Will is disdainful. “No way I’m running,” he declares, “I refuse.” We are moving in a group of four, myself, Will, Rose and EGo, trying to find the best way from West 21st to West 32nd, only using our feet or public transportation. We expect to be chased at any moment. We walk quickly, and manage to catch a crosstown bus. We make it to the first checkpoint safely. But then as we move towards Penn Station, we hear a sharp “Hey!” to our left. A man on a bike, with the dreaded yellow caution tape around his arm, has seen us. Will looks over. He stops in his tracks, and then… he starts running, bike man in pursuit. The game is now more real than we ever imagined.
For it is a game, one of many offered last weekend as part of the first Come Out and Play Festival, a celebration of street and other “big” games in New York City. Included in the weekend’s offerings are games of chase, espionage, assassins and familiar video game favorites, expanded and released into various public spaces around the city.
Our evening actually began earlier, at Eyebeam, an art and technology gallery that is the Festival’s Headquarters. Here, players, gamemasters and developers gathered to kick off the weekend, find out how the various games will be run, and play a really massive game of Space Invaders.
Outside, the familiar chunky graphics race across the side of the building opposite, while a player uses his body to move the controller, raising his arms to fire. Inside, I find Jane McGonigal, ARG maven and game designer for 42 Entertainment, who brought us I Love Bees and Last Call Poker most recently, who is trying to recruit more players for her featured game, “Cruel 2B Kind” which will run tomorrow. “If I can get three more teams,” she muses, “then I’ll have an even 100.” Other players check in with Ken Eklund, the Headmaster for “Spy School.” He recruits me on the spot as an accomplice. “Here,” he says, quietly sidling up and handing me several folded strips of heavy gray paper. “Pass these surreptitiously to Rose when you get a chance.” In an adjoining room, two guys with guitars play in front of a projection of Mortal Combat, controlling the game with their instruments. Later on they switch to Mario Kart. In a corner, players intently study a large map of Baghdad with New York streets superimposed on the other side for “You Are Not Here”. For all the notion of play, games are being taken very seriously here.
The final game of the first evening is “Journey to the End of Night,” described as “a pursuit across Manhattan in four parts.” Run by SFZero, this is the first time it is being played in Manhattan. The group of players disperses with nervous laughter, some running, some walking, all looking over their shoulders. It’s like a giant urban game of “Tag.” The game is enjoyable, if a little chaotic and disorganized, with two checkpoints being shut down by non-players and moved before we get there. Ultimately, we’ll make it to four of the six checkpoints before being caught by a “Chaser”. And yes, we all ran. “It’s fight or flight,” says Will, trying to explain his reaction afterwards, “I saw him [the Chaser] and instinct took over–I was like a gazelle.”
The highlight of the Festival for me comes on Saturday, with “Cruel 2B Kind,” a game by Ian Bogost and Jane McGonigal, . Jane is nowhere to be seen, running the game remotely from an undisclosed (to us) Starbucks. Will, my partner, dials in on his cellphone and we are checked in, given our weapon and our weakness. We ramble down Broadway, trying to look like tourists, even picking up a brochure for a tour bus. Will and I scan the faces of the crowd, looking for suspicious couples, while trying not to draw attention to ourselves. We run into Unfiction member tomtom and his dad, but our mutual attacks fail. We try our attack on our first strangers: “Have a spectacular day!” we cheer. They scowl at us and move on. Dang. We try again, further down the street. “Spectacular day!” They respond with “You’re too kind!” and add quickly, “Nice shoes!” “You’re too kind!” we demur. Another bullet dodged, on both sides. Alas, any hopes we have of doing well in this game are cut short when we are taken from behind, off guard, by Jenny, a perky blonde, and Dave, her curly-haired accomplice, whom we had ignored earlier because they were toting Trader Joe bags, looking very much like shoppers and not the deadly assassins they turned out to be. “Hey, way to go!” they enthuse, and we’re dead, forced to turn over our surrender code and follow them in pursuit of more victims. Stalking our prey up and down Broadway, we pass roving bands of up to fifty, screaming at each other from across the street while they mingle with the matinee crowd. “Knock knock!” one team choruses. “You’re too kind!” comes the reply. “Can I help you?” comes the counterattack. Other teams declare us “stunning” and thank us “from the bottom of our hearts.” Team Killer Tomato ends up taking one more group of six before the game ends and we decamp to the edge of Central Park, for cupcakes, juice boxes, and final awards of shiny hats to the best assassins. The top award goes to Team Nerdgasm, composed of Chris Haigy and Jon Thompson, who describe their winning strategy as “pure luck.”
