Recent high school graduate Edwin Brito plays the pilot version of USC's Pathfinder game.

Recent high school graduate Edwin Brito plays the pilot version of USC's Pathfinder game.

A simple online search will turn up hundreds of web sites packed with advice for high school students applying to college. But few internet resources offer step-by-step guidance, and with college counseling dwindling in public schools, University of Southern California researchers have created a video game that lets student simulate the application process in all its complexity.

The online game, called Pathfinder, has been piloted among more than 100 Los Angeles-area high school students this year and could be available to school districts free of charge if USC’s Game Innovation Lab secures $1 million in grants and funding, said Zoe Corwin, a research associate in the university’s Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis.

The Pathfinder pilot uses playing cards, but the finished product will be a web-based game, officials said.

Pathfinder lets students control a virtual character—a “super jock” or a “misunderstood artist,” for example—and move through the application process, choosing which schools to apply to and how to secure financial aid. Their characters are given a specific income bracket and high school resume, and players are told to focus on extracurricular activities, academics, work, and service to build a strong application.

“There are a lot of great web sites out there with information, but they don’t teach strategy,” said Corwin, adding that the video game format maintained students’ attention for more than an hour and a half. “[High school students] just look at these sites and they’re not engaged.”

Corwin said time management is a consistent shortfall for high school students, so meeting hard deadlines for applications, college essays, and scholarship paperwork often stalls the application process.

“They are not just being fed information, they’re learning strategy and increasing their college literacy,” she said. “They need to know just how important deadlines are.”

William Tierney, a professor in USC’s Rossier School of Education and director of the Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis, said the Pathfinder game includes a section that distinguishes among different kinds of colleges: liberal arts college, technical school, and state university, for instance.

“We have students in high school today who could go to college, but who don’t know how to apply, and they need help in terms of navigating [the process], and figuring out how to write [a] college essay, and even where to go,” Tierney said.

Bringing college application lessons to a video game format, Corwin said, could be key in attracting a generation of teenagers who play web-based and console games en masse. Ninety-seven percent of 12- to 17-year-olds play video games, with seven in 10 playing games on their desktop or laptop computers, according to a study published by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. Ninety-nine percent of male respondents said they play video games, as did 94 percent of females included in the survey.

USC officials announced in January on the Pathfinder web site that the university is working on a Pathfinder prototype that would be available via Facebook, making the game more accessible to millions of teens who frequent the social media giant.