It’s probably because we miss hunting and gathering.

2 Feb
by Flickr user miguelb

by Flickr user miguelb

Yesterday, Julia and I attended a scavenger hunt organized by a local nonprofit, and it reminded me that I’ve been meaning to blog some scavenger hunt best practices. I love scavenger hunts because I love puzzles and games, but also because the act of searching stays with you for awhile, even after the hunt is over (sort of like when you get off a treadmill but still feel like you’re moving). After scavenging for a couple hours, your powers of observation are heightened, you’re more in tune with your surroundings, and you look at everything differently. Neato!

I’ve organized many scavenger hunts, including one from across the country for a friend’s birthday. Here’s some of what I’ve learned:

  • Set your parameters. Figure out your venue or geographic boundaries, your time frame, and your audience. You really can’t plan the hunt without having these things in place. For a short hunt (1-3 hours), a single building, such as a museum, or a defined neighborhood are your best bets. For a longer hunt (for example, a multi-day hunt), you may want to expand to an entire campus, city or town. And, of course, your audience matters. Designing a hunt for third-graders would be different than designing a hunt for MIT students. (Oooh! My dream scavenger hunt would be for 8-year-old MENSA members.)
  • Play fair. People who participate in scavenger hunts are usually the type of people who are concerned about fairness, so establish some really clear rules and make sure everyone knows them. If a team is late to the end-of-hunt rendezvous, will they be disqualified or just docked points? Can teams split up? (If not, how will this be enforced?) Can money be spent? (What about subway or bus passes?) Can teams consult the interweb? Can teams defend their items to the judges, or are the judges decisions final? These things may seem like not a big deal. But they are. A very big deal.
  • Gather your team. You can’t do this alone. You’ll need a panel of judges (who in your personal network is most known for fairness and impartiality? Do you know any actual judges?). You may also want to have “actors” planted at various places on the hunt giving out clues.
  • Be tricky. For advanced hunts, I recommend writing a few clues that lend themselves to several possible answers and planting some false positives on the trail.
  • Get your ducks in a row. Don’t forget about logistics, and make sure participants are properly briefed in advance of the event. Do people need to bring cameras or cell phones? (If so, remind them to charge them the night before.) Will they need any cash? (For example, if your venue is a museum, is there an entrance fee?) How’s the weather? Should people come in a team, or will you form teams on site? Most importantly, what’s the prize? The better the prize, the harder you can make the clues.
  • Make lists. The most important aspect of planning a scavenger hunt is obviously preparing the item/task list or clue sheet. If it’s too easy, it’s not fun. If it’s too hard, it’s not fun. Striking the right balance is pretty critical. Google some inspiration. (Hint: The best scavenger hunt lists on the web are, hands down, from the University of Chicago’s annual scavenger hunt.) Lastly, proofread your lists; typos may be misinterpreted as clues.

Happy scavenging!


2 Responses to “It’s probably because we miss hunting and gathering.”

  1. Meg February 2, 2009 at 4:59 am #

    I love this post! Ian and I have been hosting PDX Scav Hunts for the past two years and they are WAY harder to organize than I’d thought. That said, the end results were amazing! I never thought about why we decided to do this (the idea took root over lots of beers in Australia…) but I’m willing to buy the hunter/gatherer argument. With a dash of pre-pubescent-birthday-party-nostalgia thrown in.

  2. juliacsmith February 2, 2009 at 3:32 pm #

    Totally agree with all of the above, particularly the “get your ducks in a row” section. Kudos!

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