The next game in our sights is SpyText, headed up by Matt Plotecher. The SpyText team hands out our assignments, Diplomat, Spy or Citizens, and we search through the Park for answers to point-based trivia questions such as “How many crabs are at the base of Cleopatra’s Needle?” If the Citizens can collectively get to 15 points before the Spy gets to the Diplomat, we will learn his identity and win the game. Again, Will and I are teamed up, and despite our protestations of sore feet, we end up walking as far as the zoo before we find out who the Spy is. A traitor! The Spy is none other than EGo, who, with his accomplice Rose, had earlier tricked us into giving them our player numbers. “I could have killed you at any time,” he brags, “but I held off.” What a pal. We decide the game would have been more fun if the Spy could have tried wooing players over to his side.
Saturday evening finds us back at Eyebeam, for a Panel Discussion on games, players, public spaces, and what it all means. Festival organizer Nick Fortugno introduces what he calls “a rock star line-up” of game designers and academics, who hold forth on various theories of game play and the use of public space. Roy Kozlovsky, an architectural Ph.D. student, discusses the history of playspace in terms of the physical, how play was moved from the street to the play ground. Franz Aliquo describes how “boredom” led him to create Street Wars, and how he finds joy in leading people through finding their inner action hero. Others comment on the “awkwardness” of public games and the challenge of making them move from novelty to being repeatable and replayable.
Those who know me will know that I find much of such talk tiresome (too much meta makes baby cranky), but most of the discussion was insightful and compelling. While the focus of this Festival was street, or big, or public games, many of the questions posed to the panel were shockingly similar to the meta discussions we find in our own genre of Alternate Reality Gaming. What, if any, are the boundaries of play? How far is too far? What is the relationship between what is inside the game, and what is outside? What are the limits of public spaces? How do these kind of street games blur the lines between what is “real” and what is a “game”? Perhaps the most compelling comments of the evening come from Jane McGonigal, who emphasizes her desire to work with “everywhere games” where games are played with a sense of purpose in real life and help communities be more responsive to each other. She also issues a challenge to players and developers to take the spirit of the Festival beyond the weekend and build upon it, running more games in more locations, making it take on a life of its own.
But not now. It’s Saturday night and we have scored tickets to the Nokia party to celebrate the conclusion of one of their sponsored games, “Manhattan Story Mashup.” We retreat to the open bar and buffet at a nearby brewhouse, and find ourselves listening to a very loud band with a screaming female lead singer banging on a cymbal with a drum mallet. Mercifully, their set is short and we can communicate again after the ringing in our ears subsides. The evening improves and we find ourselves deep in discussion with Juancarlos and Karen, from Mexico, who are looking to bring ARGs to a Spanish audience. Get in touch guys, we’ll be more than happy to help.
Sunday it’s time for Spy School’s Final Exam. All weekend Rose and EGo have been collecting strips of paper, trying to figure out who their fellow students are and gather intelligence on them. Now they put what they know down on paper. EGo is declared top student, with 100% on both quizzes and 10 pieces of intelligence gathered, but he won’t know his final score until the exams are graded later in the week. The spies talk about their experiences with Ken Eklund, who started his gaming career writing computer games and D&D type role-playing games. Most agree that the way the Festival games were spread out, and the short amount of time that players were all in one location, made it difficult to identify other players, let alone collect information on them. But all seem to have enjoyed their weekend of studies.
Our last stop of the weekend is to check out the Go Game, another installment of the very successful Nokia-sponsored game run many times in many cities. Alas, the four-hour duration prevents us from playing, but we have a chance to chat with The Diplomat from our SpyText game, Alex, who has come all the way from London to participate in the weekend. His experiences with Punchdrunk Theater have led him here to investigate new ways of incorporating game play into theater experiences. We wish him luck and head out for the last game of the weekend: help Marie catch her bus back to Boston. We won.
Many thanks to Will Bagby, Rose and EGo for help preparing this report. Thanks also to Joe Brent for logistical help and really funny stories.