About this Project

The Gaming Orientation project (2016–2019) transformed the University of Chicago’s 2017 college orientation into an immersive, alternate-reality game (ARG) called The Parasite. Incoming students were invited to collaborate on nine challenges, each of which helped them get acclimated to campus and prepared for college life. As they banded together in search of clues to solve a central mystery—Where is the room that a secret society of masked monks seems to be guarding?—they became acquainted with each other and with key sites on and near campus. Innovative participatory-learning activities throughout the week prompted them to confront questions about their own identity, the identity of others, and presumptions about each. Whether they realized it or not—the game was not announced as a game, intentionally blurring the border between fiction and reality—the students were being primed for valuable lessons about collaboration, leadership, inclusivity, and digital media literacy. They were also helping the research team test the effectiveness of ARGs as tools for twenty-first-century education.

Preliminary research suggests that ARGs and related forms of transmedia storytelling and gameplay can be a useful platform for collaborative learning. Participants report that gameplay improves critical thinking and problem-solving skills and strengthens social bonds. Pervasive games that involve role-playing and a mix of challenges are increasingly common in areas as diverse as business, marketing, education, and personal leisure. But with one exception (an ARG focused on the technical skills that incoming students needed at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts), large-scale gaming had not been attempted in a higher education environment prior to this project. Its impact has never before been rigorously studied. The Parasite was the first ARG that aimed to shape the culture of a specific university cohort. The Gaming Orientation project will assess whether it succeeded. With more than 600 players online, a robust Facebook following, and live play that included roughly half the incoming class of 1,750 students, it was arguably the largest educational transmedia game ever created.

Designing, preparing, running, and evaluating a production at this scale required collaboration. The project included an interdisciplinary team of scholars with expertise in sociology, new media studies, digital game theory and design, theater and performance, and visual art. The team developed and coordinated plans in close partnership with academic and administrative leaders on campus and solicited contributions from creative professionals and institutions around Chicago. Current students were partners at every stage, from conception to live performance. Kristen Schilt worked with a group of undergraduates to gather ethnographic data on the 2016 orientation, which helped the team plan for the 2017 event. An interdisciplinary “Big Problems” course, co-taught by Patrick Jagoda and Heidi Coleman in the 2016 Fall Quarter, introduced students to ARG theory and production while helping the research team tailor the game’s design for its intended audience.

The process of designing the ARG was regarded as practice-based research, an opportunity to develop, test, refine, and transform concepts about performance, digital media culture, and game-based education. Jagoda, Coleman, and other collaborators have already presented and published several scholarly articles exploring various aspects of The Parasite and broader implications for the future of “networked play.” The project has also received significant media attention, including a feature in Wired magazine that offered a nuanced portrait of The Parasite and quoted one first-year student who described it as “the coolest experience of my life.”

Research continues as the scholars focus on measuring the game’s effectiveness. Immediately after the game, they conducted a series of focus groups with approximately thirty first-year students, including those who did and did not participate. Those discussions are being translated into data and analyzed, and may inform the planning process for a proposed larger-scale ARG in 2019. The study’s key indicators of success include improvements in students’ co-curricular participation, mental and physical wellbeing, attitudes about diversity, feelings of integration into the University community, and degree attainment, particularly for under-
represented minorities.

If the evidence shows positive results, this innovative approach to student orientation will further establish the University of Chicago as a leader in understanding and addressing issues of diversity and social difference within a community. The Parasite may serve as a model for introducing new forms of participation and networked play into higher education curricula.


The Game of Critique

April 4, 2021

In a review of Patrick Jagoda’s new book, Experimental Games: Critique, Play, and Design in the Age of Gamification, The Los Angeles Review of Books commends the work for its rich exploration of gaming history and theory. The book draws in part on research Jagoda and his colleagues led on the Neubauer Collegium projects Transmedia Story Lab (2016–18) and Gaming Orientation (2016–19).

How Alternate Reality Games Are Changing the Real World

December 10, 2020

On the latest episode of the UChicago Big Brains podcast, Neubauer Collegium Faculty Fellows Kristen Schilt and Patrick Jagoda discuss their pathbreaking research on alternate reality gaming, conducted in part through our Gaming Orientation project.

An Alternate Reality Game that Takes Freshmen Orientation to a New Level

March 26, 2018

A feature in Wired magazine explores the concepts, complexities, and impact of The Parasite, an innovative alternate-reality game developed by the Gaming Orientation project.


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