"Big Games" and videogames invading reality

NOTES // This article was originally published September 16 2010 on five-players.com. Some of those caches I mention at the end probably don’t exist any more, but you get the point.

In the spring of 2004 NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications students played Pac Man with five costumed players and twenty-four blocks of New York City. The most famous of the ‘Big Games’, Pac Manhattan was developed to explore “what happens when games are removed from their little world of tabletops, televisions, and computers.”

This is, of course, bullshit. Without ever having played Pac Man on a city-sized map with a bunch of students I can confidently say that mirth happens. Mirth, and then pizza and beer and a Halo LAN party where slightly awkward guys make very awkward conversation with slightly-awkward-but-that’s-okay-because-they’re-girls girls, and everyone congratulates one another on a game well played. Am I close?

Equipped with mobile phones and guided by four ‘generals’, runners dressed as Inky, Pinky, Blinky, and Clyde took to Manhattan’s streets in pursuit of a lone runner dressed as Pac Man. As Pac Man moved between intersections his own general would track the imaginary dots he had eaten with a simple computer program while the ghosts’ generals used the same program to guide their soldiers towards Pac Man’s estimated position.

Fellow nerds will note that it has more in common with Nintendo’s Pac Man Vs. game than classic Pac, since the ghosts can only guess at where Pac Man is using basic triangulation, educated guesswork, and the occasional lucky sighting. It was covered by the mainstream press as an unprecedented meeting of videogame and reality; small game rules operating in a large scale environment for the first time. Except it wasn’t nearly the first time. We Brits have been down this road before.

ITV gameshow Treasure Hunt was applying videogame rules to the real world before videogame rules had even been established. Back in 1982 jumpsuited Anneka Rice belted around Britain under orders from a bunch of dads in sensible cardigans as they solved puzzles and sent lovely Anneka and her lovely horsey teeth on nation-spanning fetch quests. Mirth invariably ensued. The show’s creator Jacques Antoines returned in the nineties with even more mirth-laden shows like The Crystal Maze and Fort Boyard, but the defining moment of his reality/videogame clusterfucking was Interceptor – a short-lived hide and seek game where two pasty Brits would be pursued by blonde-haired lantern-jawed stuntman/actor/Hugo Boss model Sean O’Kane with a fucking ray gun mounted on his arm like Megatron.

Dropped miles apart, the couple were given locked backpacks – one filled with money, the other filled with nothing but wishes – and just forty minutes to collect the keys to their backpacks and meet up. Meanwhile, the Interceptor would chase them down without fear or pity or remorse and try to permanently lock their backpacks with a zap from his death ray. The rub, of course, being that neither the Interceptor nor the contestant knew who was carrying the money, and so the somersaulting, trenchcoat-wearing, Maserati-driving, helicopter-flying, unstoppably sexy Milk Tray man had to zap both contestants to secure the cash. Nailing just one still allowed the contestants a fifty percent chance of success and fifty percent is fifty percent too much when your TV show has helicopters, horseback chases, and the budget of a porn movie.

Less than ten years later ITV would give away one million pounds for answering a bunch of questions posed by the guy who used to present weird Japanese commercial compilations on Sunday night TV, but back in ’89 the reward for fleeing from an unstoppable Aryan Terminator was a backpack stuffed with just one thousand pounds. With that in mind it all seems a little undignified, but no less so than dressing up as Pac Man and waddling across New York with a fat 2004 mobile phone on your ear.

Desperate to push British TV towards a sadistic Running Man dystopian nightmare, Channel 4 revived Interceptor’s format for Wanted, extending the chase to an entire week and offering a grand for every night the two-man teams were able to evade their trackers. Thanks to the limitations of 1996 technology, most runners would evade capture for the whole week and make it to the live hunt night, where each team would set up shop in a phone box – a phone box! – and spend an hour on the line to the studio while the British public did their best to grass them up on the promise of a thousand pound reward.

Wanted might be the biggest Big Game ever played, with runners given limited resources, daily challenges, and a nation full of grassing dickholes to compete against. It was seven times longer and an entire country wider than Interceptor’s afternoon of platinum blonde terror from the skies, operated on a scale which dwarfs the student-run Pac Manhattan, and makes games like CrossroadsConQwest, and the brilliant massive-scale board game B.U.G. look tiddly.

The idea of fetch quests and city-spanning puzzles are so familiar to gamers that it seems absurd that Big Games have designers at all, but it’s the logistics of the games that takes the work. It’s for this reason the biggest Big Game of all is designed by everyone.

Geocaching is a game of hide and seek which takes the decades-old videogame tradition of hiding treasures in inaccessible places, drags it into reality, and powers the whole thing with smartphones, GPS, and the internet. Wherever you live in the UK you’re no more than a half mile away from someone’s cache – usually a Tupperware container or film tube stuffed with trinkets or a log to sign – and with an iPhone or a GPS locator you can go about hunting them yourself.

In Far Cry 2 there are diamonds and audio logs lying abandoned under bridges and in the shade of trees. In Tomb Raider and Uncharted there are lost relics hidden behind more complex solutions to simple puzzles. In Gears of War there are COG tags, in Halo there are skulls, and here in the real world there are hidden caches you’ve passed a hundred times without ever knowing they were there. There’s one in Bath’s Queen’s Square containing a log sheet and a pencil, a tiny log secreted in Piccadilly Circus, and a box rammed with trinkets surrounded by seals in John O’Groats.  There’s a cache in Central Park, a cache in Cairo’s Opera House, and a cache on a coalition base in Baghdad. It’s the biggest game in the world, designed and constructed by the players, and based on rules ever gamer already knows.

Hit Geocaching.com to learn the ‘rules’ and grab the iPhone app for an all-in-one Geocaching solution.