Case Study 1 : Who is Herring Hale?

Katie Piatt, University of Brighton

The University of Brighton was looking at non-traditional ways to support students’ induction, and games were seen as a likely candidate to improve engagement. Alternate Reality Games were identified as a way to offset the cost and accessibility issues of development, by using familiar, established web technologies and enabling game design to make use of existing physical and virtual resources on and around the University campus.

Any student could play, but direct invitations to the game were sent only to new students who had scored at least 70% on a new students quiz (217 students out of approximately 5000 new students). The content was designed to allow in-depth and physical exploration of selected support services and resources. In total 42 students completed at least one task in the game (15% of those invited). Twelve students (29% of all active players) completed all nine tasks.

The game took place in Term 1 of the Academic Year 2006/2007 and was called Who is Herring Hale?. The format was a series of ten tasks, one per week over the term, with an underlying time-travel storyline and a supporting online community on the campus social network. The tasks were based on services available to students, both online and in the physical locations around the campus sites.

Delivery of the game was managed through weekly emails that were sent from the Education Detective to players, i.e. those who had completed at least one task or had registered on the supporting community. The emails directed the players to the community area (implemented in a social networking platform) for more information. The support area, blog posts and all printed materials were clearly branded with an orange background and ‘h’ logo to help players identify with the game and recognize elements when they came across them. Emails triggering the tasks and student responses to the tasks were handled via a dedicated Education Detective email address and managed by the project team.

Each task covered one of the major support services at the University, and was designed to feature an aspect of the service that was felt to benefit from additional highlighting. The clues all involved finding codes and cryptic content that were hidden within normal information about the featured service. The ten tasks and timeline for the game were agreed with the support departments as shown below. Mini-prizes were also available in some weeks.

Game Week 0New Student Quiz (open to all new students).Two iPodsGeneral
Game Task 1Locate a desk loan book and find a specific name.  Library
Game Task 2Find and apply for a specific job .  Careers
Game Task 3Decode a clue hidden in the Meals Vouchers leaflet.Free coffee voucher sent to all playersCatering
Game Task 4Decode a message handed out by computer room helpers. £5 print credit to first 50 to complete.
Notebook with clue.
Game Task 5Register on the UBSU web site and complete a Sudoku puzzle. Students' Union
Game Task 6Spot clues hidden in the Fire Safety Video. Free smoke alarm to first 20 to complete.Health & Safety
Game Task 7Reflect on their first terms study in the Good Study Guide blog. Baseball cap given to everyone who blogged (containing clue).Study Support
Game Task 8Find information placed in the Look After Yourself section of Student Services and on Posters. Student Services
Game Task 9View a video and collaborate to take photos and load on Community. General
Last week of termDebriefing, main prize distribution, evaluation.  

Design and development of the game involved a range of interested parties from across the University’s support departments to submit ideas for their weeks' clue and work with the game organizer. Delivery of the game involved primarily one member of staff in the Learning Technologies Group to co-ordinate players, release clues and respond to messages via email and on the Community site. This task took some time each day but was estimated to be approximately two hours a day while the game was live. Had player figures been higher an automated system would have been required or more staff involvement. It should be noted that once a task was released it was self-supported by the players. Players for the game were primarily first years, but the game was playable by any student or staff member.

There was no assessment involved for the game players. All of the final twelve players were invited for debriefing (an informal interview) for evaluation purposes and to hand over prizes. Eight interviews took place. Students were observed to fully engage with the quest, and to go as far as offering hints to fellow players in a style befitting the original quest.

This game provided some evidence that the Alternate Reality Game/Treasure-Hunt format can provide an interesting alternative to existing mechanisms for introducing students to certain types on information or services. This format does not appeal to all students, but is very effective for those that like it. The format also provides students with something special to feel part of and to provide a break from their formal courses. The use of a blogging platform for supporting the players was practical and effective.

Sample feedback from the twelve students who completed all tasks:

"In induction week they tell you where to go to get help, Careers for instance. But you forget it all 5 minutes after you've left. This was brilliant - now I really know where to go."

"I was wrapped up in too much programming, it helped give me a break and get a new perspective"

"...a really good way to learn"

"Thank you all for a wonderful and inspiring term! From chasing orange techie people to strapping spoons on my forehead, its been fun :)"

Several students commented on the feeling of ‘fun’ and ‘being part of something special’ and many were clearly deeply immersed in the game. It would be hoped that this could be built on and possibly linked to student retention as a key issue in Higher Education. One of the factors identified as affecting retention is the quality of the induction process and this model may be able to appeal to an increasingly diverse student population.

The launch of the game coincided with the launch of the University of Brighton's campus-wide social networking system. This provided an easy way for players to collaborate online, and also helped raise awareness of the new system with students, as at that time usage within an academic context within courses was very low. During the first few tasks, it became clear that players were comfortable making use of the community area to help each other and discuss tasks. The game also make use of other existing technologies around the University: quizzes and information on the student Managed Learning Environment, the video streaming service and email. There was a budget of £1000, all of which was spent on prizes: four iPods for the top scorers and memory sticks for the runners up.

No test of the game as a whole was completed. It was always intended to evolve as it was played, taking into account the success of the previous task to gauge the players’ readiness for harder tasks or collaboration opportunities. This approach also allowed tasks to be very responsive to real events - such as using information on a new series of posters for a student ball to provide clues for a task, or helping to promote the newly released fire safety video by attracting the players to it. Tests were run by willing colleagues on each weekly task just prior to release to check instructions were clear.

  • Don't be disappointed by low take-up - mysteries and puzzles just don't appeal to everyone.
  • Make any scoring completely fair and transparent to avoid criticisms.
  • Provide a way for the students to share and collaborate on tasks.