Annual spy game infects campus with obsession

By Emily Bell

A new layer of tension has descended upon campus in recent weeks. This tension manifests itself in the harried looks people shoot over their shoulders on the quads as they scurry to class. It is evident in the hunched backs of people crouched between cars or in bushes outside of the library, waiting for an unsuspecting target. It is displayed in the acknowledging grins exchanged by passing strangers at the sight of neon plastic water guns peeking out of their respective pockets. It is Assassins season at the University of Chicago, and all over campus, students are getting wet, wild, and killed.

Players of this traditional spy game are assigned a target whom they must “kill” with a squirt from a water gun while simultaneously evading death from their own assassin. Different groups, however, play with widely varying rules. Each game is therefore characterized with its own particular brand of paranoia. A kill is not considered valid in Shorey House, for example, if anyone other than the assassin and the target sees either the gun or the stream of water. In a game currently in full swing at the Shoreland, players can also “poison” their targets by sneaking hot chocolate powder or salt into their victim’s food. Residents of Alper House have developed a “Mafia-style” version of the game, in which players are divided into teams or “families.” One player in each family is designated the Don, and his kill wipes out the entire family.

The way that students tend to take the game seriously fits with typical U of C nerdiness. Dave Pickett, a second-year in the College, enjoys getting sucked into the paranoia. “I’m constantly thinking, ‘If I were after me, I’d be hiding in those bushes right now,'” Pickett said. “Last week, I ran a half a block out of my way and down an alley to get to class safely,” he added.

“It got to the point where no one would walk down the stairs by themselves,” said first-year in the College Violeta Voykinska of the Alper House game. “Everyone is really into it. I told my roommate I was considering telling my family about my new boyfriend. She was confused because she assumed I was talking about my Mafia family.”

A first-year Assassins player—who asked to be referred to only by his codename, The Box Driller—discussed the tactics he considered in going after his target. “I was going to kidnap his girlfriend,” Driller said. “That plan never came to fruition.” Driller said he was killed before he could get to his first target. When asked if that fact made him feel emasculated, Driller replied, “Yes. Absolutely.”

Marco Franco, a third-year in the College and one of the directors of the Shoreland game, does not think students go too far with their involvement in the game. “The vast majority of people put everything in perspective and realize it’s just a game,” Franco said.

The demands of ingenuity and treachery appear to hold much of the game’s appeal. Jeremy Harris, fourth-year in the College and co-developer of Alper’s Mafia-style Assassins, described the “Cool Shit Rule.” This clause legalizes weapons and tactics otherwise considered off-limits if they are deemed to be “sufficiently awesome.” Harris said, “We want crazy, interesting things to happen. We want people running across the quads and organizing ambushes.”

Students seem to enjoy having something other than the stress of midterms to occupy their minds. “It’s a creative outlet,” said Lauren Levine, a second-year in the College and participant in the Alper Assassins game. “The paranoia is scary at first, but you learn to feed off of it.”

Franco attributes the Assassins craze on campus to the U of C students’ competitive nature. “People here like to be good at everything they do,” Franco said.

Kelly Finn, a third-year in the College and one of the final three players remaining in the Shorey House Assassins game, has her gun with her at all times, even when she leads campus tours. Finn said that prospective students and parents are amused by stories of the game. “It shows our sense of humor, that we do something besides study all the time,” she said. “There’s some genius on his way to an advanced-level calculus class and he’s toting a hot pink plastic gun.”