Once upon a time (well, in the early 80s), there was an arcade machine that slipped onto the sticky floored arcades of Oregon. No one knew where it came from, only its name – hailing from the Greek Historian, Polybius, known for his cryptography work and the creator of the Polybius cipher. It caused chaos as people became violently ill or became utterly addicted to the vector based gameplay, or so the urban legend goes. “These arcade machines appeared and disappeared. People disappeared and took not well but no arcade owner admitted ownership of them. No games company ever admitted that they built it,” explains David Goutcher, the founder and managing director of the (thankfully entirely unrelated) East Kilbride based Polybius Games. “Millions of people on the internet said it was a CIA mind control and they were looking for a way to see how children reacted to the vectors. We decided to take that one stage further. What if the security agencies realised that it was built in your DNA? And they’ve found a way of identifying that through a computer game, that you had something and they wanted to hone that?”
Welcome to Spy Quest. A revolutionary browser-based game devised by David Goutcher that turns children into mini James Bonds as they quest through a variety of missions. What’s so revolutionary you cry? Well, Spy Quest gives you a bespoke experience for your geographical location on whatever internet enabled device you’ve got access to. Solving puzzles, breaking ciphers, exploring and finding hidden objects isn’t limited to a digital world but takes over the physical world and can be filled with actors taking on the roles of fellow spies and villains, and real objects to be discovered and passed over for information. From humble roots in North Lanarkshire, Spy Quest is now running globally in hotels and resorts all over the world including the Starwood, the Hilton, The Four Seasons, Jumeirah, and Fairmont. Center Parcs at Whinfell forest is a little closer to home and is already looking to hold the British Spy Quest Championships later this year.
Yet this isn’t limited to leisure activities. With all its artefacts and history based on truth, the game has been trialled in schools and has the support of both the Scottish government and the SQA as a valuable learning resource in its own right with a strong position within the new Curriculum for Excellence. Perfect for a transition tool for primary to secondary school children faced with a new daunting environment and new people, Spy Quest has already been used to great success in high schools across Scotland. Add in the small fact that Disney almost owned the whole thing and David Goutcher has a serious success on his hands.
“I devised the game four years ago,” he explains. “I was a policeman for 17 years. 12 of that was working surveillance and undercover. I trained undercover officers in how to do their job. At the time when I started doing it, they had just brought in psychologists and psychiatrists on how to immerse people in the training program. We were very fortunate to learn how to get the very best out of people. We could see them react to all kinds of different situations and psychometric testing. A few years ago I was approached to head a corporate events company who wanted to take what I knew – which was very specialised in the UK – and run that out for corporates. It was 2008, the banks went under, the recession hit and the company was in dire straits, so rather than go back to the police, something I had always wanted to do was something for children and I came up with this idea of where you could recreate a bespoke game for any event, for anywhere in the world and you could tailor it for any age group and you could add in whatever you wanted.” It might sound like a tall order but Goutcher’s small self-funded development team have done just that.
Launched in 2009 at the Gleneagles resort in Perthshire, the first Spy Quest was an instant hit with children (and parents) of all ages as they scurried through ciphers, puzzles and challenges, filling out data on laptops and phones but experiencing the game itself in the physical world. The winner of the John Logie Baird Award for Innovation in Scotland in 2010, the game was quickly noticed by Disney – a parent played at Gleneagles – and Goutcher flew over to California to speak to the heads of the house of mouse. “Disney saw the potential more than we had on the education side. They were opening English speaking schools in China and they asked how we had it scoped for working in education,” Goutcher explains. “We went back to the Scottish government to Ollie Bray -former senior policy advisor & consultant for Scottish government and National Adviser for Emerging Technologies in Learning – who wrote a White Paper on it.” While the home of Mickey is no longer involved with the project due to time delays and Goutcher deciding to go solo, Spy Quest has gone from strength to strength as people see the sheer engagement of fans of all ages and the potential this holds for education.
Polybius launched a Social Responsibility Commitment to the Scottish Government last year to provide Spy Quest to all Scottish primary and secondary schools. Offering the game on an annual basis at an astonishing 90% off at £250.00 per year group, Goutcher is adamant that this is something that schools can use to their utmost advantage for learning. Listening skills, working with others, problem solving, reading and mathematical skills are only a few of the myriad skills that children don’t even realise they are learning as they scurry from one mission to the next. Working with the SQA, Goutcher is currently underway in having the game endorsed for official award accreditation for 4th, 5th and 6th years. With the ability to be personalised to each schools specific needs, pupils can experience whatever subject required and Polybius use of a localisation company to translate into whatever languages needed, means that this is not only inspiring and engaging but also accessible.
A merchandise range is already in place around the world – smart T shirts emblazoned with AGENT and glowing LED baseball caps – and Goutcher is focussed strongly on the quality of the brand. As a self funded project, he still has complete control of the franchise and is making sure that everything meets his standard. A book deal with Stan Lee’s right hand man, Andy Briggs as author is already confirmed and the film rights have already been discussed. Spy Quest isn’t going to manage to stay undercover for much longer.