P4200259.JPGWhen in danger or in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout. –R.A.H.

Over fifty people gathered at Sutro Heights Park in San Francisco this past Sunday to practice the ancient sport of “Labyrinth Running” which, according to the recently-launched Alternate Reality Game, “Find the Lost Ring,” was lost in 393 A.D. when Theodoseus banned the Olympic Games. Find the Lost Ring is an ARG designed to promote the upcoming Olympic Summer Games in Beijing, China in August, and is sponsored by the McDonald’s Corporation. It officially launched on March 3, 2008, shortly after trailhead clue packages were received by various ARGonauts and media sites.

The ARG is conducted in several languages and has gained popularity all over the planet. It was reported that at least two other training events were taking place that day in other parts of the world, including in Brazil, which country holds one of the largest interested groups of players of this game that isn’t a game. It is scheduled to run through to the closing ceremonies of the Olympics on August 24, 2008.

Labyrinth organizers Tom and LenoreAlthough the event was organized by two players, Tom Bullock (aka Ariock) and Lenore Henry (aka hmrpita), it was also acknowledged by the game, and an in-game character named Kai announced early that he would attend the practice run. Lead designer and avant-gamer Jane McGonigal also appeared at the event and offered to help organize and referee the training.

FTLR tattoosLabyrinth Running requires a team consisting of one blindfolded person who will attempt to escape from the center of the labyrinth to the outside, the “Runner,” and several people to form the path through which the Runner will pass, called the “Walls.” Since the Runner is blindfolded, the Walls must lead him or her out using auditory cues without speaking. Humming is the preferred method and those Walls in front of the Runner will do so while those Walls the Runner has already passed will silence their hum so as not to mislead the Runner. Once he or she has passed by a Wall, that team member must run around to the tail of the line of Wall members and form up again.

There are generally less Wall members than would be required to line the entire circuit of the labyrinth, so they must constantly shift the covered section of the labyrinth down the line to keep up with the Runner. This can be quite challenging with a fast Runner, prompting a good deal of frantic dashing and laughter as Walls collide. The entire group wins when the Runner successfully completes the circuit without breaking through or crossing over a Wall line and without getting turned around and heading back into the center of the maze. Walls are forbidden from merely directing the Runner out, hence the humming, and cannot give clues if the Runner starts going the wrong way. “No coughing,” admonished McGonigal.

Players began arriving in the park in the early afternoon and, using chalk and lengths of rope or twine that were knotted at consistent intervals, laid out two three-circuit labyrinths and one gigantic one with seven circuits. Once they were drawn, the group was split into two and each half began practicing techniques, and trying to determine their fastest Runners, on the smaller circuits.

“It was tough finding a good spot to be responsible with a bunch of people running around blindfolded,” said Henry. The event had originally been planned to be held in Golden Gate Park but a concert for Earth Day put the kibosh on that idea. She found the spot, which had a beautiful view and great weather. An alternate location she had considered was in the Palace of Fine Arts.

Both organizers agreed it was also important to have at least one person available who had experience in laying out a labyrinth, in order to speed along the process of setting up.

Jane McGonigal, design lead for the ARG, was pleased at the turnout and agreed heartily that the event was a success. “I learned so much about the game from other people thinking of new strategies and new techniques. It’s awesome.”

New strategies doped out during the day’s runs included a suggestion by Seth Ball, aka Cineball, that Walls at the pivot points of turnabouts hum louder and track around the pivot as the Runner passed by, and hopefully around, them. This reporter also suggested that wall members at the outside end of the line hold up their hands so that other Walls could easily locate the correct direction to run. It was confusing at times determining where to go during the furious action, especially when Running the larger seven-circuit labyrinth.

Runs were timed by players who had brought stopwatches or had timer applications on their cell phones or PDAs. Fastest times were recorded for both circuit sizes and since the seven-circuit labyrinth had not yet been attempted by players anywhere, the latter times were considered by attendees to be World Records. On the smaller circuits, records were set by TheAdam at 22 seconds, DavFlamerock with 29 seconds, and Lex, a gentleman visiting from Holland with his wife, who scored an even 30 seconds. On the larger circuit, Lex blew away the competition with a fastest time of two minutes and 30 seconds, followed by TheAdam and DavFlamerock tied for second place with two minutes and 58 seconds.

Termed a “huge success” by Bullock, “It was good to see so many enthusiastic runners.”

“I had a blast!” agreed Ball. He also offered advice to other players who wanted to try this out, such as checking locally for events, keeping an eye on Yahoo! Upcoming, or just going for it and organizing their own group practice run.

The organizers even brought treats enough for those who had signed up on the event announcement at Yahoo! Upcoming. Maple-bacon cupcakes were a huge hit, according to Bullock, who obtained them from the Cups and Cakes Bakery. Said co-organizer Lenore Henry, aka hmrpita, “Anyway, this cake is great. It’s so delicious and moist.”

Live events are Jane McGonigal’s favorite part of Alternate Reality Gaming, who enjoys gathering large groups together in one space to collaborate in real-time. Her techniques often encourage friendly physical contact between strangers, as with the Wall members wrapping their arms around their neighbors to solidify the line. “Isn’t it great that you don’t even think about it? You’re so in the moment that you just hug everyone.”

One attendee named A.J. Margolis was the first woman to run a seven-circuit labyrinth in modern times according to McGonigal. Margolis only learned of the event through the SF-based blog, Laughing Squid, not having really followed the Lost Ring. She enjoyed the non-competitive nature of the labyrinth run. “I’m not too into the game aspect, I just like doing random, absurd things with interesting people.”

All photos &copy Sean C. Stacey, Used with Permission.