Academic conferences. They're scary. You put yourself and your research out there to be shredded by "colleagues" and hiring committees. But one top-flight humanities conference wants to put you at ease. With live-action role play and prizes. Yes, it's time for a sparklepony quest!

The Conference on College Composition and Communication—"Four C's," or simply "the C's," to those cool kids in the know—is a big, big deal for a lot of academics: 3,200 attendees a year. It's where you present your latest research on pathos and the semiotics of Lena Dunham's New Yorker writing. You beg the University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople for that 4/4 job, teaching first-year comp on a one-year contract with no benefits. And you meet the superstars of your discipline, 90-year-old scholars at UMass-Dartmouth and Santa Clara with walkers and big red bulges at the corners of their eyes and enough cat hair in their tweed to fashion a cilice for Pope Francis.

But the C's are changing to be warmer, funner. Everybody's a scholar of communications here, so let's learn to break the ice and communicate, mingle even, with some brilliant parlor stunts developed at the conference "by a handful of scholars who also were interested in video and role-playing games," according to the Chronicle of Higher Ed:

The game, called C's The Day, puts attendees, most of them here for the first time, through a series of challenges, called quests, of the players' choosing.

The more than 80 quests are laid out in a booklet that gets stamped each time a player completes a quest.

Oh goody, a pun-based scavenger hunt. This will be delicious!

The quests are designed to encourage attendees to network and get the most out of the conference, and they fall into three main categories.

Taxonomies are important, whether you're talking about networking for meager jobs developing new compositional pedagogies, or Settlers of Catan.

Role-playing quests help introduce new scholars to the norms of the discipline. One such quest asks players to practice their elevator speech.

"Give a comprehensive, 15-second description of the entirety of your research," the quest reads. "Extra points for each theorist you can coherently mention in the allotted time."

How is this a challenging game, you ask? Simple: Note the inclusion of the adverb "coherently"!

Other quests focus on the conference. One instructs the player to ask a good question at a panel.

Well, that would be a first at an academic conference.

Networking quests are what pushed Ms. Roper to ask for Ms. Mick's card. She was attempting a quest called "Working the Room," which requires players to collect four business cards. A similar quest asks players to "meet a field luminary without being obnoxious."

Nobody's picking up any stamps for that latter quest.

There are C's the Day trading cards, too. What will you give me for an Aristotle, a Socrates, and two Foucaults? I'm warning you now: I won't settle for less than two Derridas and a Writing Tree.

So what does one win for, you know, attempting to communicate normally with fellow humans at a communications-research conference?

If a player completes two quests, he or she earns a handmade pin of a small horse, called a "sparklepony." The game's top three finishers receive a foot-high bejeweled sparklepony, painted with glitter and festooned with feathers. The grand-prize winner is guaranteed publication in one of three disciplinary journals.

Here's what the prize ponies look like:

These astute rhetoricians seem unaware that "sparklepony" in common parlance denotes either a useless flight of fancy or somebody at Burning Man who's a real drag.

Put all that aside, though. These are real incentives. First prize: publication! Second prize: shiny horse! Most important, all participants walk away with the option of tenureless adjuncting at three campuses within a 150-mile radius of their apartments from now until the welcome embrace of soul-oblivion, or the shuttering of their departments. Whichever comes first!

[Photo credit: goodcat/Shutterstock]