Swintopia: 2020’s most adventurous open day so far

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Swinburne U’s computer game open day could burnish, or burn its value proposition

There are plenty of tricks to make yourself memorable with the new vice chancellor, but surely the decision to turn Swinburne VC Pascale Quester into a big-eyed avatar, as the frontline character in the University’s alternate-universe cartoon open day has got to be one of the more audacious.

Swintopia has blown the field wide open in terms of technological wizardry for this year’s crop of virtual open days, in a year when student engagement and university events have had to lurch almost exclusively into the digital realm.

There’s a digitised campus, annoyingly slow-walking robots and a labyrinthine navigational structure to weave your way through in Swinburne’s virtual world, which has the potential to engage middle-year secondary students stuck in careers classes, but will either fascinate or infuriate time-poor year 12 students who are already struggling with on-line fatigue.

No doubt extensive user testing has bolstered Swinburne’s go-bold or go-home play in the digital recruitment world, but pity the time-poor parents who stumble into the full open day experience hoping to quickly help their offspring chart a course out of the year of lockdowns.

I claim no status as a digital savant and it took just under three minutes for Swintopia to load up from the link (no doubt largely due to Australia’s world-class NBN), but given that many will not share my fascination with open days, it’s worth providing a quick overview of the experience.

Once you enter Swintopia, welcomed to a campus with bunting, a popcorn machine and an oversize pigeon, Professor Quester appears as a big-eyed avatar to welcome me on campus. Fun in its own way, but I have to keep pressing the space bar to move through several tracts of text before I choose a colour for my robot character which I use to explore the cartoon campus.

Cutting to the chase, it took me around 15 minutes to get to the George building, pick up my tote bag (virtual of course) and then have the freedom to move about. This could be my ineptitude at the controls (keyboard arrows only to move, space bar to cycle through reams of bite-sized text chunks, mouse to click on features/actions). To get information about actual courses I had to navigate to various buildings, click on avatars of people I haven’t really heard of, cycle through text about their stories and then get access to a room with no signage but lots of milling people. I have to move my robot around inside rooms to get info, hope that I will see a circle or star when I move my robot up to a person or thing, and then click on it to see what info Swinburne wants to serve up.

On the plus side, full credit to Swinburne U for daring to be differentiated in a sector where too little is. The game’s quality is no doubt very high. I retained some bits of information that I wouldn’t have with other open days – minorly famous people who are students and a software plug – but I didn’t actually find information about the course that I was actually seeking for my year 12 son.

I left after half an hour, sustained that long only by my ongoing professional interest in university engagement, marketing and recruitment. Most university campuses are complex and easy to get lost on, and I found Swintopia certainly replicated this experience, but without the joy of discovery.

This is first and foremost an experiential open day, I have to click and move and press the space bar to find out information, without any clear indication of where I am going to find the course information that I seek. Furthermore, I have to work through a predefined decision path that the university decided for me – my robot is duty bound to hit a few key sights before it is free to roam the campus, and when it gets into an area, I couldn’t find anyone live to talk to. Maybe they were there and I missed another avatar, but ultimately this experience gave me even less experience than I would get with a fleeting chat at an on-campus event.

This is my sixth virtual university open day this year, and certainly the most unusual. While my experience may not have been ideal, I am clearly not the target demographic and only enrolments and some decent market research will tell whether Swintopia is a template for the future or a bright cartoon shooting star wide of the mark.

There is a broader question of university brand, which can only arise as you see each vice chancellor kick off their open day with welcome videos or in this case welcome avatars.

Does the substitution of a university experience with a computer game allegory ultimately burn or burnish the value proposition for universities?

The Swintopia adventure and other virtual open day experiences present us with the chance to start to find out.

Tim Winkler is Director of Twig Marketing, Australia’s first higher education strategy and marketing consultancy