Live Action Clue: How Professor Plum and Senator Scarlet Help the Wilson Library at UNC, Chapel Hill Solve the Mystery of Student Engagement

The Wilson Library at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill has presented Clue, a live action mystery event twice a year since the fall of 2012. Clue is designed to bring people into the Wilson Library and demystify both the building and the special collections and archives housed within.

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Emily Jack is the Community Engagement and Outreach Librarian at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and has been involved with the Clue team since its inception in 2012. In the following interview with COPA member Chris Burns, Jack describes the work the UNC team puts into this innovative and fun outreach activity and the enthusiastic reception it has received.

Burns: The Wilson Library has produced a live action Clue event every semester since the Fall of 2012, how did you come up with the idea?

Jack: Wilson Library is a beautiful building that looks classically academic. Because of its appearance, many undergraduate students have reported feeling intimidated by the library – or avoiding it altogether.

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Wilson Library, on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, houses the University Library’s special collections and Music Library.

In 2012, a (now retired) employee named Becky Garrett monitored the Fearrington Reading Room as a part-time job. Her professional background was in recreation therapy, a field that uses recreation to achieve therapeutic goals. In other words, her professional orientation was to solve problems with games, and she brought that lens to the problem of students feeling intimidated by the library. So, Becky suggested a live game of Clue for students, and we formed a committee to make it happen.

That first game in 2012 bore almost no resemblance to today’s game. It was more like an elaborate scavenger hunt. Now it’s an immersive narrative game, played on a custom web app, with a three-part mystery to solve, during which players interact with costumed characters and have up-close experiences with collection materials. But we couldn’t have the current version without building from the original version, sparked by Becky’s great idea.

Burns: Why Clue?

Jack: Students perceived Wilson Library as mysterious and old-fashioned, which is also the atmosphere of Clue. Using Clue as the narrative basis for the game gave it a familiar cognitive hook for students to attach themselves to. In essence, it served as a safe and easy bridge between two entities that share aesthetic similarities: one familiar and beloved (the board game Clue) and one intriguing but intimidating (Wilson Library).

It also made our marketing efforts much easier than if we had built a narrative game from scratch.

Burns: How does the event work and how does it make use of the collections and staff at the Wilson?

Jack: Our version of Clue aligns with the original in some ways – for example, its three-part solution, consisting of a who, a what, and a where. But, notably, ours is not a murder mystery. It’s a supernatural narrative with a ghost-related mystery.

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Clue players use a historic map to identify a mystery location in the library.

Using a mobile app, teams complete three activities, each aligning with one part of the solution.

Those activities include:

  • Interrogating six suspects, who are held for questioning around the library. To earn access to interrogate, players answer questions about exhibitions and other details in the library.
  • Using historic (reproduction) maps and wooden overlays made in our makerspace to find a code word, and then a hidden location, and finally a map of the library itself.
  • Interpreting communications from the ghost, and using logic (and student TV clips from the 1980s!) to determine which of a set of collection items is the correct one.

The game is fairly complex; this is just an overview. Collection materials, exhibitions, and staff interactions are woven throughout gameplay. Afterward, while they’re waiting for their scores, players watch a video purporting to tell the ghost’s origin story, but which also serves as a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the closed stacks.

One important aspect of the game is that it’s immersive – both narratively and spatially. Because the narrative is immersive, the players don’t feel like it’s a learning game or an elevated tour of the library. And because of its spatial immersion, they leave feeling completely confident in navigating the library.

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Players interrogate a suspect.

Burns: What’s the reception been like among students, staff, and faculty at UNC?

Jack: Reception has been overwhelmingly positive. Students tell us – and their peers – how much they love the game. Most importantly for our purposes, it has been universally successful in meeting its intended goal of lowering the intimidation barrier to visiting Wilson Library.

In post-game surveys, students report feeling surprised by how cool Wilson is and excited to return. They also say things like “I used to be afraid to go in the building. Now I feel way more comfortable walking around.”

We offer the program twice a year and it fills up with a long waitlist every time.

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Players answer questions about an exhibition to earn access to interrogate a suspect.

Burns: I imagine it takes a fair amount of work to pull this off, how have you managed to keep it going and keep it fresh each semester?

Jack: It is labor-intensive. But we have a great committee of staff who feel invested in the program and excited about working on a fun and creative project.

At this point, the planning process runs like a well-oiled machine. Hat tip to Alison Barnett and Katelyn Ander, the committee’s current co-chairs, who are remarkably organized. But we also make regular updates to the game’s structure and content, which keeps the planning interesting.

For game night, we recruit library staff from across the libraries to play all the roles. With a staff as large as ours, there are always new people who are eager to participate.

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Planning committee members and game night staff monitor check-in status on game night. Left to right, Luke Aeschleman, Rebecca McCall, Katelyn Ander, Dayna Durbin.

Burns: Is this an idea you would encourage other libraries and archives to try?

Jack: Using games is a great way to bring new people into libraries and archives. Clue is a fun structure to use, although I always encourage other institutions to make any game their own. Our design is very location-specific. For instance, our structure takes advantage of the fact that we have six public areas, and there are six suspects in Clue. In a smaller setting, you could do something just as successful; you would just have to take the scale into account.

I also encourage people to start small. Our game is successful because we started with something manageable and built it up over time.

ACRL will publish a book this year called Games and Gamification in Academic Libraries, edited by Eva Sclippa and Stephanie Crowe, which will include a chapter about Wilson’s Clue program for anyone curious to know more.

Burns: What other games do you think might work?

Jack: I love the idea of doing something with classic video games like Super Mario Brothers. It would also be fun to take other cultural phenomena like movies and turn them into games.

Burns: What’s next for the Clue team at the Wilson Library?

Jack: We’ve been talking for years about building in some sort of AR or VR component, but we haven’t yet hit on the right way to fit it into the narrative.

Fortunately, former staffer Luke Aeschleman designed the web app to be very flexible and user-friendly, and capable of accommodating just about anything.

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