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Smartphone Game Turns College Tours, Orientations Into Scavenger Hunts

It’s simply impossible for the admissions office at Dartmouth College to give a complete tour to each of the 20,000 visitors to the campus every year. Many visitors don’t arrive on Saturdays at noon, when tours are scheduled. And at 270 acres, the campus is too big to cover in a single tour anyway.

Starting in a few weeks, Dartmouth will offer self-guided tours using SCVNGR, a mobile application that allows organizations to design game-based outings across campus. Admissions officials hope that offering tours on visitors’ phones will keep them on campus longer and improve their experience.

“Rather than a static paper handout of a self-guided tour, SCVNGR is going to guide them around campus and give them something to do,” says John J. Beck, Jr., senior assistant director of admissions.

SCVNGR, which launched in 2008, has gained a foothold on college campuses primarily as a way to supplement campus visits and new-student orientations. It counts roughly 400 colleges as customers, a 15-percent increase from a year ago.

The company is one of several location-based services — including Foursquare, Facebook Places, and Gowalla — that are vying to help colleges take advantage of mobile devices like smartphones and tablets. Foursquare popularized the idea that people could check in with their phones to tell other people where they are.

But the benefits for colleges of more check-ins can be elusive. College officials who have used SCVNGR praise the platform as a more directed experience than Foursquare that can help them achieve concrete goals.

Through contests involving SCVNGR tours, called “treks,” officials say they have introduced visitors to campus, taught college employees about their work environments, and helped new students get to know each other.

Patrick Powers, director of digital marketing and communications at Webster University, says new students don’t always attend orientation events as much as he would like. This year, Webster offered a SCVNGR trek that gave students points for attending sessions, taking photos of other students with the same major, and completing other challenges.

More than 50 percent of new students played the game, far exceeding Mr. Powers’ expectations. “People might think that they’re doing it to play this game, but in reality they’re getting better information, they’re participating in the process,” he says. The college plans to offer new challenges throughout the year.

College officials say it helps that the software is relatively cheap. Annual licenses cost between $1,000 and $12,000, depending on the number of challenges colleges want to offer at any one time.

Mr. Beck, of Dartmouth, said the college hopes to design more-specialized treks in the future. A sustainability-focused trek, for example, could ask students to answer questions about the campus’ organic farm or to explain why the new bioscience building was given “LEED Platinum” status.

The software gives colleges a “dashboard” view of who is participating in the treks and where they are going. At the moment, the information is useful mostly for designing better SCVNGR treks, Mr. Beck says. But in the future, the information from software-led treks could help the college improve its in-person campus tours.

“If we see all of the interest in one particular area of campus or another, maybe that’s something we need to talk about more,” Mr. Powers says.

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