Incoming students immersed in world of alternate reality game

Faculty use augmented reality, digital media to create groundbreaking O-Week experience

Since 1934, Orientation Week has introduced first-year students to the University of Chicago through a tradition that includes exploring campus, meeting their house communities and getting to know Chicago. But this year, the Class of 2021 also encountered a secret society, cryptic red monks and the search for an alternate-dimensional portal as part of their first College experiences.

While it may sound like a scene out of Harry Potter, it was part of a massive “alternate reality game” or “ARG,” created by UChicago faculty, designers, and students that stretched across social media, virtual reality and real life to encourage students to explore campus and build relationships with one another.

The game began this spring with a clue hidden at the bottom of the official new student welcome letter—with a “P.S.” that actually stood for “The ParaSite,” the name of the game. “I’ve never done anything like this before, which is why it was so cool to me,” said first-year Justine Shih, who was intrigued by puzzles and began talking with students online this summer.

The game is the brainchild of Heidi Coleman, director of undergraduate studies in theater and performance studies; Patrick Jagoda, associate professor in English and cinema and media studies; and Kristen Schilt, associate professor in sociology. The project is the result of two years of planning led by Coleman and Jagoda, who co-directed the game and have taught several courses on game design.

The purpose of the courses and the efforts behind the game is to give students a chance to practice a series of skills such as resiliency through failure and communicating with peers and teachers. “Through games, one can learn through a comparatively forgiving process of trial and error that yields improvement,” Jagoda said.

“The ParaSite” was modeled after UChicago’s famed Scav Hunt, which over the past 30 years, has grown to become the largest of its kind in the world.

“To me, this alternate reality game generates from the same ambitious, creative and quirky place,” Coleman said. “It’s an example of the deeply interdisciplinary experimentation that takes place at UChicago.”

Not just players but creators

The fictional story for the alternate reality game is complex. It deals with a secret society formed in 1896 at UChicago and centers around a mysterious entity called “the parasite,” and a room filled with 121 unique objects that appears every 11 years.

Before students arrived on campus in mid-September, they began interacting with the game through social media, from monk sightings on Facebook to YouTube videos featuring a character called the Arbiter to Snapchat conversations with a character called the Ren.

Incoming students created an elaborate gaming guide, filled with artwork, clues and detailed narratives. Others created their own side projects—several students wrote and performed original songs, while another embroidered the image of the game on a blanket.

“The most interesting alternate reality games contain content that is not merely produced for users to consume passively,” Jagoda said. “A strength of ARGs is that they tend to be more Frankensteinian, less polished, more inviting for players to connect the fragments and fill in the blanks. In an ARG, when players create characters or share ideas, the designers frequently add them to the canon and to the shared world. For us, students weren’t just users and players but co-creators. We always wanted to pass this world to them.”

Unique research and learning opportunity

The Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society, a research institute at UChicago that supports research collaborations driven by a humanistic perspective, helped launch the effort behind the game in 2016.

Coleman and Jagoda used Schilt’s extensive ethnographic study of orientation with students in 2016 to better understand areas of intervention they could focus on encouraging “embedded learning” without becoming didactic.

“It has been an opportunity to create a pilot program that has collaborated with faculty, students, administrators and artists and resulted in modules including an online course, a card game, arts installations and live-action games,” Coleman said.

The project was a strong fit for the Neubauer Collegium, which draws together scholars with expertise in the humanities, social sciences and the arts.

“Beyond this single transmedia world, there is a role for the University of Chicago to create new knowledge about, and interventions through, digital media and games,” Jagoda said. “There’s a real opportunity for us to build on existing academic strengths in media studies, digital arts and even ties to economic game theory and behavioral economics to become a leader in game-based learning and research.”

For students like Shih, the experience left a lasting impression that went beyond gaming.

“We were all pushed outside our comfort zone from the beginning to talk with people we didn’t know online, but once we were on campus, we really had to put ourselves out there,” Shih said. “My closest friends have come from this.”