May 26, 2006

Make Scav about a product, not a process

The annual University of Chicago Scavenger Hunt is arguably the greatest anywhere, by any standard anyone chooses to adopt—scope, creativity, enthusiasm, and more.

Yet every time I participate in the Great Hunt, there is a certain uneasiness that sets in shortly after judgment day. This feeling is hard to explain, but basically it can be described as a void or emptiness, for lack of a better word. Winning or losing doesn’t seem to matter, and I don’t think it’s solely due to lack of sleep. When I asked them about their experiences, other participants have assured me that they typically feel a similar post–judgment day droop.

So why is this, if Scav Hunt is so great?

I can just offer my guesses, as—to my knowledge—there has been no systematic investigation of this effect.

I think it might have to do with the fact that the teams silently melt away after judgment and that the items tend to be scattered in all directions. There is a certain dissatisfaction that items typically don’t add up to anything bigger. Actually, from the perspective of the single participant, Scav Hunt amounts to less than the sum of the individual contributions, as everyone can only be involved in so many (or rather so few) items, no matter how dedicated. Moreover, there is an increasing discontent over the rampant use of Google that is “destroying the spirit of the Hunt.” But fundamentally, it might be the transient nature of Scav Hunt that sinks in on judgment that causes the sentiment of disappointment. That and the fact that the whole process simply doesn’t add up to much of anything. For example, the road trip (which is always fun to read about) is generally disconnected from the rest of the proceedings.

Taking these likely causes at face value hints at a possible course of action to address the problem. In my opinion, a potential remedy would be to do away with the large and mostly arbitrary (albeit typically very creative) list of items. Instead, have only a few big items (ideally one) and just a few teams (ideally two). I believe that by pooling brainpower, time, manpower, and resources in this way, there is nothing that can’t be done. Launching a functioning satellite or recreating some historical buildings from the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition are tempting candidates that immediately come to mind.

Such an approach would yield a number of direct advantages: A potential road trip would be seamlessly integrated in the fabric of the hunt, as there would be a genuine reason to retrieve things to accomplish the big item. Also, Google will help, but only so much. Most importantly, there would be lasting effects of the event and everyone who is participating could feel that they are working on something that connects them to anyone else involved. Also, the creation of the “list” would be another task for the teams, as the big challenge has to be broken up into sub-goals. If nothing else, such an approach would make judging rather straightforward.

Of course, I’m aware of the fact that hardcore Scav Hunters would say that I’m missing the point completely. They will declare that the nature of Scav Hunt is to have a few days of pointless fun to offset the typical U of C atmosphere and that the inherent philosophy of the Hunt is to be transient, focused on the process itself rather than a final product. I’m not sure of this argument. It seems to me that the people who are deeply devoted to the Hunt manage to have a pretty good time throughout the rest of the year, too. Furthermore, focusing on the process doesn’t logically preclude a good—and lasting—final product.

Obviously, there is not enough money to host two big-time events like this. Also, it is illusory to assume that a time-honed and entrenched institution such as Scav Hunt will be replaced by something entirely untested.

But it is important to consider other options for Scav. Why not give it a try? It might be worth it to attempt a Hunt that is psychologically satisfying in the long term—even if some find it antithetical to the fundamental nature of the existing Hunt.