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Phone app turns tourism into location-based game

NORFOLK, Va. — Going nowhere fast in rush-hour traffic downtown, quickly losing hope that I’d reach yoga class on time, I was reminded by my iPhone that there was a little patch of peacefulness nearby.

I pulled off the main road and soon was sitting in a garden by a riverfront pagoda, a place I’d visited occasionally but hadn’t thought about recently, until I started playing SCVNGR.

To play SCVNGR (pronounced “scavenger”), you download a free app for your iPhone or Android phone, then go to places and complete challenges to earn points and unlock virtual rewards, such as badges, and real-world rewards, such as discounts at restaurants. No iPhone or Android phone? You can play via text message.

Norfolk tourism officials worked with SCVNGR’s developer to offer four interactive treks in one of the first partnerships nationwide between a convention and visitors bureau and a geo-gaming platform. A walking tour, a driving tour, a tour focusing on the Ghent neighborhood and a pub crawl lead players to museums, historic churches, shops and the city’s “restaurant row” on Granby Street, among other attractions.

“We wanted to provide an opportunity for visitors — and residents, too — to learn more about Norfolk in a fun and mobile way,” said Erin Filarecki, a spokeswoman for VisitNorfolk, the city’s convention and visitors bureau. “This is taking touring to the next level trekking through a city, making it more fun, adventurous and fresh.”

SCVNGR also is working with other cities including Boston, Philadelphia and Sarasota, Fla. Chicago’s tourism bureau recently launched several treks, including those that let you explore the city’s musical roots and spots that President Obama and his family visit when they’re in town.

Other tourism apps may provide self-guided walking tours, but only SCVNGR offers its level of customization, said Seth Priebatsch, the company’s chief ninja, or CEO (the gaming company likes to use fun titles).

SCVNGR has about 1,000 clients who pay to build interactive tours on the game, including the U.S. Navy, Sony Pictures and Princeton University, said Priebatsch, who founded SCVNGR while a freshman at Princeton two years ago and now runs a company in Cambridge, Mass., with about 40 employees.

“Our core goal is to build a game layer on top of the world, one massive game layer that everyone can play wherever they go and everyone can build,” Priebatsch said.

More than 500,000 people have played SCVNGR since the apps launched about 20 weeks ago, Priebatsch said.

SCVNGR is location-based, like traditional scavenger hunts. But instead of spending hours focused on a hunt, you play SCVNGR in short bursts at your own pace as you go about your day.

The app is easy to set up and use. When you start the app, it displays treks as well as individual places nearby that have their own challenges. You also can search for places.

The treks include simple challenges, such as getting a photo of yourself standing at attention next to a statue of Gen. Douglas MacArthur or answering quick questions, such as what is the special of the day at the Five Points Farm Market.

At the pagoda, a gift to Norfolk and Virginia from Taiwan, the game challenged me to meditate for 10 minutes. I was pretty successful until startled by a bumblebee flying by head.

You can use the app to share your explorations on Facebook and Twitter, but you don’t have to be that social if you don’t want to.

The only problem — and it was minor — I encountered was with the social check-in feature, in which you check in with others at the same spot by bumping smart phones. My husband and I had little luck getting that to work with our iPhones.

Priebatsch said a recent update to the app included tweaking of the social check-in function. “It’s a pretty cutting-edge piece of technology. We’re still working out some of the kinks.”