At Springfield High School, Ethan Doyle is an honors student, a member of the baseball team, the investment club, and an elite student group known as Superintendent’s Roundtable. But perhaps his most notable accomplishment came during the spring of his sophomore year, when he assassinated more of his classmates than anybody else.
“My mom didn’t really care but my dad, he was hyped up about it a little bit. He was excited,” Ethan says.
That’s because Ethan had triumphed in a game that’s been played in this town — and, as I discovered, many others — for generations.
Which means some of you out there know all about Assassins. But for those who don’t, I’m going to let Leland Grove Police Chief Dan Ryan explain.
“The game of Assassin is where it’s normally put on in the spring, and normally, what we deal with is high school kids. You’re assigned a certain person … you have to go get that person, and … the targets don’t know who the assassin is. And so it’s a game basically of the last man standing,” Ryan says. “And it’s played with water guns.”
At least, that’s the version Ryan played when he was in high school. There are countless variations. I found the game being played across the country, everywhere from summer camps to Bible colleges, with weapons ranging from Nerf guns to silly string to magic wands to Magic Markers. Remember the TV show Gossip Girl? One episode was devoted to a game of Assassins played using Polaroid pictures.
Organizers seem to take the basic elements (here’s a good primer) and adapt it to their locations, their players, and their goals. Some games operate with solo players; others (like Springfield) use a team structure. Several colleges (including Northwestern University) have encouraged Assassins in the fall semester among freshmen dorms as a way for students to get acquainted and make new friends. The weapon of choice in college settings is often “balled up socks,” which virtually every student has handy.
Most high school-based games are forbidden on school property, and student organizers can declare other “safe” zones, like prom. Springfield High’s weaponry is described as any form of water “except spit,” and typically includes water balloons and bottles of water. Ethan’s most legendary “kill” was delivered without any conventional container.
Social media, especially Twitter, has become the communications channel for high school players, providing organizers a means of publicizing rules, announcing safe zones and surprise game-changers, such as a “purge.”
At MIT, where the game has been played since the 1970s, there’s an Assassins Guild that hosts exquisitely complex permutations of the game, often involving costumes and densely layered plotlines. Philip Tan, who earned the guild’s “master assassin” title in 2005, now runs MIT’s game lab.
“The version at MIT is usually played with little rubber darts with little suction cups at the end. They don’t go very far, they don’t do any damage, and they’re quite obviously not real guns. They’re bright fluorescent colors,” he says.
The game lab is part of MIT’s Humanities department, and Tan — a research scientist — looks at games from a historical and cultural point of view. He classifies most Assassin-variety sports as both “circle of death” and “getting-to-know-you” games, because the game forces players to learn about their targets (Tan met his wife when they were both “secret agents” playing Assassins).
“You get the name of somebody that you may not know, and you have to, like, figure out who they are, where they are, stick them up with a banana or something like that and say bang,” Tan says. “But really it’s not all that different from Secret Santa. It’s just the way how you make that connection is not giving someone a gift, it’s like giving someone a dart.”
For some people, however, a game that ends with a gift doesn’t belong in the same category as a game that ends with a dart. And nowadays, the notion of students stalking each other — even with squirt guns — upsets some people.
In February, the day a 19-year-old male shot and killed 17 people at a Florida high school, a mom watching the news in suburban Hinsdale, Illinois, contacted her local high school’s principal to say that — as a show of respect — the game should be suspended. Her request was reported in the Chicago Tribune, which withheld her name. But since the game was never played on school property, Hinsdale officials couldn’t stop it, and the students opted to carry on their tradition. With the district now in the midst of an attendance boundary change plus a push for a referendum, Assassins has become such a toxic topic, I couldn’t find any official willing to talk about it on the record.
Kurt Squire, a game creator and professor at the University of California Irvine, says that’s not surprising.
“Yeah, in the age of school massacres, it becomes much more complicated, doesn’t it?” he says. “So on the one hand, it just seems to be in bad taste to be joking and talking about these things. But on the other hand, we do know that one of the ways people deal with such stress is to play them out. There can be, for some people, a feeling of taking ownership or being empowered over these themes by playing them out and showing that you’re not going to be afraid of them, you’re not going to be paralyzed by them.”
This issue hit close to home for me. A student at Springfield High School lost a brother to violence just a few months before Assassins began in April, yet that student signed up to play anyway. And who fired the fatal blast of H20 to knock him out of the game? My own 17-year-old son, Evan.
“He was doing it to have fun, to get things off his mind, and trying to live his life the best he could,” Evan says. “I think that’s what his brother would want him to do.”
That’s a good theory, but is he right? At my request, Evan texted his classmate, to see if he wanted to speak for himself. The response was the teenage version of a polite no-thank-you: “I’m not feelin’ it.”
In researching the game, I found one incident where a version of Assassins had a tragic result. Students at Lakeville South High School, in a suburb near Minneapolis, played a variation called “Nerf War,” using soft darts and plastic spoons. Like most schools, Lakeville prohibited “kills” on school property. But unlike other game scenarios, Lakeville players were allowed to “kidnap” their targets on school property. In 2015, two students, including one who had been kidnapped, died when the vehicle they were riding in rolled over shortly after leaving the school parking lot.
Ryan, the Leland Grove police chief, says the most dangerous situation his officers encountered was when a teen painted a small, plastic water gun matte black “so the light wouldn’t catch it,” making it look a lot like a lethal weapon. Ryan just shakes his head. “A little bit of common sense goes a long way.”
But aside from that — even as the dad of a teenage son who cut ruts in his lawn trying to drive into an Assassin safe zone at home — Ryan doesn’t want kids to have to stop playing the game.
“Kids have to be kids. They have to have a good time, and that’s what the whole game’s all about,” he says. “I think it’s a fun game.”
Illinois Newsroom is a regional journalism collaborative (RJC) focused on expanding coverage of education, state politics, health, and the environment. The collaborative includes Illinois Public Media in Urbana, NPR Illinois in Springfield, WSIU in Carbondale, WVIK in the Quad Cities, Tri States Public Radio in Macomb, and Harvest Public Media. Funding comes from the stations and a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB).