Urban Folklore: When the Olympics, Putt-putt, and Geometrical Picnicking Meet


Photo by Philippe Teston

It’s at least 90 degrees out. Anthony Santoro, a Brooklyn based digital artist, clutches a golf putter and aims at a foam ball on the island in the middle of Allen Street.

With a quizzical look on his face, he turns and wonders, “Hey, I forgot, are there any rules?” Marci Ichimura, his teammate and co-worker at Curious Pictures, replies, “When I asked the game designer, he said just make them up.”

He smirks and says, “If you say so,” then whacks the ball. It piddles forward, but it’s not heavy enough to roll too far into the street, which is probably a good design considering that a mammoth truck that drove by as he swung. The round continues, as they take turns aiming the ball from one manhole to another about 300 feet down the island.

Welcome to Saturday’s Manhattan Megaputt at the Come Out & Play Festival 2008, which started three years ago as the dream of a Brooklyn resident who wanted to bring video games to life. There is no common thread linking this game to the stew of 24 adventures offered this weekend, except that it is free.

Photo by Larisa Shaterian

From swinging clubs to picnicking for points, from remote-controlled humans with nerf guns to training for an amateur Olympic sport, the only common thread amid all the bustle is that the games are attracting more attention than ever before. “I am surprised at the crowd this year, it is larger and more family-oriented, like the type of people who’d play Wii or Rockband,” said Greg Trefry, the festival director. In the past, the festival had been the turf of tattooed urban hipsters. This year they blended into a hodpodge of people looking to have some fun.

The festival was spawned to test some theories about playing video games in physical space. Now, its mission is to “ask city dwellers to re-imagine their identities as citizens [and] reclaim their city through play,” said Catherine Herdlick, an organizer of the festival. Each of the organizers has their own plans for the future of these games: from pure fun to social experiments to cultural transformations to regenerating political processes. They argue that the games should be free.

Yet, the price was a point of contention. The festival organizers wanted to keep it inclusive, but they ended up spending between $5,000 to $10,000 out of pocket, hoping to make it up through T-shirt sales and a few sponsorships. “We usually don’t,” Trefry said.

On Sunday, while people passed bananas and chips in a go-fish style picnic in Tompkins Square Park, Tom Lorenc, a passerby who approached to see what was going on, skeptically clamored, “I keep hearing that this is free… there’s something going on here. Something’s wrong. There must either be the oil or defense industry behind this one.”

Others proclaim what is going on is the call and cry of the future. Award-winning game designer Jane McGonigal said, “I like to take something passive and make it participatory, because isn’t that what the 21st century is about?” Her game, The Lost Sport of Olympia, an international alternate reality game, led players to a secret location under a tunnel in Central Park to train for the revival of “the banned Greek Olympic Sport” to train for the sport. The game is shrouded in mystery, and while players around the world train, few know exactly how it will be incorporated into the Olympic Games later this summer.

Photo by Larisa Shaterian

Wes Knoll, age 10, the local champion of the day, scurried blindfolded through a maze with human walls by following the beckoning hum of the masses. He bumped and curved about the twists and turns while the wall reshuffles to get in place for the next point he will pass. The competition is international and he beat France’s best time and nearly set the world record, finishing the course in less than 16 seconds. His father exclaimed, “I’m so proud of my son!”

The different personalities of the participating cities fascinate McGonigal whose game was sponsored by the International Olympic Committee. “In Zurich, Switzerland, they were dead serious about the sport, while in Sao Paolo Brazil, the guys took off their shirts and had fun,” McGonigal observed. “In Canada, they’re training in the snow.”

If a few thousand people withstanding blazing hot weather all weekend long attended this year’s festival, who knows the future of games played in real geography. “These games can have political ramifications” claims Ph.D. student Josh Lerner, who does social research. “The rules that create artificial challenges are what makes them fun. Currently everyone is disconnected from political decisions, and this is a way to revitalize that connection. Brazil has been using games for participatory budgeting for a while now, and it’s time we should do the same.”

Herdlick’s vision entails calling the movement “New Folk Games” instead of its informally accepted title, “Big Games.” “Because they’re things that just happen, you see it or hear about it and you don’t actually know if it is true“ she finishes. Trefry ends on a lighter note, “Man, I just like watching the games evolve and people having fun. When I can step out from HQ and look at the players, it makes me happy.”

To each their own. As games go big it is nice to see a movement encouraging each other and coming together instead of dividing. If this festival was the best time of your life or you can’t believe you missed it, one chance player from the 2006 festival from London has started his own, the Hide & Seek Festival 2008, which is running in London June 27 to 29. Or you can just grab a few friends, make up some rules, and create your own folklore. Be sure to post here if you do.