When campus police got word that a masked student had a gun at his desk during class, armed officers immediately confronted him, confiscated it, and found out others on campus were carrying weapons as well.
But instead of averting a real threat, University of Nebraska authorities found a toy gun that shoots foam darts being used for what amounted to an elaborate game of tag.
Thousands of players, mostly on college campuses, have participated for years in versions of the 24/7 battle to "eliminate" all other players. But some say the game–known widely as "Assassin" or "Assassins"–is ill-suited and possibly dangerous in times when campus shootings are fresh in people’s minds.
Juan Franco, University of Nebraska’s vice chancellor for student affairs, told students in an eMail last month that the game was banned on campus, saying it led to unnecessary concern.
"While this may be a game that is fun to play, it is extremely inappropriate in this day and age in which we are all too familiar with the Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University shootings," Franco wrote.
"I am asking student organizations to work with us in encouraging students not to participate in such a game and make it clear that it will not be tolerated on campus."
Officials with the American Association of State Colleges and Universities and the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities said they had not heard of any other bans or restrictions of the game at the roughly 900 schools they represent.
Representatives of the Association for Student Judicial Affairs, the American Council on Education and the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators also hadn’t heard of any other bans.
The game is relatively simple.
Each player is assigned another to "assassinate" and eliminate from the game. At the same time, players become targets of others, making everyone equal parts hunter and prey.
Safe zones are assigned where players cannot be eliminated, usually classrooms or a dormitory floor.
Once a player scores an acceptable "kill," he or she is assigned the victim’s target. Play continues until there is just one survivor. Winners can receive prizes ranging from bragging rights to a pot of money in games where players pay to play.
Lance Parke, an 18-year-old Appalachian State University student who organized a game with 80 high school seniors last year in Kernersville, N.C., said Franco’s eMail was a "ridiculous assessment."
"The game is just a big-kid version of hide-and-seek. It makes you think, and it’s strategic," Parke said. "I don’t think any kid has played Assassins and said, ‘Oh, let’s go do that in real life.’"
But some authorities worry that the methods players use–and the lengths some are willing to go to win–could cause hasty, mistaken reactions by witnesses or police.
"It’s very difficult when a call comes in about a gun," said University of Nebraska police Capt. Carl Oestmann. "The officers have to handle the calls as if they’re responding to a real gun, until it’s proven otherwise."
Ryan Mulligan, a 22-year-old University of Illinois graduate who helps organize Assassin games around the country through his web site, Sassins.com, said, "It could be construed as being very similar to having a gunman running around campus if you’re running around with a squirt gun or NERF gun."
Sam Dorrance, a high school senior in Waverly, Iowa, who has played the game and organized three others, said there is nothing wrong with the game.
"I thought it was funny, I thought it was irreverent, and it was also a lot of fun," he said.
The most common weapons used are water pistols and foam-projectile guns, but many students have traded in toy firearms for highlighters, spoons, balled-up socks, and stickers, among other things, to avoid any confusion.
"It’s just as fun when you play with those versus squirt guns and NERF guns, but people don’t confuse socks and spoons for anything deadly," said Mulligan, who last fall organized a 128-player game using socks and spoons at his alma mater.
University of Nebraska spokeswoman Kelly Bartling said the school would stick with the ban–no matter what "weapons" students wanted to play with–until at least next school year. The university’s main campus is in Lincoln.
Parke, the Appalachian State student, said some players really got into his game, dressing in camouflage and black and lurking around targets’ houses, waiting for them to come out.
"It really reminded me of when we were all kids and violence didn’t exist for us," he said. "It reminded me of a more innocent time, when kids played Army and things like that."