Playing in the Streets

The following is an excerpt from my doctoral dissertation, Geek Cultures: Media and Identity in the Digital Age. It has been edited for the web.

Just south of Central Park, walking north on Broadway, we were spotted. A group of 50 or so people hurled their attack at us from across the street, shouting at the top of their lungs: “Can we help you?”

We screamed our response: “We’re amazed by you!”

Both attacks flew wide. We announced, “You’re too kind,” and each team proceeded on its way.

Cruel 2 B Kind is a game of “benevolent assassination.” It’s played in normal social spaces, where you don’t necessarily know who’s in on the game and who isn’t. Like the “assassins” games that have been played on college campuses for years, the purpose is to hunt some target and avoid being hunted yourself. In this particular variant, however, there’s a twist: You “kill” enemies with a warm greeting. If you hit the right players with your compliment, you absorb them into your team. If you hit the wrong players, they inform you that “you’re too kind.” If you hit someone who’s not playing – well, it’s friendlier than traditional crossfire, at least.

“We’re amazed by you,” my teammate said politely to passers-by. One woman thanked us. Another gave a dismissive, half-smiling sneer. One group happened to be gathered for a sweet 16 birthday party, and welcomed our cheering. “What kind of treasure hunt is this?” one woman asked, wishing she could join in.

Eventually, we were alerted by text message that the time limit was up. We gathered in Central Park for awards and cupcakes. The victory went to Team Nerdgasm, though my friend and I walked away with glittering, purple fedoras as runners-up. We headed down into the subway, discussing where to head next, prizes atop our heads. As the car started moving, I heard a young guy’s voice nearby.

“Hey, man, poppin’ hat!” I turned to see him offering a friendly smile.

“Thanks!” I said. “I just won it – but hey, you can have it if you like it.”

“Seriously? Yeah, thanks!”

I have no idea whether he actually wanted my hat or whether he was just goofing off to impress the ladies at his side (or both). Either way, the spirit of the game had infected me. I couldn’t hesitate to offer my glittering prize to a complete stranger.

This is, of course, part of the intent behind Cruel 2 B Kind, one of many games held during the Come Out and Play Festival. A collection of “big games,” “ubiquitous games,” or “alternate reality games” (pick your favorite term), it was scattered across three days and a good portion of Manhattan. The games saw attendees putt golf balls down sidewalks, LARP as cowboys, zombies, and wizards, and gesticulate at motion sensors to direct Space Invaders, projected onto a neighboring building. Initially, I saw it as part of the branch of my research concerned with game play and design. I was caught off guard when I realized, after repeatedly hearing people describe themselves as nerds, that I was also doing research for my dissertation on geek identity.

“It’s a very strange thing to come to the city, go outside, walk in the streets, and play games if you’re over the age of eight.” My interviewee said the last word with a sharp emphasis on the final word – eight – acknowledging the absurdity that one might find implicit in the idea of adults playing outdoors like children. He searched for more words. “And that’s, that’s the really neat thing about – I mean, people should do that,” he said with a laugh.

Promoting this ideal is one of the major motivations behind the Come Out and Play Festival, though taken to a certain extreme. At a panel on the second night of the Festival, designers and organizers attempted to explain the rationale behind these games. “There’s so much stuff to play with in cities,” explained Franz Aliquo, the co-founder of a water-gun “assassins” game. “I think kind of getting older and getting away from that kind of makes you nostalgic for that stuff. I think slowly people are starting to see the city more as a playground – a huge playground – rather than kind of the designated spots to play.”

Jane McGonigal, games researcher and co-designer of Cruel 2 B Kind (among other games), cited the strength of online communities as part of her inspiration: “When I think about making reality-based games, it’s not because I think games aren’t real enough, and that we have to take them back from virtuality and put them back into reality – it’s that I think reality isn’t virtual enough. I think that games engage us, they give us skills and motivation and people to work with and a sense of purpose and a sense of responsiveness, and if we can map that onto everyday interactions and our everyday social ecologies, that we will feel a lot better in our everyday lives.”

Game designer Frank Lantz followed up by describing such reality-based games as “a double movement,” mingling the traditional and the contemporary. These games comine physical, childlike play and face-to-face social interaction with complex rule systems and data at our fingertips via mobile computing devices. “In some ways,” Lantz reflected, “we are like the hillbilly astronauts of game design.”

“Is this a ‘geeky’ phenomenon?” one audience member asked. Maybe, to some extent, for the time being, they conceded – though Come Out and Play’s 500 registered attendees ranged from ages six to 60, frequent gamers and curious fun-seekers alike. “These are public games,” co-organizer Nick Fortugno later told me. “They should be for the public.”

