By Scott Nicholson
Director, Because Play Matters game lab
On Friday, February 21st, the iSchool was in need of help. Groups of 4-6 Syracuse University faculty and their students gathered around a laptop for a message from the Dean explaining that the school was under attack, and that their help was needed.
Someone was sabotaging some of the research projects, and had implanted a virus in the labs. This virus, which they were calling the Stanley virus, gave verbal instructions to press a specific key every few seconds or it would erase everything. Thus, the lab staff were in Lockdown and couldn't leave their workstations.
This was the backstory for a game that I designed called Lockdown! The game was designed to help faculty and students from Syracuse University get an idea of the different labs in the iSchool to facilitate future collaborations.
By using a live-action roleplaying game structure, I got to demonstrate the power of locative games (games in a physical location) and how Games Beyond Screens can be immersive, interesting, and a great way to help people engage with not only other people, but places as well.
The players had about 5 minutes in each lab to get in, explore the current project that the lab was working on, look for the sabotage, and get out. A timekeeper went with each group to ensure they got out before the 5 minutes was up so that the team members were not put into lockdown as well.
As the players went from lab to lab, they learned about what each lab did and about a current project that the lab was working on. They also got to meet some of the faculty and staff who work in each lab.
The players worked through a variety of challenges, some of which were simple "find what doesn't belong" puzzles while others required a higher level of observation and engagement.
The goal in each lab was to create opportunities for meaningful engagement, so that the participants learned enough about the lab to see if they might want to contact that lab later to partner on a research grant proposal.
For the final challenge, the players had to put together clues from the different items of sabotage they had picked up and defeat the virus, who watched the players and taunted them from another room. Alexandra Heidler, an iSchool student and lead graduate assistant for the Because Play Matters game lab, played with each team as they tried to solve three puzzles of increasing difficulty in five minutes using clues from the sabotages they had picked up throughout the game.
No matter their outcome, teams were congratulated for locating the virus, and then were led to the Reflection Room to learn a little about the purpose and structure of the game and to reflect about what they went through. Reflection is a key part of any game-based learning activity, as I talked about in a conference paper. Players were also able to take additional information on the labs they visited, and could leave their contact information for specific labs to contact them and start a discussion.
After reflecting, the teams were brought to a reception, where they could share experiences, learn about the puzzles they missed, and try some other Games Beyond Screens that I had available, such as Tik Tok Woodman from Korea.
Teams also got a surprise reward - the final encounter was being shown on a large screen in the reception room, so teams got to watch other teams work their way through the final challenge. This meant that we were able to cheer for each team as they joined the reception, as we were with them for their struggles. As the last team finished the course, the staff from each lab joined us in the reception, which went on far beyond the original planned ending time. As one student put it, the "collective effervesence" of the people in the room had many people exchanging business cards and ideas.
Originally, this event was proposed to me as a lab reception, where food would be brought into the Because Play Matters game lab, and faculty and students would come over and see the lab, which would start discussions. I thought about how to structure that: Do I use posters about our games? Do I have a video or Powerpoint presentation to talk about them? Do I have playable moments from some of the different games?
I decided that to most effectively show what I do best, I would immerse participants in the activity. Since most people have never played in a LARP (Live Action Role Playing game) and think that gaming is only video gaming, having a shared game experience now gives us all a common point to discuss what games have the capability to be and how immersive a game can be that doesn't have one moving an avatar in a virtual world.
It also has had the side benefit of helping the other labs and staff in the iSchool get a much better understanding of what I do. Over the last few weeks, I have worked closely with each center to create the challenge for their center, and they got to see how these big games come together. I also wanted to show that one could use game-based elements other than Badges and Points to motivate people to get engaged with a real-world context.
I would expect that in the future we will reuse this activity. Because of this, I haven't given away too many of the details. With this structure, it will be easy to swap out or add new locations, and the result will be a dynamic orientation activity we can use with new faculty, staff and students to help them quickly learn the range of activities that go on at the iSchool.
(A big thanks to J.D. Ross from the iSchool at Syracuse for taking the fantastic photos, to Trish Lowney from the Office of Research for sponsoring the reception, to Liz Liddy for making the intro video, to the research projects at the iSchool for helping to tell the story, to Sue Nemier, Iris Stewart and Sheila Clifford-Bova for last-minute logistical help, to the great group of Timekeepers that kept the groups moving, and to the students in my classes for playtesting the challenges !)