Got 'Game'? First, get a clue

The Seattle Times
July 4, 1999

By Paul Andrews

NEW YORK - When Charlie Kindel figured out that a series of numbers was a clue in a test run of a high-tech adventure game played here over Father's Day weekend, he knew exactly what to reach for in his backpack of tricks.

The clue ended with the admonishment, "Grow. Practice. Study." The first letters of the words, GPS, were a hint to use the global positioning system, a satellite-transmitted navigational aid.

Kindel, an electronics whiz who is group manager for consumer Windows home networking at Microsoft, also recognized the clue's numbers as geographical coordinates that he could plug in to a hand-held GPS device. The gadget then automatically pointed the way to the next clue, in Central Park.

Following the device's arrow in the way a hiker would follow a compass, Kindel and the rest of his team raced to the next clue site, where a charades-playing mime awaited them.

The GPS unit was among a wide array of personal-technology devices that teams in the event drew on for the competition, a sort of Eco-Challenge of the Mind lasting 27 to 31 hours and covering hundreds of miles through Manhattan and the New York vicinity.

Called simply "The Game," the event involved 55 players on 11 teams matching wits in a sophisticated role-playing competition revolving loosely around a fictional anti-terrorist organization called the National Institute of Terrorism, or NIT. Kindel was a member of Team QA, which arrived in New York two days early and did a dry run of the course to scope out potential problems for Game Control, run by last year's winners of the event, Team Pink.

The espionage theme of The Game this year all but dictated a James Bond affinity for tech toys. In fact, a CD-ROM containing video clips and soundtracks from a series of Bond films was itself a clue.

Cast as anti-terrorist cadets assigned to track down a double agent named Alice Price, teams began the event with a briefing in a high-school auditorium. A dramatic opening video, as riveting as something you might find on an investigative TV show, depicted actual footage of terrorist kidnappings, assassinations and attacks as a reminder of the dangers the cadets might face in the field.

Then teams received exam sheets with the first clue, an SAT-like questionnaire that required lining up the filled-in dots with an additional sheet to spell out the first clue: Central Park Castle, Writer.

From then on it was a nonstop, sleepless race to the finish line at Greenwich Village's fashionable Drovers restaurant.

The "writer," a New York actor, was in a second-floor outlook of the park's Belvedere Castle, notepad in hand. When questioned by a team member, he gave them an envelope containing the next clue, a substitution cipher where symbols were used in place of letters. Figuring out which symbol equated to which letter enabled the teams to spell words forming the next clue.

So it went, through 24 clues in all, most taking half an hour to more than an hour to solve. Most of the solutions were aided by technology of some sort. Many required Web searches, which most teams conducted via a cell-phone connection with "team support" - an understanding spouse or helpful colleague - back home in Seattle.

One clue early Sunday morning required a Monopoly board. Team White's captain, Raman Sarin, roused his wife from sleep with a cell-phone call at 4 a.m. Seattle time and had her get the game out to play the moves remotely. Team QA's Nat Brown found a board on the Web and talked the team through the various moves.

Team Black, led by brothers Andrew and Kenny Young and Kenny's wife, Dana, aced everyone. For several years, Kenny and Dana had a poster depicting a Monopoly game in progress hanging over their fireplace. They were able to reconstruct the board from memory.

Teams rented and outfitted minivans or club wagons with extra power supplies, external antennas, laptop tables, auxiliary lighting and other gear. They also packed cellular phones, pagers, portable two-way radios, notebook computers, portable printers/scanners, photocopy machines, cellular modems for wireless Web connection, speakerphones for group listening of support calls and gigabytes of reference material on hard disks and CD-ROMs.

Kindel, Team QA's van driver, used a GPS with its own color LCD screen perched on the vehicle's dashboard to provide driving instructions. Teams also used laptops containing map software to locate clue sites and landmarks. The software then provided audible directions through the congested streets of New York boroughs.

The winning team, Silver, went so far as to have cellular phones connected to four different networks, just in case one or two happened to be busy at a crucial time.

To preserve the event for posterity - and team Web sites - teams also carried digital still and/or video cameras.

The Game started among Florida high-school students in 1985, before such things as laptops and CD-ROMs were available on the mass market. It moved with its co-founder, Joe Belfiore, to Stanford University in 1986. When Belfiore went to work for Microsoft in 1991, he brought The Game with him.

Before this year, the event had been played as far away as Whistler, B.C., to the north and Long Beach, Calif., to the south. Usually incorporating a theme based loosely around current events, the event has increasingly relied on tech gear through the 1990s.

Three years ago, Game Control (Team Purple that year) distributed clues in encrypted form on a CD-ROM. Teams solving a clue were given a digital key to type on their keyboard in order to "unlock" the next clue.

The complexity and sophistication of The Game attracts high-tech competitors from Microsoft, Web start-ups and other fields that use leading-edge digital devices as part of their everyday tools. Inveterate gadget freaks, team members in many cases already had on hand in home or office the equipment needed to play.

Communications played a huge role. In addition to cellular connections for support calls, teams relied on two-way radios, which transmit up to two miles, to keep track of one another when they got spread out looking for clues, as in Central Park. Some teams took the radios a "cooler" step, adding headsets (similar to telephone headsets) with ear pads and voice pickups. One team, Purple, had "ear buds" - ear inserts and lapel microphones connected to the radios.

The only drawback: "They made us look like we were talking to ourselves," said team member Roger Carlson, a Southern California aerospace engineer.

The ultimate goal, as one team member put it, would be Secret Service ear inserts - the kind visible only by a small coil behind the earlobe. If they ever become commercially available, a Game player will undoubtedly be among the first to know.

Most gear held up surprisingly well, given the nature of the event. Radios were prone to being dropped, and laptops got knocked around in vans.

But there were inevitable problems. When the power supply to Team Silver's portable printer gave out, one of the team's more excitable members, Kevin Shields, raced into an office-supply store after spotting the same model in its window.

"Quick, get me that unit!" Shields shouted at the startled clerk, who declined to question what the rush was all about.

Team Purple's "ear thingies" scored points for being cool, but Carlson said they were too fragile. By the end of The Game, none was working properly.

Running across Fifth Avenue toward Central Park, Team QA's Kindel felt the zipper on his backpack suddenly give way. Out flopped his Toshiba laptop, shattering on the concrete. Kindel bravely waved off taxicabs and other traffic while he retrieved the dismembered device.

Undeterred, Kindel later took the cover off the laptop and wired it up to vials labeled "radioactive material" to form a mock bomb. The fake device was then used by Game Control, a group of Microsoft managers who ran the event, as a special effect at a Manhattan hotel room taken over by "terrorists" wearing nylon stockings and spouting revolutionary rhetoric.

Kindel and Game Control may have done too realistic a job. When janitorial services discovered the fake bomb materials in the basement of the hotel, they called security. Authorities briefly evacuated part of the basement and a floor of the hotel as a precaution, and the episode made TV news.

It was a tribute to The Game's verisimilitude, but also demonstrated the pitfalls of being too realistic while role-playing in a "theater" as grand as New York City.

Copyright 1999 Seattle Times Company

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