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Why do young techies want to be werewolves?

For a generation of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, a party game called Werewolf encapsulates both the mental challenge and occasionally treacherous behavior of the industry.

SEBASTOPOL, Calif.--By day, Silicon Valley's young elite were scribbling frenetically on whiteboards in the conference rooms at O'Reilly Media's corporate complex here, with executives and engineers from normally competing companies working together to tackle problems from open-standard implementation to social-network privacy. But in the evening, their dark sides emerged.

The occasion was Social Web FooCamp held here last weekend, a relatively new offshoot of the annual invite-only "unconference" that Tim O'Reilly started throwing in 2003. And the after-hours activity was Werewolf, a strategy game that has been a craze among the Web 2.0 crowd for several years running now. For some of the unconference's more hard-core players, rounds of Werewolf lasted well past 3 a.m.

The lawn of tents at Social Web FooCamp last weekend, home to many a game of 'Werewolf.' Caroline McCarthy/CNET News

Nobody quite agrees on how this trend began. Some say it caught hold among the Bay Area set when some British software developers introduced it to them at the Future of Web Apps conference in London in 2007, and others point to gaming experts like Jane McGonigal of AvantGame, who have studied Werewolf tactics for much longer. Either way, some in the tech industry see it as just too insidery.

"I'm not really into it," said one engineer from the Santa Monica, Calif.-based MySpace, shrugging as he walked past the glass-walled conference room in which two games of Werewolf were going on simultaneously. "It's a Valley thing. We don't really play it in L.A."

Indeed, jumping on the Werewolf bandwagon--a club that counts Digg founder Kevin Rose, Facebook evangelist Dave Morin, and ubiquitous wine guru Gary Vaynerchuk as devoted members--seems to be as complex as getting immersed in the fandom of a TV show like "Heroes" or "Lost." Similar to a game known as Mafia, the game pits a circle of players against one another as the uninformed villagers attempt to discover which among them have been secretly selected as killer werewolves who pick off the villagers one by one in a night phase when all villagers' eyes are closed. In the day phase, the entire group votes to kill a player whom they suspect to be a werewolf.

The anti-team-builder
The catch is that the villagers, who constitute a majority of the players, have no idea who else is a villager and who is a werewolf, and the individual werewolves will do whatever they can to conceal their intentions. If the usual quasi-leisure activity at a corporate retreat is a team-building game, then Werewolf is an anti-team-builder. An expert player must be skilled in deception and misinformation, in the tactics of persuasion, and in not falling prey to others' arguments.

"It's kind of like poker without cards," said Kevin Slavin, managing director of the New York game development firm Area/Code. "It relies on asymmetric information, it relies on some people having different types of information than others, people having information that only they know, and mentally it's about kind of the interplay between information and social dynamics."

But there are plenty of strategy games out there. Why, specifically, is it this one that's captured the imaginations of the geek set?

"If you think about what the fundamental skills in play in something like Werewolf are, they have to do with persuasion and communication. For entrepreneurs in particular, this is kind of a lot of the currency of their everyday lives."
--Kevin Slavin, managing director, Area/Code

"It's very elegant...(which) means it generates a lot of interesting behavior with very simple rules, or very few rules," said Area/Code creative director Frank Lantz, who added that a digital version of Werewolf has turned into a huge craze on a popular message board for poker enthusiasts. "That's one thing that appeals to the technology crowd, (which) is attuned to this quality of emergent behavior and elegant systems, that unfolds into all kinds of complicated behavior from a very simple set of rules."

"I certainly came into it first, pretty much, because of the Ruby on Rails conference and that kind of tech group," said James Cox, the developer who has most recently been in the news for having sold the @cnnbrk Twitter account to CNN. "People who come to Ruby as a language, (are) people who find those kinds of games and puzzles interesting."

And it does get complex. "If the villagers are allowed to keep a pencil and paper, they always win. If they are allowed to get up and switch seats, like, if every round you get up and you move, then the villagers also always win," said Max Ventilla, the ex-Googler who just launched social search start-up Aardvark, and who was one of Social Web FooCamp's avid Werewolf players.

"The way that the werewolves win is that one, they know what's going on so they have more information, and two, they are able to convince the townspeople who don't have info to basically forget about everything they've heard," Ventilla explained. "When you vote with your gut you're extremely swayed by the person sitting next to you. Each werewolf is trying to convince the villager to their right or left that the two of them are in it against everybody else."

So the setup of Werewolf--the simple structure leading to complex interactions, the puzzle-solving nature of it--has major geek appeal. But for young entrepreneurs, it also exercises a valuable skill set. It can take the same mastery of persuasion to convince the person sitting next to you that you aren't a werewolf that it does to talk a boardroom of venture capitalists into that crucial Series A investment round.

Werewolf game
This Flickr user's first exposure to the Werewolf game. Among the photo's tags is FooCamp06. Flicker member Buster McLeod

"If you think about what the fundamental skills in play in something like Werewolf are, they have to do with persuasion and communication. For entrepreneurs in particular, this is kind of a lot of the currency of their everyday lives," Slavin said. "Bringing the types of interactions that are most typical in those scenarios...and turning them into something useless, something that only has social currency instead of live-or-die consequences for the company, is (fun) in the same way that it's fun to bankrupt your friends in Monopoly, not in real life."

"Those are incredibly important lessons for an entrepreneur," Ventilla said. "You're constantly reminded of just how much you need to do until you're really top-notch at those things."

As clubby and insidery as Werewolf may seem, the FooCamp players last weekend were actively seeking new recruits. In fact, James Cox said, they can make it much more exciting. "(Newbies are) really unpredictable, so they can really change the way the game works," Cox said. "You can't pick who they are and what they do...when you play with the same people for a long time, you get to know them really well and can predict werewolves."

But from the sidelines, the casual onlooker might wonder if the popularity of Werewolf is actually a glimpse at a thread of treachery running through Silicon Valley's hyper-competitive culture, particularly at an event like FooCamp where cooperation and idea-swapping rule the daylight hours.

"When ethical considerations are put on hold, you see how people perform in that's tempting to assign meaning to that," Area/Code's Kevin Slavin said. "I have seen some people lie so convincingly that it's tempting to assign meaning to that with regards to their actual character, and I think that it would be a classic mistake, and it may be in fact the very fact that this has no consequences that allows them to lie so persuasively."

"If it actually lined up one to one in terms of how one played Werewolf and how their interactions played out in the real world," Slavin continued, "we'd end up with some very scary conclusions."