'Sparklepony' Quest Helps Break the Ice at a Scholarly Meeting

Chronicle Photo by Julia Schmalz

The challenge at this year’s Conference on College Composition and Communication: Complete two quests and win a “sparklepony” pin.
March 26, 2014

Edie-Marie Roper lingered after a session at a scholarly conference here last week. She knew she should strike up a conversation with one of the speakers. She just needed to summon the nerve.

Ms. Roper, a first-year master’s student in English, composition, and rhetoric at Washington State University, was attending her first Conference on College Composition and Communication.

She wanted to talk and exchange business cards with Connie Snyder Mick, director of community-based learning at the University of Notre Dame’s Center for Social Concerns and chair of a session here on the writings of factory workers. The topic resonated with Ms. Roper, who is researching the intersection of working-class narratives and the teaching of writing.

"It was really intimidating," Ms. Roper recalled soon after. Knowing that she was supposed to network helped push her out of her comfort zone. So did the fact that she was on a quest.

Quest for a ‘Sparklepony’

That quest was part of a game designed especially for the conference, which is commonly known as the Four C’s. The game, called C’s The Day, puts attendees, most of them here for the first time, through a series of challenges, called quests, of the players’ choosing.

The more than 80 quests are laid out in a booklet that gets stamped each time a player completes a quest.

The quests are designed to encourage attendees to network and get the most out of the conference, and they fall into three main categories.

Role-playing quests help introduce new scholars to the norms of the discipline. One such quest asks players to practice their elevator speech.

"Give a comprehensive, 15-second description of the entirety of your research," the quest reads. "Extra points for each theorist you can coherently mention in the allotted time."

Other quests focus on the conference. One instructs the player to ask a good question at a panel.

Networking quests are what pushed Ms. Roper to ask for Ms. Mick’s card. She was attempting a quest called "Working the Room," which requires players to collect four business cards. A similar quest asks players to "meet a field luminary without being obnoxious."

If a player completes two quests, he or she earns a handmade pin of a small horse, called a "sparklepony." The game’s top three finishers receive a foot-high bejeweled sparklepony, painted with glitter and festooned with feathers. The grand-prize winner is guaranteed publication in one of three disciplinary journals.

‘You Can Have Some Fun, Too’

C’s The Day was first played at the conference four years ago, as a grass-roots effort undertaken by a handful of scholars who also were interested in video and role-playing games. Since then, the number of participants has doubled, said Wendi A. Sierra, an assistant professor of English at St. John Fisher College and an inventor of the game.

The game also strives to lighten the often sober nature of many such meetings. The composition conference has been held since 1949. This year some 3,200 scholars attended sessions on such topics as qualitative research, pedagogical strategies for translingual writing, and the shifting paradigm of writing studies.

"A lot of times we go to professional conferences with a sense of obligation," Ms. Sierra said. "What C’s The Day allows us to do is say, ‘This is serious, and you need to be professional, but you can have some fun, too.’"

The game’s creators devote considerable thought to determining what attendees should get out of the conference, Ms. Sierra said, while also seeking to set the right tone.

"We do try to strike a fair balance between being lighthearted and fun," she said, "and still allowing people to present themselves in the best light."

The game succeeds, she said, in part because it rewards players swiftly. Early one morning last week, Angela D. Spires racked up 12 stamps in her booklet.

She had attended a publisher’s party the evening before and made it to an 8 a.m. session that day, earning her a stamp for a quest called "Burning the Candle at Both Ends."

Ms. Spires, an adjunct professor of English at the University of Nevada at Reno, earned another stamp for suggesting a quest for future games. Hers involved getting an adjunct instructor, a graduate student, and a tenured or tenure-track faculty member at the same institution to sign the player’s booklet.

Scott Reed, an assistant professor of English at Georgia Gwinnett College and one of the game’s founders, marveled as he stamped her book.

"You are running the table here," he said.

"I always play to win," Ms. Spires replied.

Accessible and Unthreatening

Games have been played at other meetings involving scholars, but they tend to be at conferences, like that of the North American Simulation and Gaming Association or the Learning and Entertainment Evolution Forum, that explore the overlap between gaming and education.

Other games, like scavenger hunts and geocaching, have been used for years as ways to break the ice and acculturate new attendees, said Anastasia M. Salter, an assistant professor of information arts and technologies at the University of Baltimore. She has also written about gamification for The Chronicle’s ProfHacker blog.

Alternate- and augmented-reality games like C’s The Day can be appealing to inexperienced gamers because players choose how much they want to participate, and they are accessible and unthreatening, Ms. Salter said.

Designing such games can be tricky. To succeed in an environment like a scholarly conference, such games need people like Ms. Sierra, who have insider knowledge of the meeting and grasp the intricacies of game-playing.

The game’s presence at the composition conference reflects the changing interests of a new generation of scholars, who grew up playing games and see them as effective educational tools.

"Even if their work isn’t explicitly in gaming, they’re more likely to be gamers," said Ms. Salter.

Gaming is more broadly accepted than it was even a decade ago, she added. "And with that acceptance and understanding, games like C’s The Day become a means to understanding what gaming has to offer an environment like the classroom and the conference."