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Go Nuts 

You don't have to be crazy to play the Go Game, but it might improve your chances of winning

Wednesday, Mar 13 2002
From a distance, it is a typical winter weekend at Washington Square Park. The wind is gusting, and joggers and dog-walkers streak across the grass, soaking in the sunshine. Local residents lounge on park benches holding newspapers and cups of coffee.

But the park is a bit more bustling than usual on this Saturday afternoon because 50 people -- from 50-year-old Web site editors to 26-year-old hotel maitre d's -- have gathered in a corner of the park. The motley and enthusiastic crew has come for the Go Game, a monthly "urban adventure game" in which "the rule book is reality, the board is San Francisco, and the pieces are the players -- you and your team." Or, as participants have described it, the Go Game is like a scavenger hunt-meets-Mission: Impossible, using cell phones, digital cameras, and wireless Web technology as no other game before it. No one knows it yet, but in the next few hours they will all be asked to challenge social conventions by performing a series of "missions," which will require them to do everything from decorating a public statue with colored chalk to convincing a stranger to let them draw a tattoo on his body.

The crowd chatters as teams of four or five approach the sign-up table. The teams are each handed a cell phone that will feed them clues and missions via the Web, and a digital camera to document their accomplished assignments.

The teams gather around the Go Game's founders, Ian Fraser and Finnegan Kelly, as they make introductory announcements. Then Fraser and Kelly launch a toy rubber rocket, and each team hits "Go" on its cell phone. Instructions pop up on the screen. The Go Game has begun.

"Drop your pants and dance ... get ready for your descent into -- hell, we don't know what to call it ...," reads the introduction on the players' cell phones.

Dozens of them immediately throw down their pants and begin jiggling around in the center of the park.

"We meant it tongue-in-cheek," Fraser says incredulously. "But people actually did it."

San Francisco is well acquainted with random acts of weirdness, and the Bay Area is also no stranger to scavenger hunts -- whether of the junior high birthday party variety or the intensely cerebral brand played by Stanford University students and Microsoft employees. But the Go Game is neither.

Using wireless Web technology on a cell phone and a sophisticated computer program written by Kelly, the four-hour game is one part brain teaser, one part performance art, one part double dare, and one part hijinks. Each team runs a unique course through a neighborhood in the city. Players race around -- hastened by a time limit -- to fulfill missions that involve anything from constructing street sculptures to acting out a scene from a movie in a crowded restaurant.

Players also receive riddles or site-specific questions, and type the answers into the cell phones. If the team is correct, it scores points and the phone automatically delivers the next mission or riddle. The digital camera is used to document the missions, and the photos are viewed by all participants at the end of the game.

But even as Fraser and Kelly talk excitedly about the missions they have in store for their next game -- to be held in April -- they also wax philosophic when it comes to the game's ultimate purpose.

"The key philosophy to this whole thing is to use the latest technology and get people out of the fucking office and away from your computer [to] interface with real people," Kelly says. "Scavenger hunts are limited to finding something. We're more interested in getting people to do something."

Those who have discovered the Go Game through discreet Internet postings say it is irresistible. "There's an incredible amount of exercise, logic, and creativity involved," says Cary Hammer, a two-time participant from the Castro District. "And I've learned that if I can drop my pants and dance in Washington Square Park, I can do anything."

The Go Game headquarters lies in the heart of the Mission District in a fading Victorian that also serves as Kelly's apartment. The front room has been converted into office space, with a giant map of San Francisco plastered against the wall.

Much of the scheming for the Go Game courses happens in this room. Kelly sits in one corner fiddling with program code, while Fraser crafts witty clues and game instructions, which he types into a nonpublic Web site that Kelly created specifically for the game.

Fraser and Kelly, both New York transplants, met in San Francisco in 1996 during a game of pickup basketball in Dolores Park. They played on opposite teams, and both threw a lot of fouls. They instantly hit it off.

After Kelly moved back to the East Coast in 1997, they kept in touch. When Kelly visited during a West Coast vacation in 2000, Fraser told him about a dream he had that "shook me to my foundation."

"I had a dream about this game," Fraser says. "I woke up in the middle of the night and drew all these pictures about it. It was weird. The technology does not exist yet for the game I was playing in my dream, but I was having more fun in that dream than I can remember. I was doing all these cool things, and there was a community of people wearing these devices and running through a matrix in the city. So this [the Go Game] is a version of that game."

Kelly, like Fraser, thought the idea had the potential to become a successful business. "It did not take any convincing," says Kelly. "We just thought, "How do we take a great idea and ... make it into something that can make money?' We're both into taking chances."

