Get a Clue:
It's Not How You Play 'The Game,' but Whether You Can Endure and Win
San Jose Mercury News
Sunday, July 13, 1997
By Michelle Quinn, Mercury News Staff Writer
IT ALL Begins to unravel at 3:05 a.m. in a 7-Eleven parking lot somewhere in the
After 15 hours, the seven-member Pink Team sits crammed in a van, wet and tired,
knowing they have more than 12 hours to go. One is carsick. Another grimaces with back
pain. The cellular modems don't work. Laptop glow lights some faces as they untangle a
puzzle that will reveal where to go next. Maybe a mad dash to Canada. Maybe Seattle.
Tempers flare. ''Everyone calm down,'' yells Erik Neuenschwanger, a Stanford University
This isn't fun anymore.
They call it ''The Game.'' But for the 10 teams of five to eight people each, driving
zigzags through Washington state last month, it's serious business. Part road race, part
intellectual treasure hunt, The Game is a test of physical and mental stamina.
The teams look for clues in odd places, such as under rocks or behind statues. The 22
clues are either cryptic instructions of where to go next (''Go to the Fremont Troll'')
or passwords that decrypt a computer program that will point to another location. At any
time, a stumped team can call Game Control for a hint or to learn what they are doing
wrong. The Game is a team exercise no company would attempt, a stress-enhancing event
that can cause friends to fight and spouses to sulk. Team dynamics either work or they
don't. ''You know it's a good game if at the low point everyone's in a daze, because
they can't solve the puzzle and at the high point, everyone's cheering after
slam-dunking a puzzle without help from Game Control,'' says Bruce Oberg, a member of
the Purple Team.
There is no prize.
The underground event was created by Stanford University students in 1986 and carried
north by Microsoft Corp. hires. Players travel from Silicon Valley, Chicago and
Chattanooga, Tenn. to compete, paying $80 each to spend the weekend riding around
solving esoteric puzzles. Why? To win, of course. But it's more than that. These people
are certain that out of a lifetime of pleasant yet forgettable weekends, it's worth
enduring 30 hours of discomfortand extreme behavior for a few memories.
After other teams reject the idea of carrying a reporter and photographer, I end up
with the Pink Team, because they would have me. They hadn't played before. They don't
Hitting the road
We scramble to pack the van with everything for a geek safari: walkie-talkies,
hacksaws, dental floss, four laptop computers, a magnet, a shovel, needle and thread,
pack of cards, a cheese grater, French-language and Braille dictionaries, fish hooks,
two calculators, bungee cords, the Periodic Table of Elements, sodas, cell modems,
Microsoft products such as spreadsheet, encyclopedia and Internet communication
Seats are assigned; rules established. The van will make a bathroom stop only if two
people need to go. (Photographer Len Vaughn-Lahman and I make a pact to second each
other's motions.) If someone finds a clue, they are to say ''Mike's allergies are acting
up'' over the walkie-talkie in case another team eavesdrops. And, no sprinting to the
van once you find a clue.Instead, circle back slowly to throw off other teams sniffing
We take on roles. Andrew Kwatinetz, a Microsoft group program manager, will be the
long-distance runner and the expert with the Encarta encyclopedia, since he helped
develop it. Jennifer Emrich, his wife and an interior design student, will navigate.
Sung Rhee and Mike Mathieu, both Microsoft managers, split the driving. Mathieu will
handle anything Internet-related. Rhee and Neuenschwanger will write computer programs
to solve problems,if needed. Mathieu's wife, Kathy Washienko, a research coordinator at
the University of Washington, will keep track of equipment.
My job is not to get booted out of the van like a trash bag thrown out because it
weighs too much.
Word of Geek
The Game isn't advertised. Word spreads through friends, colleagues and mysterious
invitations, which are puzzles in themselves. An invitation once came disguised as a
press release announcing a new product, which some people accidentally threw away. This
year, a newsletter appeared in office mailboxes from something called The Thanatos
Society, which claims its mission is ''accepting death as a natural part of life.''
At a community center outside Seattle, game organizers, clad in black, welcome the
crowd and hand out release forms to be signed: ''This is a dangerous event . . . any
negligence will be my own.'' The game is launched with a charade involving FBI agents
charging in and shooting. A stampede of people race for the door.
Civility is the first fatality. ''Drive, drive,'' yells Kwatinetz. ''Where?'' asks a
''Just drive,'' everyone shouts.
Team members dive into the puzzles head first. Some involve passwords that decipher
computer programs on The Game's CD-ROM. Others are word games, or involve translating
Morse Code to computer language, clock hands to semaphores. One puzzle is titled ''Moe's
Tavern'' which is not, as I suggest, about the TV show, ''The Simpsons.'' Instead it has
to do with Mohs Hardness Scale -- a measure of a mineral's relative hardness.
''It's the ultimate test for Renaissance men and women,'' says Joe Belfiore, who
created the game while at Stanford.
The 1997 game organizers, Kenny and Dana Young and Craig Unger, keep tabs on us by
cell phone to see if we've gone 200 miles in the wrong direction. Their elaborate game
sends people to the top of the Cascades, to college campuses in the middle of the night
and to a cemetery.
Calling Game Control becomes more than fishing for hints. As The Game goes on,the
calls begin to link us to reality. One team member calls the organizers and says, ''You
have to help me. My team thinks this combination lock looks like a pig. Are they
hallucinating?'' The answer is yes.
And so it goes, through the afternoon and evening, past dawn and into the next
1:42. a.m. Kwatinetz stops two guys leaving a club and asks where the big green
monster is in the rock garden. They give directions, leading Kwatinetz to exclaim,
''There's no shame in asking people.''
2:20 a.m. Game control says the two strangers gave us ''severemisinformation.''
2:30 a.m. Washienko suggests deep breathing exercises. No one responds. She asks,
''How is our team dynamic?''
3:05 a.m. The 7-Eleven meltdown. Kwatinetz wants to solve a computer problem
involving trading stocks. He wants the team to make a chart. Neuenschwanger wants to
fiddle with the computer and watch for patterns himself. The two argue.Kwatinetz works
on his own.
5:23 a.m. Emrich says she feels ''reasonably gross.''
5:55 a.m. Meltdown No. 2. Kwatinetz and Washienko argue over who's been rude to whom.
Kwatinetz apologizes, kind of. Washienko notes the apology's lack of sincerity. Silence.
6:15 a.m. Photographer Vaughn-Lahman takes the wheel. Pink Team relaxes. A few doze
8:30 a.m. Everyone suddenly wants a banana. The bananas have turned brown. ''We've
aged like these bananas since The Game began,'' says Rhee, holding up the fruit.
10:45 a.m. ''Sometimes I feel this game will never end,'' says Rhee. . . . 1:56 p.m.
''I don't care anymore,'' says Emrich.
1:58 p.m. Purple Team has already crossed the finish line. Yet, we have miles to go
before we sleep. Nearly 27 hours after The Game began, Pink Team soberly discusses
giving up. ''We want to see our friends,'' groans Kwatinetz. But Neuenschwanger says,
''I can't quit now.''
3:30 p.m. The team cuts a deal with Neuenschwanger. We'll give up and demand the
final destination but not the answers to remaining puzzles. He can solve them later.
Now that we know it will end, the team starts reminiscing about The Game.
4:01 p.m. We finish, seventh out of 10. But most of all, we finish. Like everyone
else, we get a hoagie and a T-shirt. Triumph!
Copyright 1997, The San Jose Mercury News
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