For one night a year, everything flies

Cartoon by Ditya Ferdous.

If you can manage to type out “pterodactyl” correctly, put “Pterodactyl Hunt” into the Google search bar. The query is strange, and one might not suspect that such a phrase would return as many results as it does. Amongst the crop: “Pterodactyl Hunt? — College Confidential,” “Where are all those Pterodactyl hunt pictures?,” “What are fun things to do in Swarthmore, PA?,” and, of course, a slew of Swarthmore Warders of Imaginative Literature web pages from the 90’s and aughts referring to the Hunt, its rules and its history.

The web is host to many a history, video, question and picture of one of Swarthmore’s most popular and elaborate traditions. The Hunt, however, predates the internet and, while its online presence is robust, it is only a reflection of the very physical, ironically “real” hunt that takes place every fall. The ’Dactyl Hunt stretches so far beyond the world of the internet, the animated, the imaginary — the worlds to which it would ordinarily be relegated — and makes those realms exist, if only for one day, here on our small, suburban campus.

But even all of the information available and all of the buzz surrounding the Pterodactyl Hunt don’t readily or satisfactorily explain what exactly it is. That, in fact, is something that eluded even Psi Phi members before they had actually participated in their first ’Dactyl Hunt.

Sam Gray ’17 shared, “As a [first year] member of Psi Phi, we were talking about it, and I didn’t understand exactly what it entailed.” This uncertainty is being passed off to a whole new class of first-years as the annual Hunt draws near. The top of Sharples these days is not complete without the hushed musings and inquiries of first years, wondering, as Michael Tinti ’18 is, “What’re we going to do besides hunt pterodactyls?” Still, participants like Tinti move forward with anticipation for this year’s Hunt, even as confusion hangs heavily (but excitedly) in the air.

The first ever Pterodactyl Hunt, though, is the most enigmatic Hunt to date. After digging through the history of the Hunt, SWIL and Psi Phi a little bit, one finds a confounding set of claims about the dates and details of the first Swarthmore Pterodactyl Hunt. Several things appear to be true, however: the Hunt began in the early ’80s as a collaboration between the Folk Dance Club and SWIL, and it was born out of a desire to bring the culture of such clubs to the greater Swarthmore community.

This goal seems not to have changed after nearly 30 years, despite a switch in organizing club (Psi Phi runs the Hunt now, as SWIL is defunct). “The key aspect of the hunt is to make it, and the club, welcoming to campus as a whole. In a way, the hunt is a synecdoche of Psi Phi, where people with many different interests and activities come together,” said Bradley Carter ’15, president of Psi Phi.

Gray echoed Carter’s sentiments, remarking on the club’s reflection in the Hunt itself, “The hunt has a lot of the same orderly chaos — everyone running everywhere, but with a purpose (even if that purpose is just to attack dinosaurs with pool noodles) — that the meetings do, and it’s a good example of what we get up to in Psi Phi the rest of the year.”

Just as the club is an amalgam of people and interests, so too is the event that they host, which welcomes a student body with a seeming infinitude of interests and ideas. The Hunt is a place where those things can come to life in an otherworldly setting, necessarily sparking creativity and energy in participants, perhaps giving them more thoughts and more ways to explore their identities, whether real or imagined.

The hunt is both emblematic of nerd/fantasy/roleplay culture and the place at which that culture intersects with the whole of Swarthmore culture. As Gray remarked, “We can reach out to campus through the Hunt and let the rest of Swarthmore partake in some of the great nerdy fun that our club is all about.”

The Hunt has become a campus-wide institution, though, not just because it touts itself as open and welcoming (which it is) — there are tangible reasons for the Hunt’s accessibility. One of the main reasons is, of course, the gameplay itself.

Carter commented on gameplay during this year’s Hunt being used, in part, as a tool for openness. “It’s important for the hunt to offer different types of gameplay for different hunters/players (such as combat, questing and role-playing) while still retaining a cohesive framework. We want the hunt to be an expression of Psi Phi’s open attitude towards anyone and everyone, wherever they find themselves on the spectrum of nerditude.”

One of the key details in Carter’s statement is about the mixture of gameplay — combat, questing and roleplaying. This year, the club is bringing back “questing” as a major avenue of participation.

Ray Lefco ’15 elaborated on the concept of questing, stating, “One major difference between this year and last year is that this year has a very heavy (and optional) focus on quests. Quests do not require combat; instead, players can interact with historical figures (e.g. Shakespeare, Mulan) and perform minor tasks for them in exchange for rewards. After completing a certain number of quests, players can obtain a ‘Dactyl Hunting License permitting them to go up against a ‘Dactyl (the ‘final boss’).”

Gray also explicated further on the role of questing into the larger picture of the Hunt, “The theme has more bearing on the characters this year, and it will hopefully be more cohesive than previous hunts, with more interaction between characters and hunters than just whacking each other with foam swords (though of course there will be plenty of that as well).”

Gray also delved into the specific positives of having the questing option, “We’ll have several different quest lines that hunters can complete, with more options and the ability to avoid combat more easily if one would prefer to take a pacifist route.”

The theme is another reason for the Hunt’s historic popularity. In the past, themes like popular TV show, “Game of Thrones,” have brought together fans of the show and mere Pterodactyl Hunt enthusiasts alike. This year, however, the theme, “Time Travel,” is a bit more open.

Psi Phi member Ravenna Thielstrom ’16 described the process of choosing the theme, saying, “I actually initially suggested the idea … we can have a really diverse lineup of different monsters and quests that can still be individually recognizable.” Lefco added, “The hunt’s general premise every year tends to involve a rip in the fabric of reality through which the pterodactyls arrive and terrorize our campus. It seemed natural to explain that, this year, other figures from the past managed to come through the portal as well.”

Aside from being useful to the organizers and for the continuity of the story, the theme is also another apt tool for encouraging a broad base of students to participate. Lefco contrasted last year’s Hunt to this year’s Hunt, framing the comparison through the lens of accessibility, noting, “…unlike Game of Thrones (last year’s theme), history and legend are accessible to anybody who wants to participate.”

One of the most salient aspects of the ‘Dactyl Hunt, too, is its unabashed emphasis on fun and fantasy. To be sure, a lot of time and effort go into the Hunt — the effort that goes into costume, weapon, theme, etc. preparations, in fact, is nothing short of herculean — but the sheer absurdity of its premise suffuses each facet of the Hunt to the point that the Hunt, for many, becomes a de-stressing activity.

Gray described the role that Psi Phi members and participants alike play in pulling off and, primarily, enjoying the Hunt, “For me, the most important part is probably the fact that it provides a time when we can all just take a break and run around with foam swords, play a character, create a story and have some fun. It’s stress relief, and even though the setup itself is generally stressful (there’s a lot to do in preparation), the end result is great and makes the work worth it.”

Thielstrom corroborated Gray’s account, highlighting the nostalgic playfulness at the heart of the event, and the unifying effect that this has each year, if only for a few hours. “For me the Hunt is just a great time to be a child again and run around fighting monsters! I think what’s most important about it is the fact that so many people end up showing up, regardless of nerd level, so even if its a Psi Phi-hosted event it’s more about Swat as a whole.”

The complex and perfect mixture of intrigue, folly and receptiveness that surrounds anything and everything ’Dactyl Hunt allows it to cater to the larger populace of Swarthmore, all while retaining its nerdiness and sci-fi branding. In doing so, it seems, the Hunt has fulfilled its goal of imbuing both the Psi Phi and non-Psi Phi community with a little bit of light-hearted pterodactyl fun for the day.

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