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 Pacific Northwest.

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 student.

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 know better.

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 software.

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 around.

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 baffled Mathieu.

''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 afternoon.

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 off.

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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