Author: Alex Calhoun

A Backstage Pass to the 2012 MIT Mystery Hunt

Image of the MIT Mystery Hunt Closing Ceremonies with permission from photographer Chris Ball

“A dim witted love god.”

I was gazing at the dense, tall pine trees around us, a refreshing change from the dry brown and yellow landscape we had already driven past. My wife and I, both Boston natives, were driving south from San Francisco for a wedding, and entertaining ourselves with one of our regular puzzle games. The first person provides a simple description, and the other must answer in the form of a rhyming adjective and noun pairing.

“Stupid Cupid,” I stated rather than asking, confident in my answer. It’s not a tough game, especially when you’ve played it together before as much as we have. That was in September of last year, and that drive inspired us to evolve our casual game into a much more challenging form: a puzzle for the 2012 MIT Mystery Hunt.

Last year our team Codex won the 2011 Hunt, which is held in January over Martin Luther King, Jr. Day weekend. It’s a team-based puzzle solving competition that draws over a thousand diverse fans every year. The victors’ prizes are well-earned respect, and the responsibility of writing and organizing the following year’s Hunt. Each Hunt has a theme, ostensibly to provide a reason for solving all the puzzles. 2011’s Hunt led by the team Metaphysical Plant, had a theme centered around video games. For 2012, Codex chose to focus on musical theater, specifically The Producers.

For the past eight years I competed in the Hunt and even wrote a handful of puzzles for friends, but none had the level of complexity and polish usually found during the Hunt. Every long-time Hunter has a list of puzzle ideas they would like to write someday if they given the opportunity. Translating those ideas into over a hundred working, solvable puzzles takes many thousands of man hours. As our team quickly recognized, years of solving puzzles doesn’t immediately translate to creating puzzles and organizing a live event for hundreds of people. Thankfully, Codex’s team of leaders and editors provided a framework for both novice and experienced writers to participate in the process.

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“Vanished” Teaches Children to Save the Future with Science

Images courtesy of the MIT Education Arcade

Scientists from the future reached out to present day scientists as part of Project Phoenix to investigate a natural disaster that wiped out the historical record as part of Vanished, an alternate reality game designed exclusively for children. The game was a collaboration between the MIT Education Arcade and the Smithsonian Institution, and sought to engage kids and teens in the role of scientific detectives and inspire scientific learning through an epic story. Prior to the game’s launch, ARGNet provided a sneak peek at the upcoming campaign. Now that the game has come to a conclusion, I followed up with Caitlin Feeley and Dana Tenneson of MIT’s Education Arcade to take a post-mortem look at the game.

The true heroes of Vanished were the players, who uncovered the mystery by making scientific progress week by week. The game was also populated by a full cast of characters; the most prominent was Lovelace, an artificial intelligence who traveled back in time to assist in the investigation. Moderators had in-game personas, like Storm and Megawatt, who played the roles of guardians and guides. The journey also involved interacting with real-world scientists from a variety of fields, and players even encountered a few villainous trolls and hackers among their own ranks before reaching the end.

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The Smithsonian and MIT Help Your Kids Get “Vanished”

There is a mystery afoot, and scientists at MIT and the Smithsonian are investigating. But they project that before the next full moon, they will need the help of middle-schoolers across the country to understand an impending environmental disaster, secrets that they alone can uncover.

Vanished is a science-fiction themed alternate reality game launching on April 4th, created and run by MIT’s Education Arcade and the Smithsonian Institution. Vanished invites kids and teens 11-14 to participate in the role of scientific detectives, although older participants can also follow along with special “watcher” accounts. Players will uncover clues, form and test scientific hypotheses, collaborate with their peers, engage online with scientists, and learn about a broad range of scientific fields. Over the course of eight weeks, they will encounter multiple scientific mysteries that require real scientific methods to solve.

Each of the eight weeks of Vanished comprises a chapter with its own activities, scientific content, and another layer of a larger mystery. Online, players will engage with scientists from the Smithsonian via video conferences, play games that will help to illustrate concepts, and unlock clues and hidden messages. Offline, players need to explore their own neighborhoods for scientific data. Journal entries from in-game characters will lead players to visit Smithsonian-affiliated museums for exhibits to gather clues and learn more about each scientific field.

Players will share their offline discoveries with others online to advance the story. They might document what plants are blossoming or what animals live in their area. Contributions are shared so that other kids can see the differences across the country. In forums, moderated by MIT students, players can discuss their findings and how they might apply to solving the mystery. The participating museums aren’t being used for scavenger hunts; rather, they are a way for kids to explore subjects further as the game progresses. Museum staff at the Smithsonian have been warned to expect anything from Vanished players, as participants may have questions the creators did not anticipate.

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Your Princess is in Another Game: The 2011 MIT Mystery Hunt

Editor’s Note: Alex Calhoun shares his experience participating in the 2011 MIT Mystery Hunt in this guest post. Calhoun’s team, Codex Alimentarius, was the first to finish this year’s Hunt, earning the privilege to design the 2012 Hunt.

The time is 12:17pm on Friday, January 14th, 2011. A string quartet is playing in Lobby 7 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, MA. Hundreds of guests are present for the wedding of Mario and Peach, now in motion. But as any video gamer might expect, just as the couple begins to recite their vows, Bowser sweeps in and kidnaps Peach: I’m sorry Mario, but your wedding is in another Chapel!

Attendees to the opening ceremonies for the 2011 MIT Mystery Hunt were greeted with this disrupted ceremony, kicking off an annual competition that pits teams ranging in size from five people to over a hundred as they attempt to solve more than a hundred puzzles in a race around the clock to find “The Coin,” the amorphous victory trophy that signals the end of the year’s Mystery Hunt. Every competition is guided by an overarching theme. For the 2011 hunt, teams were tasked with assisting Mario rescue his bride-to-be. “Mario is great at jumping on mutant mushrooms but lousy at solving puzzles,” we were told by the representative from team Metaphysical Plant, the 2010 Hunt winners.

Puzzles in Mystery Hunt are structured in rounds. As teams solve puzzles, they unlock additional puzzles and additional rounds. Each round has one or more meta puzzles, formed from the answers from each regular puzzle. Mario World had three rounds and the first was “World 1-1”, with seven regular puzzles. The answers to those puzzles were all types of mushrooms or other fungus (Oyster, Orange peel, Charcoal Burner, Panther, Cannonball, Jack O’ Lantern, Fried Chicken). By looking up the genus names of each of these species and reading the first letters down vertically, the following word appears:

OYSTER: Pleurotus ostreatus
ORANGE PEEL: Aleuria aurantia
CHARCOAL BURNER: Russula cyanoxantha
PANTHER: Amanita pantherina
CANNONBALL: Sphaerobolus stellatus
JACK O’ LANTERN: Omphalotus illudens
FRIED CHICKEN: Lyophyllum decastes

“PARASOL” is another species of mushroom, and the first meta-puzzle solution. My team, Codex Alimentarius, eagerly attacked the twenty or so puzzles in “Mario World,” unlocking the World One castle in a few hours. In doing so, we learned the Hunt ranged far beyond the domain of the Mushroom Kingdom.

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