Friday, October 12, 2012

Creative Madness: the U of C Scav Hunt

Part of a series on Stuff You Might Not Know About.

It's really the wrong time of year to write about this, as the annual University of Chicago Scavenger Hunt (typically shortened to "Scav Hunt" or simply "Scav") takes place in May, not October. But Scav is great and I want to talk about it.

Sometimes in the middle of a conversation with a friend, often one I've known for quite a while, some topic will come up regarding insane amounts of creativity or fanatic zeal for an obscure and seemingly futile cause. And I'll say, "Have I ever told you about Scav Hunt?"

Scav is U of C students' yearly opportunity to expend massive amounts of creative energy to no practical end, for fun and for glory alone. Every year at 12am on the Thursday before Mother's Day, the Scav Judges release the List of that year's 300 or so items, which they have spent the previous 12 months meticulously researching and describing.

Some of these items will be straightforward to understand but somewhat difficult to acquire, like "A big rock. Really big. [Up to 30 points]"1 or "A De Lorean. We've got seventy-five bucks riding on this one. [You've got seventy-five points riding on this one]."2 Some are easy enough to understand, but require lots of time and creative energy to make, like this one:
An original table-top wargame playable with only coins, small office supplies, and other things I might reasonably expect to have in my pockets. (And no, I don’t reasonably expect to have three d12s in my pockets. Nerds.) On Thursday starting at 1:00 p.m., you’ll have 15 minutes to give me a copy of the rules, explain them, and play part of a battle with me. Playtests will be scheduled at Captains’ Operatory. [12 points]3 
Some items require specialized knowledge just to understand what they are asking for (see, for example, item #44 on 2009's list, which requires that you know [I assume] Chinese). And some items are intentionally vague, left open for the Judges to drop on you when they choose; there is very often an item marked simply "TBA."4 There are also a list of "Scav Olympics" items that describe competitive events held on Saturday morning after the List is released (including a whistling contest,5 in which I placed third for the virtuoso whistling performance of a medley of Star Trek themes).

Me, whistling in a Scav Hunt whistling contest.

The participants in Scav are organized into teams, usually based on what college dorm they live in, though you need not be a student to participate, as evidenced by such teams as the FIST (Federation of Independent Scav Teams) or the GASH (Grad/AlumScav Hunt team). There are a number of powerhouse teams that usually vie to be the best; their power comes from large numbers, budgets, and/or a culture of extreme dedication to Scav Hunt. I participated on a smaller team that knew it would not place first and wanted to have lots of fun. We succeeded.

Each team delegates items as they see fit; some have "page captains," people who are in charge of assigning and following up on items on individual pages of the List. Others, like my team, just wing it, often coming up with items just a few minutes before they are due.6 One function without which no Scav team is complete is the Road Trip, a band of four team members who dress in a designated costume, decorate their car, and head out on a 1000-mile-or-so journey to somewhere designated by a series of items. Past trips have circled the Great Lakes, struck out for Georgia, or headed to the Badlands.

On Sunday, (aka "Mother's Day," and some Scavvies do indeed forget to call their mothers, though I was never such an one) the teams gather and present their items. First there is the Showcase, made up of the big, impressive, challenging items (like a vending machine that dispenses List items7 or a robot that juggles8). And then there is the Judgment: the teams gather at their respective tables in the Judgment location (in Ida Noyes) and the Judges come around and look at their items, secretly notating and tabulating points. Points are rarely discussed with teams; sometimes the Judge will tell you if you got "full points" or not, but typically they just tell you whether or not they are satisfied/impressed, and move on. No team has any real idea how many points they have before the Judges' Judgment is declared.

Scav Hunt is a great time. I loved it, and sometimes I still go back to see items at Judgment or watch Scav Olympics on Saturday of Scav. If you're interested in learning more, the official website is here, and I've found the Wikipedia page to be interesting and helpful.

I will conclude with this, the only item still in my possession: Item #207, 2009.9 It was hastily composed at my apartment over the course of an hour or so, and I performed it all myself, changing my voice for different characters and playing sound effects I had downloaded onto a CD. I was and am still quite proud of it, as most other teams used a whole team of people to do what I managed solo.

Old Time Radio Show - Scav by James Davisson

1. Item #3, 2009.
2. Item #51, 2008.
3. Item #45, 2012.
4. For example, Item #215, 2009, which was apparently worth 10 points.
5. "You know how to whistle, don't you, Scav? You just put your lips together and . . . blow. Steadily, with an even pitch, and for as long as possible. And then, impress us with a virtuoso performance." Item #9, 2009.
6. My personal favorite was our last-minute response to Item #27, 2008: "Oh, I wonder wonder wonder what's in a WonderBallTM? No, really, what's in there? The more surprised I am, the more points you get. [30 or fewer points]," for which we hastily cut open a tennis ball, shoved in a black spot on a page of the Bible (scandalous!) and quickly made eye patches and tin foil swords; the Judge in charge of the item opened the ball and looked at the black spot as we put on our eye patches and took out our swords, and when it dawned on her what she was looking at she turned and said "Oh no..." and we all roared a pirate cry and she FELL DOWN IN TERROR. It was great.
7. Item #250, 2009, "Build a vending machine. Vending machines must be coin operated, with multiple button-selected options to choose from. In addition to whatever sugary goodness you choose, machines must vend three other List items when you type in their item numbers. [250 points]"
8. Item #183, 2011, "The dark side of the gleaming steel and bright lights of modern robotics is unemployment among laborers. Automobile assembly, heavy manufacturing, and even book retrieval in the library have been taken over by tireless, many-armed machines. And now, even the jugglers are being pushed out of work by their robotic counterparts. Build an automaton that juggles by tossing or bouncing at least two objects. Automata will be evaluated for their ability to continuously juggle multiple objects in a complex pattern. [250 points]" 
9. "Bring back the golden age of radio for at least 10 thrilling minutes! We'll give you the time slot at WHPK, you provide script, sound effects, impersonations, wit, humor, and drama. Your broadcast must have an original serialized radio drama, punctuated by an annoying call sign and commercials, no less than once every three minutes. All breaks from the action must leave us on cliff-hangers that compel us not to change that dial. The Judges will provide you an encoded message to broadcast for all "junior judges" to decipher with Item 217. Teams must combine decoded messages from all teams' radio broadcasts to figure out the secret instructions. [40 points, 10 points for advertizing your serial in the Reynolds Club in the proper `30s style, and 10 points for decoding the message]." Note that I did not include a decipherable message, for reasons I do not remember. 

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