This is something different from other geeky gatherings. Comic Con International, for example, takes over San Diego by force for one weekend, flooding the population with geekdom by sheer numbers. Come Out and Play, on the other hand, brought together a few hundred people, mingling gamers, geeks, and the general populace. Its playful activity is designed for everyday environments, rather than simply spilling over from a swelling convention center. It isn’t quite like games you might play on a TV, or on a computer. It isn’t about feeling at home, free from prying eyes. It’s about feeling out of your element, leaving behind the security of insulated social spaces and darkened rooms with glowing screens. It’s about bringing geek culture out into the light of day, but it’s also about giving the light of day a geeky glow of its own.

“See, it’s mostly about being antisocial,” one woman told me, describing her experiences with World of Warcraft as we walked. I was following alongside her and two of her friends, self-described science geeks from a nearby medical school. They were playing Journey to the End of the Night, sort of a combination between a race and a game of tag. “I’m a geek by myself, and playing a game.”

“Antisocial isn’t necessarily a nerd quality,” her friend said. She had noted earlier that she played Magic: The Gathering, a collectable trading card game, and sometimes attended anime conventions.

“Yeah, but that’s, I’m not equating that with being a nerd, I’m just equating that with like my gaming experience. It’s like, aww, I just want to sit at my desk, in like, sweatpants, and like, kill things. How can I make that happen?”

“Yeah,” the anime fan acknowledged, “but you’re doing it with six million other lonely and sad people!”

I followed them until they ran into a chaser – one of the people who was “it” in this tag-race. He bolted after them, and they broke into a sprint, but he was able to catch up to one of them. The would-be escapees backtracked to join their friend, catching their breath. As they donned the yellow caution tape that now marked them as chasers, a couple New Yorkers wandered by.

“Raccoon City, man,” one guy exclaimed. “I’m telling you, this place is turning into Raccoon City.”

* * *

On a relatively warm February weeknight, wandering through Rittenhouse Square and mumbling to myself as I struggled to phrase something for a paper, I caught an unusual sight: Jedi. A group of six or eight men and women in loose-fitting clothes swung around swords with glowing, green and red blades, striking dramatic poses as they leapt and parried.

I paused in my walking and mumbling. Playing with lightsabers is just not something people do out in the open in the local city park. That kind of play usually stays behind the closed doors of convention centers. It was a spectacle, though it didn’t seem to be bothering anyone. In warmer weather, that space might have been occupied by people tossing a Frisbee, playing with a dog, or sitting on a blanket. I wandered over.

“Hi,” I announced from a short distance. Some turned to face me, smiling. “Are you guys part of some, uh, organized lightsaber group? Or are you just, ah.…”

A tall fellow immediately swung around the lightsaber in his hand, holding out the hilt for me. Another answered, “We’re from PA Jedi. You’re welcome to join, if you like!”

I was a little shocked – not so much from the invitation to join in itself (which I found rather touching), but by being offered use of a replica lightsaber that could have cost its owner upwards of a hundred bucks.

I explained I was working on a paper on video games, but I appreciated the offer all the same. One of them produced a glossy, postcard-sized flyer with more info about the group, the kind that I’d expect to see handed out for free at a convention. I took it, thanked them, and continued with my walk.

Dressing up and playing with toy weaponry marks one as among the geekiest of the geeks, so it’s relatively rare to see such activity flaunted outside. When a photograph in Google Street View caught an image of two guys in costume and battling with foam weapons, blog writers and visitors even on fairly nerdy sites derided the duo with headlines like “LARP Nerds Busted by Google Street View” and “Google Street View Captures Your Shame.“ When people gather in a park and hold out lightsabers to whoever expresses passing interest, they’re well aware that they’re going to be seen as a little odd.

I visited PA Jedi’s website. Several members have photos of themselves posed with glowing lightsabers, some in costume. They profess their desire to meet “like-minded geeks,” offer gentle self-deprecation (“Yes ladies, I’m single!!”), and express how the best thing about the group is being in “a family that looks out for each other.”

It’s possible that, for some members of PA Jedi, going out into the park is a kind of activism, a chance to reclaim public spaces, assert the value of playfulness, encourage the visibility and promote the openness of geek culture. Personally, though, I just got the sense that even though people might think they were weirdoes, they were having too much fun to care.

2 thoughts on “Playing in the Streets

  1. First of all, this post is really well-written as well as quite interesting ! I was watching a French report named The Geeks Revenge whereas you were interviewed. That is the reason why I know your blog and it is now with my favorites !

    You wrote that reality is not enough virtual.
    I agree. The fact is that having a huge imagination seems not to be accepted in a such pragmatic world as ours. The more you behave or you think like you were elsewhere, in another dimension, the more common people are embarrassed – for you. It reminds me the first steps of Science-Fiction novels. Such authors as HG Wells were considered as nuts. Indeed, he mixed politics, biology or more with inventions. I have a thought for the director Ed Wood who was awarded as the worst movie director of all times ! He made really original productions.

    There is an amazing – and useful – project that links reality with virtual. a “peer to peer file-sharing network in public space” ! A well-done first steps.

  2. Thanks for commenting! The quote that “reality is not virtual enough” is actually Jane McGonigal’s; you may be interested in her book, Reality Is Broken.

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