SILS students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends teamed up for award-winning ShBANGE project

July 17, 2011

"Should Brandon and Nicole Get Engaged?" or ShBANGE, is the title of an interactive, truly collaborative research project that has resulted in an award from the Special Libraries Association (SLA) and recognition for two of the project's team members from the Library Journal.
An acronym that stands for "Should Brandon and Nicole Get Engaged?" ShBANGE was first conceptualized by Laura Christopherson, doctoral student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Information and Library Science (SILS) and Emerging Technologies Librarian Chad Haefele of UNC Libraries. The idea grew out of the enthusiastic response to a talk Haefele gave to the Games4Learning community. Based in an alternate reality, ShBANGE - which focuses on the stressed romantic relationship of two hypothetical undergraduate students named Brandon and Nicole - was designed to teach students who participated in many virtual puzzles and other online content associated with the game, how to build and maintain better relationships in the real world. It was also a fun learning experience for the research team. 
The project was an alternate reality game (ARG) that involved two-weeks of puzzle-solving beginning with a staged marriage proposal in the Pit on the UNC at Chapel Hill campus. The ShBANGE project included a plot, characters and puzzles similar to a treasure hunt. It offered players clues embedded in online media and real-world physical locations. Those playing the game followed the clues that led to puzzles that led to more puzzles. The object was to reconstruct the story in totality, as it was originally presented in pieces as a mystery to the players. Information literacy and research skills were built into the game. In other words, students learned how to locate information by using various media and how to share information using similar methods. 
Players and Believers 
The project quickly drew the attention and expertise of SILS faculty, alumni, students, staff and friends from other campus units. Christopherson and Haefele believe that learning based on games is novel, exciting and transformative for students. They began planning the project and brought in Elizabeth A. Evans (MSLS ‘82), creator and manager of Games4Learning, who offered expertise by creating puzzles, writing scripts, blogging, sending e-mail postings and a myriad of other tasks. Evans and Emily King (MSLS ‘08), another SILS alumna, conducted a low fidelity four-hour test of the game with student volunteers. King also worked with Haefele to manage the online content, with the duo creating all electronic sites and participating in the storyboarding exercises. Among other tasks, King designed the logo for the project and provided graphic design services. Haefele actively recruited Krystyn Well, one of the developers of The Dark Knight ARG, who provided consulting expertise to the team.  
As project manager, Christopherson brought in colleagues from the Division of Student Affairs, including former director of the Campus Y, Virginia Carson, and Melinda Manning, dean of Students who contributed to the interdisciplinary, collaborative effort. Together, the group developed the theme of the story - personal relationships. They recruited others to join in on the project including, Dr. Brian Sturm, SILS associate professor; and both graduate and undergraduate students. 
When Sturm was asked to join the project, he enthusiastically agreed. As a teacher of storytelling and children's literature, his career-long interest in the entrancing power of narrative allowed him to lend invaluable insights to the construction of the game's master-narrative.
Sturm, who was named story master by his teammates, was responsible for overseeing the development of the story line ensuring the characters were believable, that the plot flowed nicely and matched up well with puzzles and clues. Along with other team members, he created puzzles individually, but all worked together as a team to make it all fit. 
"We found the challenges of creating a cohesive and compelling story based on puzzles and multiple, simultaneous episodes really exciting," Sturm said. "The team worked superbly together, developing parts of the game individually and then integrating them into the ongoing framework of ShBANGE."
Karen Crenshaw, the online voice of Nicole, and John Weis (MSLS '11), SILS Master's students; and undergraduate students Kulpana Akpan (BSIS '11), Justin Brinegar (BSIS '11), Eric Helke, Christine Hellinger, Alani Nichols (BSIS '11), in addition to Harrison Lee, who also attended classes at SILS participated in the testing of the project, handed out flyers, balloons and fortune cookies; assisted with marketing by posting to Facebook pages and much more. 
As project manager, Christopherson worked with the team to define objectives, led meetings - including the six-hour walk through/storyboarding activity and produced a diagram of the flow of the story, puzzles and clues, mapping the diagram onto a two week schedule. She maintained a Google Site that included the project’s business information, a tool for tracking tasks and responsibilities of team members, collecting all puzzles and content in a manner that made it easy to disseminate the information prior to the game and during the game run. Evans and Christopherson worked with Tammy Cox, director of SILS business operations, who assisted with the mechanics of the budget, keeping the financials of the project in line with the support received from sponsors.
Using YouTube, Blogs and Social Media to Enhance the Game
Christopherson used the experience she gained as an undergraduate theater major to cast and direct one live scene filmed in the Pitt where Brandon proposed to Nicole, and one video-only taping which captured the fight scene between the couple. These films helped develop ShBANGE's alternate reality storyline, which was further supported by a slew of games and puzzles on blogs. In addition, Facebook was used to help market the game as it progressed.
"We were particularly interested in using games and social or new media for teaching and learning," Christopherson said. "This was an opportunity to do something no one has ever done on this campus, and that few campuses across the country have done." 
What the Team Learned
The team considered the two week run of ShBANGE to be a high fidelity, production test of learning through games. The priority was to design a good game that could be used for pedagogical purposes and to help students learn how to use information in new and exciting ways, which was successful. The team learned how to create puzzles and weave them into a story; how to create a situation that would invite students to explore and reflect on relationship issues; how to integrate multiple technologies and compel information-seeking strategies to help students explore this fictitious world on their own terms; how to assist students improve their information literacy; how to test an ARG (the vast majority of the time, ARGs are not tested before going into production); and how to respond on the fly to the unexpected. 
Awards and Recognition
Because of their involvement with the ShBANGE project, two members of the project team, Chad Haefele and Emily King, were named "Movers and Shakers" by the Library Journal for the roles they played in making the project a success. During the SLA Annual Conference earlier this summer, the team also received the SLA Spring Share Innovation in Academic Libraries Award. According to the SLA Web site, “The Academic Division of the Special Libraries Association found Chapel Hill’s use of alternative gaming, technology, social networking, collaboration and communication to be a worthwhile and successful way to engage students on campus and help them build “information literacy” competencies, such as: locating and analyzing information, understanding different information formats, and  using technology to both study the interaction of ideas and to create documents/images and use them in differing contexts. The SLA Academic Division felt that this “reality game” was forward-thinking in terms of creating an interactive format encouraging student participation while teaching the students essential skills for locating, understanding and utilizing information in today’s society.” 
Special thanks to Drs. Barbara Moran and Evelyn Daniel, faculty advisors on the project; and Tammy Cox, director of operations for SILS for budget management assistance.
Sponsors of ShBANGE included: 
Division of Student Affairs Counseling and Wellness Services and Campus Y, the School of Information and Library Science, the University Library, the Dean of Students Office of the Division of Student Affairs, the Department of Housing and Residential Education, the Office of Arts and Sciences Information Services, the RAM Shop, the Odum Institute's working group on the Internet and the Social Sciences, ITS Teaching and Learning and Davis Stillson and Associates. 

Photo: Laura Christopherson and Emily King paint a cube to raise curiosity and attention to the ShBANGE project.