By JOSEPH DITS
South Bend Tribune
7:04 PM EST, November 22, 2012
You know the trick, and so does Jonathan Kitchens.
You walk straight past The Salvation Army bell ringer, not making eye contact. That way, you won't feel bad about not giving your spare change.
Kitchens, a graphic designer at the nonprofit agency's Kroc Center, wanted to "bust through that avoidance maneuver."
"How can we make people want to go to the kettles," he wondered, "and help people have what we have?"
So, he and his fellow staff at The Salvation Army have come up a scavenger hunt that you can only play with a smartphone in St. Joseph County.
Digital badges and prizes await, from a pair of earrings worth $1,200 to free parties at Coveleski Stadium and the Kroc Center. Discounts and giveaways await contestants at stores, too.
The "Finding Christmas" game is on now through Dec. 24.
That explains why QR codes -- those odd little splatters of blocks that only a smartphone can read -- are flowering around the county like Christmas holly, except that these are red and white and in the shape of the Army's shield.
The codes are just starting to appear on signs at bell-ringing sites, at stores and at ... well, Salvation Army officials aren't releasing a list of where they are. That would spoil the game. Rather, you'll pick up clues with each badge and find more clues on Facebook and Twitter.
QR code scavenger hunts aren't brand-new, but Kitchens says he doesn't know of any quite like this -- and not at another Salvation Army.
Players pick up the digital badges at specific sites and earn points. More points go to trickier-to-get badges.
In one case, if you gather five badges on a particular Christmas tree, you win a sixth badge. And a few badges can be earned today only, by braving the Black Friday crowds at Mishawaka's University Park Mall.
You can earn more than 100 badges, said Ross Van Overberghe, who manages the design department at the Kroc Center and who worked on the game, too.
Each badge has its own digital icon that goes into your phone, whether it's a tree, a star, an ornament or another Christmas image. Several badges consist of the merchant's logo.
Many stores offer discounts and giveaways if you scan the code at their site.
"In return," Van Overberghe said of businesses, "we're going to use the game to deliver business to your steps."
The game carries a message for players, too.
With each badge, he said, "We're going to give you a little snippet of history either about Christmas or The Salvation Army and the good it does."
"In the process," he said of players, "they're learning about why we do the red kettles and how that helps families through the rest of the year."
One of the goals is to reach people in their late teens or 20s who don't have a connection to The Salvation Army's decades-old tradition of red kettles.
Another goal is to raise $125,000 through its red kettles. That's just part of the agency's total holiday campaign goal of $340,000, which is also raised via mail appeals and other donations.
Officials at the agency say the money supports programs for the needy, like its financial aid for utilities, mortgage and rent payments, along with Christmas food and toys for about 1,500 local families.
Kitchens, whose wife has volunteered to ring the Army bells in the past, said the game evolved out of staff meetings. They started talking about some kind of scavenger hunt tied to the kettle campaign.
They thought of using the Internet or GPS -- something to make it easy to track and to avoid paperwork -- and then explored using QR codes. Kitchens found a scavenger hunt in Europe where contestants tracked down badges of a Mini Cooper car, with the actual car going to the winner.
Kitchens then linked up with a one-man company, QR Wild, that specializes in setting up the digital platform for QR games.
Dustin Runnells in Rochester, N.Y., said he began QR Wild last year. He usually makes QR games for use within a specific group, like the one he set up to engage educators at a conference.
But, since "Finding Christmas" is open to the public, he said it pushed him to set up a more complex game with a wider scope.
Only 100 or more badges to go until Christmas.
Staff writer Joseph Dits:
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