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Stepping Through the Screen 

How San Francisco's tech culture ushered in the heyday of live-action gaming.

Wednesday, Jul 20 2016

When the door locks behind you, the count down begins.

You and four other people are crammed into the confines of a jail cell. You begin to turn over furniture and shake loose the pages of books.

A voice rings out from the speakers overhead: "Sixty minutes remaining."

That's all that separates your team from certain doom: one hour. From the other side of the wall come the sounds of another group, similarly frantic and methodical as they search for the clues and puzzle pieces that will lead them to escape. A scowling guard paces between your cells, intent on keeping you from communicating.

A prisoner sits on the bunk bed in your cell, largely silent but willing to help with an occasional clue if your search goes off-course. You feel along the backs of framed pictures and take the lid off a toilet in one corner. There are cryptic messages hidden under the mattress and odd symbols drawn on the walls.

Outside, the sounds of Polk Street occasionally bleed through, as this is no ordinary prison. In fact, it's part of a game created by a Japanese company called SCRAP Entertainment, and you've paid to be locked up here.

It may sound like a videogame, but this scenario happens nightly at Real Escape Games' "Escape the Jail," one of many alternate reality games (ARGs) available for play in San Francisco.

The rapid expansion of the technology industry in the Bay Area has brought with it not only many of the gaming industry's top designers and creators, but also some of its most impassioned players.

Brands like Electronic Arts Inc., Sony Playstation, and Zynga are all headquartered in or near San Francisco, bringing with them a deluge of creative talent in the gaming field, many of whom are not only creating the games of today and tomorrow, but consuming them as well. The inevitable growth has not settled solely on platforms like mobile devices or wearable technology, but has since moved into the real world itself. By bringing the construct of gaming outside of the boundary of a screen, ARGs have radically altered the gaming landscape, and in doing so have set in motion the rise of a new industry that has found a perfect home in the Bay Area.

ARGs in San Francisco trace back to the early 1990s. Take, for example, Dreadnot. Created in 1996 with a grant from the San Francisco Chronicle and published on SFGate, it featured real phone numbers to call characters, location-based tasks in San Francisco, and working email addresses. (It even involved then-Mayor Willie Brown.) The following year, David Fincher's film The Game — also set in San Francisco — followed Nicholas Van Orton, a character played by Michael Douglas, as he is given a gift certificate to a mysterious ARG company called Consumer Recreation Services (CRS). While the movie's plot centers around the idea that CRS may, in truth, be out to steal Van Orton's fortune, The Game is also notable for having one of the first portrayals of an ARG in mainstream media.

The ARG platform skyrocketed in popularity in the mid-aughts as major companies realized itspotential as a means of promoting their products. To build buzz for its 2004 release of Halo 2, Microsoft unleashed I Love Bees, an interactive narrative experience that combined elements of the present with a throwback radio serial drama and required participants to leave home to complete tasks like answering ringing payphones. The success of I Love Bees ultimately led the phrase to become part of the larger culture, and opened the doors for ARG concepts ranging from corporate marketing ploys to non-commercial creative entertainment.

Perhaps no single enterprise has pushed the concept of ARG further than the release of the S.F.-based Niantic's Pokemon Go on July 6. Billed as "a location-based, augmented reality mobile game," the app allows players to seek out and find Pokemon in the real world, expertly combining cutting-edge technology with the immensely popular Pokemon franchise. And daily usage of the Pokemon Go app has already exceeded the numbers for Snapchat and Instagram.

No single property has ever brought the tenets of ARGs into the mainstream quite like Pokemon Go, but Niantic is hardly the first to see the potential of real-life gaming. One such visionary is Real Escape Games (REG), the creation of Japanese company SCRAP Entertainment.

The idea behind REG is simple. You and a small group of strangers, colleagues, or friends are locked into a space with one hour to make it to freedom, with your escape from imprisonment depending on your ability to solve a series of logic puzzles that may include finding hidden tools or uncovering secret spaces behind fixtures in an effort to crack the code.

SCRAP has hosted escapes in San Francisco since 2012, although the company first started in Japan in 2007. Each room only lasts for a matter of months before the location changes, so that groups who solve one — or try to — will always have fresh challenges. Before the current"Escape from the Jail" and "Escape from the Puzzle Room," there was "Escape from the Bank," in which small groups were seated at tables and tasked with disarming a "bomb" in a suitcase. Through an escalating series of puzzles and enigmatic clues, each team had to make use of its surroundings in order to prevent a deadly explosion.

"We thought this might be something that was needed, yet that had never been created anywhere before," says Takao Kato, the founder of SCRAP, whose games can also be found in San Jose, Los Angeles, and Toronto. Next up in San Francisco will be The 8 Suspects, which is a detective game and not an escape format.

Kazu Itawa, the CEO of SCRAP U.S., says part of REG's mission is to get players to expand their horizons by putting them in a situation where they have to communicate and work as a team, a natural extension of the challenge presented in popular massively multiplayer online games — commonly known by the acronym MMOG — like Halo and Call of Duty.


About The Author

Zack Ruskin

Zack Ruskin

Zack was born in San Francisco and never found a reason to leave. He has written for Consequence of Sound, The Believer, The Millions, and The Rumpus. He is still in search of a Bort license plate.


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