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Ready Player One: UTM Students unravel mysteries with new mobile game

Blake Eligh

Starting next year, incoming students will find a mystery waiting for them when they get to U of T Mississauga, thanks to a new mobile game from the Office of Student Transition.

Currently in development, Guardians of UTM is designed to help new students find their way around campus and learn how to access important services they’ll need in the years ahead.

“We wanted to create something fun and engaging, that also delivers information to help students have a successful transition to UTM,” says Jackie Goodman, first-year transition and academic support coordinator with the Transition office. “It will give students additional information to build on the knowledge they get through the LAUNCH program.”

The quest-based game follows a made-at-UTM storyline: a mystery intruder is selling UTM’s secrets to other schools. Someone has to find the mole and stop the leaks. Players join secret society teams led by UTM mascots JimmiUTM, The Blind Duck, Hartley the Deer and the UTM Eagle. To solve the game, players must tour the campus and interact with other characters, completing challenges and gathering clues and tokens to help with later steps.

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Fourth-year computer science student Chris Primerano and third-year art history student Heather Shanahan are part of the team involved in building Guardians, which also includes Goodman, Department of Mathematics & Computational Science lecturer Daniel Zingaro and Commerce student Daniel Jayasinghe. Together, they are planning the story arc, writing scripts, designing avatars and creating code.

According to Shanahan, who is the project art director, Guardians takes its visual inspiration from old-school video games like Legend of Zelda or Pokémon. “We wanted to design a game that had visual longevity,” she says. "The characters are blocky and pixilated, although the mascots have a more detailed design." Sharp-eyed players may recognize campus staff and faculty in minor roles.

Although the game is designed for a mobile phone or tablet, players can’t win from the comfort of their couches. “At certain times, players will have to engage with the UTM campus to progress,” Goodman says. “These steps get students to walk around the campus and see things they might not see otherwise.” Players must visit real locations around campus, like the Book Store or the Hazel McCallion Academic Learning Centre, where they will scan a QR code to proceed with the game.

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Shanahan says developing the game has taught her a great deal about her own campus.  “I’ve learned a lot about campus history, like the Artist’s Cottage, and the 3-D printer, which we can access as students,” she says. “There’s more to do at school than just go to class.”

The entire game takes about six weeks to complete, culminating in a real-life Amazing Race-style day during Fall Reading Week that will bring together all players to solve the final challenge.

Primerano, who is writing code for the game, hopes Guardians will help new students feel at home on campus. “It’s about building a pride at UTM,” he says. “This will help students feel like they’re part of UTM’s campus community.”

A beta version of Guardians of UTM is being tested with focus groups this month, with two more sessions planned in the new year. Guardians of UTM will launch on iOS and Android platforms in time for Orientation 2016.