skeletonchase_logoA few months ago, I wrote about Indiana University’s exciting new alternate reality gaming research project, Skeleton Chase. The game was a collaboration between professors Anne Massey (Kelley School of Business), Jeanne Johnston (Kinesiology Department), and Lee Sheldon (Telecommunications Department). Now that the game is over, the three professors took the time to describe the game play and their research to me.

During the first week of the game, students in Indiana University’s Foundations of Fitness and Wellness class were greeted by Steven Cartwright, a public relations representative from the Source Corporation, a fictional company researching health and nutrition. The students would participate in a series of fitness challenges, and were handed a worksheet and free bottles of vitamin water. Through the worksheet, students discovered the Source Corporation’s “Internal Site” using clues from the presentation to access the site. Through the Internal Site, students discovered IU Security reports relating to Sarah Chase, a missing student. Her former associate instructor Sam Clemens was also missing.

Over the course of the next few weeks, the students engaged in a series of physical challenges from the Source Corporation while digging deeper into the disappearance of Sam and Sarah. According to Lee Sheldon, students

searched Sarah’s office (staged with planted assets including Sarah’s diplomas and research notebook); hacked into the IU Security internal website where they could access security camera footage from the night Sarah vanished; found Sam’s hiding place (but not Sam); and were able to uncover a wide-ranging conspiracy tied to a formula that may or may not retard aging. In the process they learned of a third person’s disappearance; were alerted to flying saucers sited near IU’s Cyclotron facility; and investigated appearances of a creature dubbed the “Blomington Bigfoot” in some campus woods.

As the game continued, students learned of a purple dandelion known as a “skeleton plant” that had remarkable healing properties. It was rumored that the plant possessed properties that could be harnessed to aid in predicting the future. On Halloween, the students finally tracked a considerably unhinged Sam Clemens to the university greenhouse. Lee Sheldon notes this stage of the game was a student favorite, as the “entwined fleshy plants (including several carnivorous species) created a wonderfully Lovecraftian atmosphere.” The game concluded with the students discovering the Source Corporation’s on-campus office. They learned that they were intimately involved with the Source Corporation’s diabolical experiments due to some of the additives in the bottle of vitamin water from the beginning of the game.

The development team faced some challenges during the course of the game. For one event, a room high up in a tower of the student union was converted into Sam’s impromptu hideaway, trashed with a sleeping bag, junk food wrappers, toiletries, and a number of empty liquor bottles. Although the team received permission from the student union to use the room, the janitorial staff “cleaned up” the room. One of the puppetmasters approached the janitor on duty to recover the props. The janitor, initially misinterpreting the situation, expressed his disgust at “such a sweet young woman partying in the room while downing vast quantities of booze.” Additionally, the difficulty of some of the puzzles had to be reduced in response to the first semester freshmen participating in the game.

The goal of the alternate reality game was to examine the game’s impact on daily and structured activity for college students, in addition to developing a psychological attractiveness metric to “gain insight into the role individual and game characteristics play in adoption and game play.” After taking a baseline measure of physical activity using FitLinxx Actipeds, students were instructed to accumulate 50,000 steps per week. If they reached that threshold, they were rewarded with points impacting their standing in the game. Some team members were more engaged than others, accumulating over 100,000 steps for some weeks. One week, a team had every member accumulate 100,000 steps. The table below summarizes the data recorded over the seven week run of the game.

Mean Std. Deviation
Baseline (pre-game) 34192.0 16232.9
Week 1 49668.8 26139.2
Week 2 56723.0 26048.1
Week 3 56428.1 21651.2
Week 4 54214.7 25528.0
Week 5 50901.1 22960.0
Week 6 49166.4 22330.2
Week 7 48687.2 22873.1
Avg. Steps (7 weeks) 50206.4 22480.0

Students reporting the highest weekly step counts were the teams that bonded well, forming a cohesive unit that worked together towards a common goal. Students were also motivated by the competitive aspect and the engrossing storyline. Students also learned the benefits of walking as a way to remain active when their schedules were too busy for structured activity.

Over the next semester, the development team will collaborate with the Indiana University Division of Recreational Sports to expand gameplay to the general student body. Starting in mid-February, students from all majors will have the opportunity to participate in Skeleton Chase’s sequel, Skeleton Chase 2: The Psychic. The sequel will introduce time-limited “sprint” events, new puzzles, and the incorporation of structured activities into gameplay. WTIU, Bloomingdale’s PBS station, has expressed interest in filming a documentary following the sequel.

If you’re interested in learning more about Skeleton Chase, you can read about it in the forthcoming book, Serious Game Design and Development: Technologies for Training and Learning, edited by Dr. Janis Cannon-Bowers & Dr. Clint Bowers of the University of Central Florida. Lee Sheldon is also speaking about the game at the GDC Serious Game Summit in March.

Special thanks to Professors Sheldon, Johnston, and Massey for their help with this article.