Game Theory


“Come on, darling! Save your mother!” exclaims Helen Wong as she watches a fleet of spaceships descend from the rooftop of a tall, dark building on West 21st Street. Wong cringes unconsciously as her son, 12-year-old Wyatt Head, shuffles across the sidewalk like a boxer, moving his arms slowly overhead, which controls the spray of firepower unleashed by his ship in the mammoth projection on the exterior of the building across the street. At the last possible moment, Wyatt obliterates a low-flying invader. The small crowd of spectators shouts its approval as much for Wyatt, who has saved Earth from certain destruction, as for Evan Barba and Kuan Huang, who created this building-size version of the late-’70s arcade game Space Invaders.

Like a true champion, Wyatt is largely unaffected by the applause. He steps out of the Space Invaders controller’s booth—a small patch of open sidewalk in front of a camera that reads and translates the player’s body movements—and back into Eyebeam, headquarters for the first annual Come Out and Play big-games festival. His new mission: to uncover the secret corporate allegiances of other players of Identity—a three-day social game involving the nefarious Yao Corporation and a fleet of Mayan astronauts called the Quetzal. Head’s interrogation technique is deceptively simple. He asks. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.

“That kid tried the I’ll-show-you-mine-if-you-show-me-yours routine on me,” chuckles 25-year-old Brendan McLellan. “I just walked away.”

In stark contrast to the large young man sitting on the Eyebeam Gallery floor with a lampshade on his head and a name tag that reads “software pirate,” McLellan does not fit the long-outdated gamer cliché. Attractive and congenial, McLellan speaks five languages and travels the world as a location scout for a major hotel, but he grew up in a small town in Vermont and dabbled in alternate-reality games while pursuing a biotech major in college.

“When we played games as kids,” recalls McLellan, “everybody played. Sometimes it would go on for days all over the neighborhood. This is like a big-city version of that. I like the fact that, even as adults, we can agree to a set of rules and play together.”

While none of McLellan’s present-day friends could be persuaded to join in, he is hardly alone. There are nearly 1,000 players—many of them game designers, reviewers, teachers, and producers from across the country—participating in events ranging from Lightning Buzz, advanced tag played with flashlights, to Plundr, a high-tech location-based game involving laptops, black-market trading, and MEGAputt golf in Central Park.

McLellan’s grueling itinerary includes 11 of the 25 scheduled games, leaving little time for sleep or fraternizing. Upon being issued an orange armband and a game manifest, McLellan vanishes into the night, sprinting for a safe zone in Koreatown, where he must find an Asian woman with a purple scarf while evading a bicycle gang of “chasers.” If caught, he too will become a chaser, with a yellow armband.

McLellan’s “Journey to the End of the Night” sends him racing through the streets of Greenwich Village (in search of a man with a lantern and a black trench coat), down to Wall Street, into a labyrinth in Battery Park, through Little Italy, to Chatham Square in Chinatown. Despite forming an alliance with another player, McLellan gets tagged before reaching Chatham Square and doesn’t get home until nearly 5 a.m.

The game generating the most buzz is Cruel 2 B Kind, a benevolent variation on the popular street games Assassin and/or StreetWars, which were recently banned in London for causing public disturbances in these thin-skinned times. Instead of water guns, the secret weapons issued via text message during Cruel 2 B Kind include such directions as blow kisses, compliment someone’s shoes, curtsy or bow, offer welcome or help, mistake someone for a celebrity, or point out something beautiful.

As designer Jane McGonigal—recently named one of the world’s top innovators under the age of 35 by M.I.T.’s Technology Review—directs the activities from a Starbucks, over 100 players arrive on Broadway, blending in with theatergoers, tourists, and pedestrians on 10 short, busy city blocks. The gameplay starts slowly, with teams of two offering compliments and air kisses to people they recognize from other games. Some players respond with their surrender word; others acknowledge their involvement by saying, “You are too kind,” before hurling back a nicety. Innocent bystanders hit by misguided acts of kindness respond with startled smiles or perplexed frowns, but as the game grows, onlookers begin to catch on, further confusing players by also shouting, “You are too kind!” Soon, the street is bubbling with thoughtfulness and kindhearted utterances. One native New Yorker grouses that complimenting New Yorkers just makes them mad, but Astoria native and game player Bernadette Cordero certainly doesn’t seem to agree. When she is accused of using her seven-year-old son Nelson Figueroa as a decoy, she laughs heartily before they both sling “a delicious day” at their opponent.

By the end of the game, two huge teams face each other on opposing sides of Broadway, aggressively shouting encouraging remarks over the din of traffic.

“Stuff like this should happen more often,” exclaims Cordero. “We’re all trapped behind e-mail, BlackBerries, and IM. How often do we actually face each other? Not nearly enough.”

Later that day, traveling through the city, I find a sticker plastered to a lamppost near Bowery and Bleecker for the urban “mash-up” game You Are Not Here, a 1:1 scale tour of Baghdad through the streets of Manhattan. I call the number and punch in the extension.

“Welcome to the Unknown Soldier Monument just west of the Green Zone in the heart of the most popular al-Zawra recreational park.”

The monument, I am informed, looks like a Frisbee, but it is actually a giant shield built by Saddam Hussein to commemorate the eight-year Iran-Iraq War. Under my feet, there is a museum. Due to international law, which forbids the destruction of cultural institutions and artifacts, both the monument and the museum have been protected from attacks. I blink at the young punks lining up in the sunlight under the CBGB sign and feel the surreal nature of the day start to catch up with me.

“Thank you for visiting the Unknown Soldiers Monument, and don’t forget to visit the Baghdad Zoo on the other end of the park,” says the recording.

At the Baghdad Zoo, which is located near the Jefferson Market Garden on Greenwich Avenue, I learn that the zoo once housed 650 animals, making it the largest in the Middle East. During the first Gulf war, looters ravaged the zoo for food and profit, selling what could not be eaten to private collectors. Donkeys were used to feed the other animals.

As I peer through the wrought-iron fence at the idyllic garden beyond, the effect of the virtual tour is surprisingly chilling, but I’m hooked. For the rest of the weekend, I will be obsessed, carrying in my pocket a crumpled “mash-up” map, which depicts Baghdad on one side and Manhattan/Brooklyn on the other.

“You may notice the giraffe enclosure has only one giraffe in it,” says the Moviefone voice. “The other was killed for food. Thank you for visiting the Baghdad Zoo.”