houses Amtrak headquarters and more than 130 shops and restaurants. (Jacquelyn Martin / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Taking flight

    Aircraft are displayed in the James S. McDonnell Space Hangar at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va. The hangar features hundreds of artifacts installed illustrating its four main themes: rocketry and missiles; human spaceflight; application satellites and space science. The centerpiece of the hangar is the Space Shuttle Enterprise. (Alex Wong / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Museum of remembrance

    A railcar is part of the permanent exhibit at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. The exhibit features more than 900 artifacts, 70 video monitors and four theaters, and includes eyewitness testimonies and historic film footage. (Holocaust Museum) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Carved in stone

    Some of the more than 53,000 names of U.S. casualities carved into the Vietnam Veterans Memorial are shown here. The memorial is made up of two black granite walls that are almost 247 feet long; each wall consists of 72 panels. The design by Maya Lin initially sparked controversy but is now recognized for its simple and reflective beauty. (Win McNamee / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. A somber watch

    A sentinel from the elite 3rd U.S. Infantry marches as the sun rises above the Tomb of the Unknowns on Aug. 26, 2009, at the Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va. More than 300,000 veterans from all of the nation's wars are buried on the grounds.

    The Tomb of the Unknowns, where three unknown servicemen are buried, is one of the most visited sites at the cemetery. (Tim Sloan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. National art display

    An untitled aluminum-and-steel mobile by Alexander Calder hangs in the National Gallery of Art. The gallery got its start when industrialist and philanthropist Andrew W. Mellon donated his vast art collection to the nation upon his death in 1937. Mellon's gift also attracted others to donate art to the museum, whose mission is to serve the United States by preserving, collecting, exhibiting and fostering an understanding of art. (Lee Ewing / National Gallery of Art) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Spy this

    The International Spy Museum is the only public museum in the U.S. dedicated to espionage. It includes the work of famous spies and pivotal espionage actions that shaped history.

    At left is a glove shapeed pistol. On the right, is a replica of Cher Ami, the U.S. Signal Corps photo pigeon that was awarded the "Croix de Guerre" by the French government in World War I for heroic service after flying wounded over France for 25 miles in 25 minutes. Cher Ami was equipped with an automatic camera that was taking battlefield photos. (Mark Wilson, Paul J. Richards / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Reflections of the Americas

    The Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian is the first national museum dedicated to the perservation, study, culture and history of Native Americans. The museum's massive collections include more than 800,000 works of aesthetic, religious and historical significance and span all major culture areas of the Americas. (Alex Wong / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. History in print

    Visitors tour the 9/11 Gallery, which includes a piece of the radio tower from the top of the North Tower of the World Trade Center and front pages of newspapers from around the world, at the Newseum, a 250,000 square-foot museum dedicated to news. The gallery also includes first-person accounts from reporters and photographers who covered the story. (Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. A symbol of democracy

    People look at the U.S. Capitol at sunset. Around the world, the building, which houses the U.S. Congress, is a symbol of America's democracy. It also includes an important collection of American art and has important architectural significance. (Karen Bleier / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. A eye for art

    Sunlight illiminates the dome of the U.S. Capitol. In the eye of the dome is a fresco by Constantino Brumidi called "Apotheosis of Washington," which sits 180 feet above the Rotunda floor. (Karen Bleier / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Retelling history

    Park ranger Jeff Leary tells the story of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln at the Ford's Theatre. President Lincoln, who ended slavery in the U.S., was assassinated in the box, seen in the background, by John Wilkes Booth at the theatre on April 14, 1865, while he was watching the play, "Our American Cousin." (Alex Wong / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. This American life

    The Smithsonian Museum of American History is a treasure trove of artifacts from American life, history and pop culture. The ruby slippers worn by Dorothy in the 1939 movie "The Wizard of Oz," left, and President Lincoln's top hat he was wearing when he was shot are included in the display. (Smithsonian Institution) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. It came from outer space

    People walk around the Apollo 11 Command Module "Columbia" on display at the National Air and Space Museum on July 16, 2009. The museum has the world's largest collection of historic aircraft and spacecraft among some 50,000 artifacts, ranging from Saturn V rockets to jetliners to gliders to space helmets to microchips. (Mark Wilson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. A display of freshness

    A vendor puts out fruit samples on Aug 1, 2009, at Eastern Market, where consumers can find a large variety of fresh local fruits and vegetables, flowers, delicatessen, meat, cheese, poultry, bakery and dairy products. Eastern Market, established in 1873, is one of the few public markets left in Washington and the only one retaining its original public market function. (Karen Bleier / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. 'We the people ...'

    A middle-school student views the original U.S. Constitution at the National Archives, billed as the "nation's record keeper." The archives not only house the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence, but it also includes military records and naturalization papers. (Brendan Smialowski / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Fit for a president

    Thousands of tourists visit the Lincoln Memorial each year. The memorial, which honors President Abraham Lincoln, sits prominently on the western part of the National Mall and offers great views of the other presidential sites. It includes a large sculpture of Lincoln and inscriptions of two of his speeches, "The Gettysburg Address" and his "Second Inaugural Address." (Mark Wilson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Play ball!

    Nationals Park is home field for the Washington Nationals major leauge baseball team. The park, which opened in 2008, is the first major U.S. stadium that is certified "green." It also has 4,500-square-foot high-def scoreboard and more than 600 linear feet of LED ribbon board along the inner bowl fascia. (Joe Robbins / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Lighting the way

    A candle sits in a lamp lighting the way for guests arriving to George Washington's Mount Vernon estate as Ben Schulz, left, and Steve Stuart wait for the gates to open Dec. 4, 2004, in Mount Vernon, Va.

    The estate, Washington's former home, is 16 miles south of D.C. on the banks of the Potomac River. Visitors can see 20 structures and 50 acres of gardens as they existed in 1799, a museum, the tombs of George and Martha Washington, and his greenhouse. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. The rise of America

    The U.S. Marine Memorial, left, and the Washington Monument, center, are silhouetted against the sky as the sun rises over D.C. (Karen Bleier / AFP/Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Happy 4th of July

    Fireworks explode over Washington as the United States celebrates its 234th birthday, July 4, 2010. Seen from left is the U.S. Capitol, Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial. (Cliff Owen / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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