Volume 76, Number 18 | September 20 - 26, 2006

War Games—at the corner of Washington Sq. and University Pl.
Urban gamers take to the streets in the inaugural Come out and Play festival

By Rachel Fershleiser

Once upon a time, Capture the Flag was played in the backyard, Risk was played on the kitchen table, and PONG was played on an Atari home console. Now, thanks largely to modern technology and old-fashioned creativity, the lines between private and public games are beginning to blur, and on September 22nd, 23rd, and 24th, the inaugural Come Out and Play Festival will try to erase them altogether.

Imagine games being played in the street — literally, as with “Insider,” which invites players to trade stocks and privileged information on the streets of the financial district. In “Cruel 2 B Kind,” benevolent assassins will prowl the city performing not-so-random acts of kindness to amuse strangers and incapacitate rivals. And in Payphone Warriors, participants will start at Washington Square Park and try to take control of the city by “capturing” public payphones. These are just a few of the 25-plus games that will take place in city parks, libraries, and subways, employing cell phones and other wireless devices to help players stay in touch.

“Communication technology has facilitated the rise of these games because you can be connected,” explains Nicholas Fortugno, one of the festival’s co-founders. “Let’s say I’m playing Risk. I know where your army is, because I can see the board. In Human Risk, I need technology to know where you are and maintain contact.”

Fortugno is a video game designer by day and a major player — so to speak — in the emerging field of multiperson games for the real world. In 2003, he and fellow designers Katie Salen and Frank Lantz (best known for organizing the live-action arcade game Pac-Manhattan in 2004) created the Big Urban Game, which turned the Twin Cities into a 200-square-mile game board that participants navigated with 25-foot inflatable “Sorry” game pieces.

“It was one of my most joyous moments as a game designer,” he says. “Just to see a huge balloon moving past city hall was so amazing.”

While this sense of fun and whimsy is a major motivator in Big Games — the nickname for urban games played in public spaces — the festival also celebrates an academic component. Jane McGonigal, one of the field’s best-known thinkers, will soon receive a Ph.D. for her dissertation “This Might Be a Game: Ubiquitous Play and Performance at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century.” She’ll also appear with other street game enthusiasts in a panel discussion held Saturday evening at Eyebeam Technology and Art Center, the event’s headquarters.

Fortugno’s passion for the festival is political as well as intellectual, although he doesn’t claim to speak for the other participants. Arrests at the Republican National Convention protests and, more recently, Critical Mass, got him thinking about urban gaming and constitutional rights.

“We talk a lot about freedom of speech and press, but our assembly rights are also being eroded,” he says. “Public spaces should be available to the public; this is an exhibition of what we can do in public — and it’s a lot.”

Gaming is also becoming so popular, Fortugno believes that it will cease to be a subculture. He points to 15-year-old girls he sees on the subway, playing Gameboys, as evidence of gaming’s impending universality. “It’s the 15-year-old girls that give me the most hope,” he says.

So, if you’re worried about the cool factor of playing Space Invaders on the side of a building, take heart. Fortugno has a theory on that, too.

“Playing games isn’t as geeky now,” he says. He pauses and reconsiders. “Or maybe we’re all just geekier.”

Find out more about Come Out & Play or sign up for Big Games at www.comeoutandplay.org.

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