Kelly agreed to move back to San Francisco to start up the Go Game, arriving with only a laptop and a backpack. He became a one-man tech crew, writing the code that enables players to interact and receive instructions via cell phone through an automated Web program.

After a few test runs, Kelly and Fraser have put together a game every month since December 2001. Players pay $15 and must sign up on the Web site. Games are limited to 50 players to keep them intimate. The game has attracted middle-aged professionals, performance art doctorate students, South Bay techies, and San Francisco hipsters.

Fraser and Kelly have big hopes for the Go Game. They envision a day when it will be a San Francisco staple, sought out by tourists and locals alike. It could even be played worldwide, they say, by international competitors logging on to their Web site. They also are billing the Go Game as the ultimate corporate team-building experience, in hopes that their personally financed business will turn a profit soon. They don't, however, have any corporate gigs lined up yet.

In the meantime, they survive on savings, credit card debt, working construction on the weekends, and eating $2.50 burritos, Fraser says.

"I enjoy every day that I do this," Kelly says. "It's a new feeling that I haven't felt about any other job."

While the rest of the teams cavort around Washington Square Park without their pants on at the outset of the Go Game, Team Clark Nova watches with bemusement. As the reigning champions, the team members have a no-nonsense air about them. They are also dressed like fashion plates, and though it's early in the game, they are already being referred to as "The Mod Squad."

Ryan Pumphrey, a 26-year-old art student, sports a brown suit and a white polka-dotted tie. He carries a slim sharkskin briefcase primarily because "it goes with the look."

Pumphrey's roommate, Nicole Harvey, pairs a sleeveless red-and-white-striped shirt with black pants and shoes. A handkerchief is tied artfully around her neck, and she dons black starlet sunglasses.

The third style maven of the team identifies himself only as "Sammy Sosa's Revenge." Also a roommate of Pumphrey and Harvey, he wears a gray pinstripe suit that he bought at a thrift store for $2.98.

Despite the physical hindrances that come with wearing tight suit-pants and carrying a sharkskin briefcase, Team Clark Nova (a reference to the typewriter in William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch) moves briskly and decisively through its North Beach course.

Their first mission involves climbing a statue to retrieve a clue. Soon, the team is instructed to find a parcel left "under a metallic structure that is federal property" in 10 minutes. After running up and down steep North Beach hills, Clark Nova finds the package -- after the team's time limit expires -- under a mailbox. Pumphrey types the intersection into the cell phone, and they are given the next clue -- "go as high as you can for the next mission."

"Aww, man, we have to get to Coit Tower," Harvey says as she eyes the set of stairs before her.

At the tower, the team is given six minutes for its next mission: Find out "the prime suspect of a robbery on Friday, April 13th, many years ago." It takes Clark Nova two minutes to dash to the Coit Tower museum inside, find Dillinger's name on a wall mural, type it into the cell phone, and receive the next set of instructions.

The team performs a total of 30 missions; among them, Clark Nova members are asked to use Scotch tape to transform something as dramatically as possible and to sing a song in a crowded Columbus Avenue cafe.

The Clark Nova crew is one of the first to arrive at the final destination -- an Irish pub in North Beach, where they promptly order beers all around.

They wait as the other teams filter in, taking a table in the back room with a clear view of the screen that Fraser and Kelly have put up; for the next phase of the game, teams assemble at the bar to drink, heckle, and show off the digital photos they have taken. The teams use their cell phones to score the photos on a scale of 1 to 10, which is added to each team's total running score.

The team with the highest score takes home a couple hundred dollars, half of the day's registration fees. The second-place team receives a cell phone-shaped chocolate bar.

Team Clark Nova knows it has strong photos -- including a re-enactment of the opening scene of Pulp Fiction shot in a busy North Beach diner and a photo of Nicole holding a 15-inch blade to the throat of a knife-shop owner (the mission: Take a picture showing how the team was able to gain the trust of a stranger).

But as the photos are scored and the beers imbibed, their win seems something less than a sure thing.

Clark Nova team members anxiously watch their cell phone for the final score. After a few minutes, the phone's LED face bears a harsh truth: Team Clark Nova has placed second.

Fraser and Kelly announce that Clark Nova has also won the award for Most Fashionable Team, but it is little consolation.

"It feels kinda shitty," Pumphrey says as he accepts the chocolate cell phone. "Our minds were not as focused in this game. But we played our best game, and sometimes you still don't win. All we can do is come back, and next time it won't be pretty. We'll be meaner, faster, drunker, louder, and nakeder."

"And next time we'll look even better," adds Harvey as she drains the last of her pint.

About The Author

Bernice Yeung


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