Geeks Without Borders

San Francisco’s North Beach has a long history of eccentric street culture, but if you find yourself in the neighborhood this Saturday, you are likely to witness a new twist: small groups of people clustering together to read text off of cell-phone screens, then embarking on some kind of oddball group activity—retrieving a suitcase that’s been hidden atop a tree, persuading strangers to try on insane outfits—and then huddling together again to peer at their cell phones. This strange behavior is part of something called the Go Game, the creation of a company called Wink Back, Inc. (The next public game is scheduled for Feb. 22.) The game’s creators scatter clues and tools across the city, and then wirelessly transmit a series of challenges to the teams as they prowl the streets. One challenge might ask the team to locate a package lurking underneath “a piece of federal property”—which turns out to be a mailbox—and report back the cross streets once the package has been discovered. Another might send players off looking for a specific date inscribed on a “vaguely homoerotic statue.” Other challenges look like street theater: Find a goodwill store and dress up in costumes that “represent opposites.” Once each challenge has been completed, the game’s puppetmasters beam down a new one. It’s urban Survivor with cell phones.

And now for something that seems completely different: Visit the Web site for the law firm of Landau, Luckman, and Lake, along with this informative tour of New River University. Both seem like reputable outfits, but in fact they are fake sites, created as launching pads for an online scavenger hunt that goes by the name L3. About a month ago, an e-mail with the cryptic message, “Jake needs help!!!” alongside links to the two sites appeared in a handful of inboxes (selected because their owners had participated in similar online quests in the past). Since then, investigators have scoured the Web for clues that make sense of the unfolding mystery. So far, it’s involved secret messages hidden in the source code of a Geocities Web page, a Yahoo! profile for landau_luckman_lake, and a series of files concealed in digital images using the steganography encryption technique allegedly used by Bin Laden’s minions. Like the challenges of the Go Game, L3 unfolds as a series of “tests”: Players break various codes and ciphers, then send their solutions back to the e-mail address of a fictitious lawyer named Stephen Lake, who sends a confirmation note if the answer is correct.

L3 takes place in virtual space, while the Go Game unfolds on actual city streets. But they share a common denominator: the widening of the game environment. Most forms of entertainment are defined by their edges: the outline of the Monopoly board or the dimensions of a movie screen. To enter the world of the game or the story, you enter a confined space, set off from the real world. Play-space doesn’t overlap with ordinary space. But Go and L3 don’t play by those rules. Go colonizes an entire city for its playing field; L3 colonizes the entire Web. These are games without frontiers.

As Howard Rheingold describes in his fascinating 2002 book, Smart Mobs, the combination of cheap wireless devices, urban density, and teenagers is creating a new model of sidewalk theater. For several years, Scandanavian kids have been playing a cell-phone-based game called BotFighters, which is basically a high-tech version of paintball, played in city centers. Gangs of players roam through the streets locating opponents using the mobile positioning technology built into their phones. If they find an opponent, they send a special SMS text message, and the service determines if the target was close enough for a hit. It’s Alive, the Helsinki-based company that created BotFighters, has created a new, more ambitious title called Supafly, a role-playing game billed as “a location-based virtual soap opera where intrigues, gang conflicts, and romance are the tools of the trade for becoming a virtual celebrity.”

Immersive gaming is thriving online as well. The ambitious Majestic—a game that spun an elaborate online espionage tale—was a failure for Electronic Arts a few years ago, but the brilliant promotional campaign for Steven Spielberg’s film A.I., which embedded a trail of fake sites and personae across the Web, was better received than the movie itself. (BMW created a similar Web-wide trail to promote its BMW Films site.) Recently, a company called MindQuest Entertainment launched TerraQuest, an online scavenger hunt that promised to dole out $25,000 in prizes along the way.

In addition to being immersive and digital, there is one other element these games have in common: They are team sports. (That’s why they’re “mobs” as well as “smart.”) The A.I. mystery was solved by a distributed group of players sharing tips and new discoveries—they even had a name, the Cloudmakers. One of the chief Cloudmakers—a fellow named Josh Babetski—has created a Web site called Collective Detective, designed to help decipher online games such as L3, through what the site calls “real-time human information filtering.” (L3 is apparently the creation of a few CD members, though they have remained anonymous to date.) One investigator groping through these games’ tangled webs can get lost very quickly, but when dozens are sharing their latest discoveries, the puzzles grow easier to crack. The first stage of the TerraQuest game was scheduled to run for about a month, but the Collective Detective members managed to solve the case in three days.

In the David Fincher suspense movie, The Game, Michael Douglas undergoes a terrifying series of life-or-death adventures that may, or may not, be staged by a Wink Back-like company called Consumer Recreation Services. As projects like Supafly and L3 grow in number, the existential doubt that was at the heart of that movie—is this real or is this immersive media?—is likely to become increasingly commonplace. The next time you see a strange street sign in your neighborhood, it might just be a prop in someone else’s entertainment, and the next Google search results page you pull down might contain a link to a node in the L3 universe. That’s the thing about games without frontiers. You never really know when you’re playing.