Robin Camille Davis
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Escape the Library! Murder Mystery Challenge

Murder Mystery Challenge promotional poster

Beginning in 2013, the Lloyd Sealy Library partnered with Student Academic Success Programs (SASP) at John Jay College of Criminal Justice to create and coordinate a Murder Mystery Challenge, designed to walk first-year students through basic research tasks. The game was repeated yearly through 2018 for first-years and transfer students.

Learning objectives

How it's played

The Challenge follows a murder case narrative based on a real 1921 crime. Students used historical resources and were exposed to some of Lloyd Sealy Library's digitized Special Collections materials.

Students signed up in teams for an hour-long time slot in the Library during the designated two-week period. Teams worked together to complete tasks like searching in online newspaper archives, finding a book in the stacks, and citing a scholarly source properly. The final part of the game is a scavenger hunt that takes them through important parts of the library building, including the textbook reserves room and group study room area.

Facilitating active team learning by coordinating with the existing Peer Mentor social structure contributed to the game’s popularity. Teams were guided by enthusiastic Peer Mentors who were employed by SASP and trained by librarians. The Peer Mentors also play-tested the challenge and provided valuable feedback. With their guides, the teams were fairly self-sufficient and did not require librarian supervision. Our colleagues reported that the game was not disruptive in the library.

Originally in 2013, the Challenge took place in the library but was almost fully online using a Google Drive multi-page form. We chose to use a web form at the time because it required fairly little overhead and provided to-the-second stats. Moreover, college-level research takes place primarily online, and the library supports building strong digital literacy skills. But in Fall 2014, we changed gameplay to be almost entirely paper-based (with online research tasks), due to student feedback strongly advocating for a group activity that did not involve the team looking over one person's shoulder at the computer screen.

The first team to finish the challenge wins a prize. Prizes have included lunch in the Faculty Dining Room, New York Times tote bags, and $20 Amazon gift cards.


From 2013 to 2018, over 600 first-year and transfer students at John Jay College of Criminal Justice participated in the challenge.

In a post-activity survey in 2017, 88% of students surveyed called the activity “fun” or “very fun,” and 92% stated that they gained a research skill or learned about a library resource. In fact, some students expressed the wish that the Challenge were more difficult and longer (!).

Publications & presentations

I wrote about this project in 2019 in “Introducing First-Year and Transfer Students to a College Library With a Mystery From the Special Collections,” published in College & Undergraduate Libraries 26.4, pages 278-300. Read online at T&F. I'm really proud of the years of work that went into producing and assessing this student outreach event. This scholarly article details what made the game a success: creating a digital-paper hybrid, leveraging good game design, and developing a strong partnership with the peer mentoring program.

This project was featured in a poster presented on January 22, 2018 at the CUNY Games Conference, held at the Graduate Center. I included student feedback from 2013 to 2017, as well as specific things we changed to make the activity even better.

Robin and Marta smiling in front of a colorful academic poster

In January 2014, I presented a poster with my colleague Marta Bladek at the CUNY Games Festival, held at the Graduate Center. We also presented this project on June 4, 2015 at City College of New York for the annual CCNY Libraries' Professional Development Day. (Thanks to Maura Smale for the photos!)

Try it at your library!

The latest version of the game is mostly paper-based. It includes a scavenger hunt that leads students to different parts of the library via rhyming couplets. Email me for editable versions of game material. I'm happy to share!