Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Gamer Syndrome

This past Sunday, the Seattle Times ran a story titled, simply, "The Game." It's about those weekend-long puzzle hunts that I often discuss here; in particular, it's about one which took place in Las Vegas in 2002 and resulted in one participant, Bob Lord, being paralyzed from the neck down.

Lawsuits followed, of course, and the dust has mostly settled now. There's still a devoted Seattle Game community, mostly Microsofties, but they've only attempted one large-scale event since 2002--most of their energy has been focused on smaller and often Microsoft-centric activities (e.g., intern puzzle hunts). Which is fine; Microsoft casts a long shadow, but I always thought one of the strengths of the San Francisco bay area Game scene was the more, shall we say, open-source nature of it.

Not to reinforce stereotypes or anything. What happened in 2002 was tragic, and I don't doubt that if it had happened to a bay area GC, we'd all have been gun-shy for the last six years, too. The silver lining is that more and more Seattle teams have been traveling to bay area Games, and in doing so proven that Google and Microsoft (or, at least, their employees) actually can play nice.

But let's get back to Bob Lord. Here's how the Seattle Times described his thought process as he headed into the wrong mine shaft, where he would fall and break his neck:
The clue also had an unusual message: "1306 is clearly marked. Enter ONLY 1306. Do NOT enter others." To Lord, this was just another clue, perhaps a head-fake from Game Control. Enter 1306? What could there be 1306 of in the desert, he wondered. Parking stalls? Telephone poles?

Lord led the way until his recalculated bearings pointed directly into an opening. He flashed back to the video dropped from the helicopter: This must be the right place, he thought.

The "NO! NO! NO! NO! NO!" spray-painted in fluorescent orange was no deterrent. Again, Lord flashed back to an earlier point in The Game: "NO!" had been part of a previous clue. Absorbed in his own musings, Lord missed one other salient clue: the number 1296 spray-painted in blue next to the opening.

Followed closely by other team members, Lord walked into the opening nearly 100 feet, until the only light was the LED screen on his GPS.

His team members heard him slip. Bob? they called. Bob?


Now, one could make an argument for personal responsibility. One could say that the warnings not to enter that mine shaft were obvious and explicit, and any reasonable person would have heeded them. But, without assigning any blame, it's important to remember that The Game is intended to remove its participants from reality.

The goal of every Game Control is (or should be, IMHO) to create a fantastic experience which would be impossible in their players' normal lives--as one Gamer described it, "like being the star of your own action movie." The Game challenges you to do things you never thought you could, take risks you might not even imagine otherwise. Nowadays, this is the stuff of reality TV, but when I started playing in the mid-1990s, you couldn't get it anywhere else.

And behind the scenes, pulling all the strings, making the impossible into an alternate reality, is Game Control. Especially on your first Game, it's easy to fool yourself into thinking that they're all-powerful. How did they hide that clue in a cash register receipt? How did they build this amazing electronic device? It seems plausible that they could anticipate and plan for every contingency.

(The truth is that it's an awful lot of work. The two most important qualities for a successful GC are adaptability and resourcefulness. You can never anticipate everything, but when things go sideways, you have to deal with it. If The Game is an action movie for the players, it's an entire season of 24 for GC.)

And all that willing suspension of disbelief can lead to what certain theme park employees call "Disneyland Syndrome." As the wonderful Teresa Nielsen Hayden (kayn aynhoreh) describes in Making Book:
Disneyland Syndrome is simply forgetting that you can get hurt; that walking hatless in the sun for ten hours, not eating or drinking except at whim, can hospitalize you. That if you lean over the boat railing you can fall in, that water over your head will drown you if you can't swim just like in the real world, and that if the paddlewheel of the Mark Twain runs over you your chances do not improve.

She goes on to cite other places where Disneyland Syndrome occurs, including Las Vegas, giant suburban shopping malls, and Yellowstone Park, where the introductory pamphlet includes the admonition "Don't seat your four-year-old on the bear's back in order to take pictures" (paraphrased, I'm sure).

I would add The Game to that list. Despite the fact that you're locked in a weekend-long battle of wits with GC (they present clues, you solve them, repeat for 30 hours), you're still under their wing, following their lead, protected by their power. At least, that's how you feel. Except it's not real. You just want to believe. But wishing does not make it so.

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