Scavenger Hunt

Scavenger Hunts are a type of physical, creative, or social task/challenge often present in large-scale puzzle hunts. Scavenger hunts are a staple of the MIT Mystery Hunt, with its version of a scavenger hunt taking many forms over the decades since its first instance.

History[edit | edit source]

Party Games[edit | edit source]

Scavenger hunts have existed as folks games for decades, but the modern "party game" scavenger hunt dates back to 1927, when gossip columnist Elsa Maxwell hosted a party in Paris that featured one such game. Similar to today, the original scavenger hunts required participants to collect as many items from a list as possible and return with them to a predetermined location. However, as Maxwell was a socialite in a period known for extravagant parties amongst the social elite (in a city known for extravagance already), the hunt itself was fittingly extravagant. Among other items, attendees had to collect a shoe belonging to French singer Mistinguett, a distinctive red pom-pom from a French naval hat, and a live black swan from the Bois du Bologne park. These items alone resulted in a shoeless performance that night from Mistinguett, multiple hospitalizations due to swan attacks, and a high-profile accusation of theft by the French navy. According to multiple sources, the hunt caused even more disturbances throughout the city that night.

These disturbances did not prevent further iterations (also organized by Maxwell), and in fact may have contributed to the inclusion of even more oddities in the ensuing lists (and partially inspiring the 1936 film My Man Godfrey). In future events, mostly hosted in New York in the 1930s, items included:

  • A live monkey
  • A live goat (non-political)
  • A red street lantern (in a year when police were in on the hunt)
  • A speeding ticket (in a year when police were not in on the hunt)
  • The future Mayor of New York City (or his signature)
  • Jimmy Durante's shoe

Over time, scavenger hunts became popular outside of the social elite, and became popular party games for the masses, albeit with much less disruption to entire cities. They were also picked up by education institutes and smaller communities as larger-scale events used for initiations, celebrations, and fundraising events, as they were an easy way to distract large amounts of people with a fun activity with little to no financial cost to the organizers.

Some such scavenger hunts, particularly those beginning in the 80s and 90s, became annual or otherwise regular events, with lists and requirements changing and evolving over time, often adding in themes for each instance. Some events would involve additional tasks that participants would have to prepare for and complete, often at a scheduled gathering during the hunt period. Similarly, some lists involved tasks to complete and document, rather than being entirely physical items.

Puzzle Hunts[edit | edit source]

Puzzle hunt scavenger hunts began mostly in-line with traditional party-game scavenger hunts, in that they would provide a list of items that solvers simply had to collect and present. However, they had the additional element of reward-based extraction, wherein providing a certain number of items (usually four) would grant teams a piece of their final answer (or a piece of a clue phrase for their final answer).

In the MIT Mystery Hunt in particular, this system would be adjusted to having a flat number of items or points collected to receive the answer straight-up, and then to have a varying total based on the size and/or composition of each team. This eventually resulted in scavenger hunts that would be theoretically easier for teams that had fewer people to contribute, and much more difficult for teams that overloaded themselves. The balance between these needed to be further tweaked in accordance with the overall size of the hunt and the increase in purely-remote solving.

The MIT Mystery Hunt's scavenger hunts since the early 2000s have also traditionally focused more on ingenuity and creative thinking over finding obscure items, instead expecting solver to make, forge, or convince judges on the authenticity of items to fit particular slots. This practice reached a point in the 2017 MIT Mystery Hunt, when extra points were given for qualities that could not physically be proven (such as an amulet that "wards off evil spirits" or a cloak that "protects the wearer from magic"), but could be argued for or acted out via improvisation with the judges.

When COVID-19 forced the MITMH to take place entirely online, the scavenger hunt continued as normal, but with documentation (video, picture, or written) being required for particular tasks or items. In 2022, the scavenger hunt was replaced entirely with tasks, making it the least scavenger-y hunt thus far.

Puzzle Application[edit | edit source]

Being a task rather than an active puzzle, there's very little traditional puzzle theory that can be applied to either the construction or solving process of a scavenger hunt. However, what can be applied is creative thinking and adherence to a theme for both.

Most modern puzzle hunt scavenger hunts have the benefit of a particular theme to work off of, which can help inform the content of the "list". As the goal of the modern scavenger hunt is less to provide a roadblock or difficult challenge, and more to provide a distraction from solving or something for less puzzle-inclined members of a team to accomplish, leaning into humor and theming is highly recommended.

As mentioned previously, there are multiple ways to present a scavenger hunt with the end result being an answer, even though they will almost always use some form of reward-based extraction. Depending on the expected size of teams and the desired size of the list, one may choose to provide a final answer (or final cluephrase) in piecemeal form, giving a letter, word, or concept per threshold passed. Alternatively, one may decide to take the "Lump Sum" route, wherein an answer is presented once a single threshold is reached. Other possible styles of presentation include:

  • Variable Lump Sum (Lump Sump but the threshold depends on team size and distribution)
  • Sequential (Solvers choose some of a set to collect, which then opens a new category to complete, eventually opening up the answers)
  • Competitive (Performance in a scavenger hunt event dictates how/when teams get their answer)

Strategy[edit | edit source]

As it's difficult (if not impossible) to accurately prepare for a scavenger hunt before seeing the list, there's not much strategy that can be reliably applied to them. That being said, here are some tips:

  • If travelling to an in-person hunt from out-of-town, pack some trinkets along with whatever normal things you're planning on bringing. Puzzle hunt scavenger hunts often include things that aren't easily sourced while on-site, so having a few out-of-place things may give you a leg up.
    • Additionally, scope out the nearest second hand store or pawn shop to the hunt's site. Buying items whole-cloth should be a last resort, but sometime it's the best option to check something off of a list.
  • Bring craft materials, like colored paper, tape, scissors, and stickers. If possible, bring a crafty person as well. These kinds of scavenger hunts also often involve items that would be best made from scratch, or items that could easily be improved with some window dressing.
  • Read the instructions carefully, know how many points/items you need, and plan your attack. There's no point in doing more than you have to, especially when a scavenger hunt is particularly time-consuming. If you have to reach 50 points, plan things out so that you get either exactly 50 points, or a minimum of 50 points if things have variable point values based on quality.
  • Butter up the judges. If they're playing a role as a judge, join the fun; they may award you with extra points for playing along. Either that, or have a bribe handy (even better if "a bribe" is something on the list).

Notable Examples[edit | edit source]

  • Easiest Scavenger Hunt Ever (MITMH 2005) - A scavenger hunt consisting of relatively common items, including a pen, a flashlight, and a travel mug. The catch was that the items had to be prepared for within 30 minutes of unlocking the puzzle, likely throwing a team's HQ into chaos trying to make sure that things were available for judging.

Notable Standalone Scavenger Hunts[edit | edit source]

  • The University of Chicago Scavenger Hunt (AKA Scav Hunt or just Scav) - Regularly contains lists of over 200 items and tasks to complete over an MITMH-like period (3 or so days), often with cryptic or puzzle-like instructions. Also include the "Scav Olympics", a series of point-bearing events; and the Road Trip, a series of locations that need to be visited (and documented) while maintaining a particular theme or perpetuating a particular storyline.
  • The Greatest International Scavenger Hunt (GISH, formerly gishwhes (The Greatest International Scavenger Hunt the World Has Ever Seen)) - An annual week-long scavenger hunt with a list of over 200 items, organized by actor Misha Collins since 2011.

See Also[edit | edit source]