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Gaming

'Killing' gamers with kindness

Festival goers prowl New York streets in a game you win by shouting out the right warm fuzzy. Photos: N.Y. street games

NEW YORK--You have to love the Big Apple.

I'm here covering the Come Out and Play Festival, a three-day celebration of street and live-action role-playing games, where players might find themselves walking down Broadway together trying to "assassinate" each other with kindness.

And that's why, if you happened on Saturday afternoon to be standing in front of the Ed Sullivan Theater here--where the "Late Show with David Letterman" is filmed--a group of 30 or more people may well have wandered by and exhorted you with a big cheer of "Way to go!"

The dozens on Broadway, myself included, were playing "Cruel 2 B Kind," a game by 42 Entertainment designer Jane McGonigal and Persuasive Games designer Ian Bogost, in which teams stalked each other for several hours, trying to win by shouting out just the right words of kindness.

Come Out and Play

In "Cruel 2 B Kind," you are text-messaged a weapon (like "Have a spectacular day"), and the idea is to find a team whose weakness matches the weapon. The winning team then text-messages a code given them by the losers to the game organizers in order to register the "kill." If the phrases are wrong, but the attackees are indeed players, they must respond, "You're too kind," and move on.

A winning team absorbs the losing one into a now-larger team that then continues on in search of further prey. Teams get bigger and bigger until only a small number of the mega-groups are prowling around trying to kill each other with nice words. Thus, within a minute after the game's start, my partner, CNET News.com reporter Caroline McCarthy, and I had already vanquished one opponent. It was pure luck that we saw them before they saw us, because they surely would have hit us with the right phrase if we hadn't hit them first.

You don't (usually) think of a line of people waiting for a musical as a place for soft cover. It not only makes the game rich, it transforms the experience of how you move through a city.
--Eric Zimmerman, GameLab CEO

So as McCarthy and I were standing on the street, busy texting in the code, we were attacked by a third team. Fortunately for us, the attackers charged with the wrong weapon and we parried with exactly the right words to knock them off.

Within five minutes of the game's start, McCarthy and I were now in control of a team of six. We felt unstoppable.

Of course, such feelings are usually fleeting. And so, mere minutes later, another group of six sprung out of nowhere and, just like that, we were dead. We now were absorbed by someone else's team of 12.

In the early going, "Cruel 2 B Kind," which McGonigal and Bogost had been testing for some time (they recently conducted two run-throughs in San Francisco's Dolores Park) moved fast. Our team members found themselves shouting words of kindness at each other across Broadway. We were vanquished again. "Oh, no, they got us," one teammate yelled in anguish.

We made them cross Broadway to come to us to form the now even larger mob.

Part of the fun of "Cruel 2 B Kind" is trying to guess which groups are participants. After all, the area just north of Times Square--the game was held between 48th and 58th streets--is teeming with all kinds of groups on a warm Saturday afternoon in September.

And that's why we would frequently see a band of people, shouting something like "Keep on truckin'" in unison, only to be met with blank stares and hesitant "thank-yous."

Though, it wasn't that hard to tell who was playing. Indeed, it seemed to break down on purely demographic lines: The vast majority of players were white, between 20 and 40 years old and seemingly middle class.

As the group got larger and larger, confusion grew about whether the mob was in fact a single team or whether someone had screwed up. It was no longer entirely clear who was the vanquished and who was the undefeated leader.

After about 45 minutes, the group began to wonder if something had gone wrong with the game. No new instructions had arrived by text, and we had not found a team we could kill or who could kill us.

One player on my team, noting the lengthy period with no advance in the game, said to his friend, "The masses are hungry for blood."

Then, without warning, two other, much smaller teams engaged in a quick skirmish in front of us. One killed the other, and then they all congratulated each other. "Nicely done," everyone shouted.

A few minutes later, word arrived by text message that time was up and the game was over.

We began to walk north on Broadway to the awards ceremony, and along the way, I ran into the game's co-organizer, Bogost.

Bogost told me that he and McGonigal had tested "Cruel 2 B Kind" many times before, but that none of the trials had been like Saturday's game.

"One of the hardest things to test is the dynamic of the game with a large group," Bogost said. "It's easy to test with five to 10 people. But getting a group of 50 to 100 friends together is pretty hard."

Bogost then told me that the plan is to make "Cruel 2 B Kind" available for anyone to play, and that the design is such that players could log in to a central server and run the game themselves.

Back in Central Park, I talked to Eric Zimmerman, the CEO of

"I thought the game was solid," Zimmerman said. "My experience of the game was really fun...We spent the whole time hiding from people, and blending in with huge mobs and that was completely fun. We just decided to survive. We were hiding in groups of people waiting in line for musicals."

Zimmerman said one nice thing about games like "Cruel 2 B Kind" is that it forces people to re-imagine the use of public spaces.

"You don't (usually) think of a line of people waiting for a musical as a place for soft cover," he said. "It not only makes the game rich, it transforms the experience of how you move through a city."

After the awards ceremony--I must report McCarthy and I did not merit a prize--McGonigal told me how she had "puppet-mastered" the game from a Starbucks in the middle of the playable stretch of Broadway.

"We had a glass view, so we could see the teams going by," McGonigal said. "At first, the teams were in pairs, and then they'd get bigger...You see the kills happening, and you see the server logs (on which the kills are registered)...So the nicest thing about running reality-based games is that you get that (immediate) feedback."