Collaborative gaming takes to the streets

New Web-based game presents a variety of absurd or even borderline-illegal tasks in and around San Francisco. Photos: Playing 'SFO' offline

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
5 min read
If you happen to be in San Francisco in the near future and someone issues you a "pedestrian permit," there's a pretty good chance you've wandered into the middle of "San Francisco Zero."

The new Web-based game, also known as "SF0," asks its players to take on and complete a wide variety of often-absurd or even borderline-illegal tasks in and around San Francisco. It's appealing to a small but growing number of people interested in the way real-world communities can take on the collaborative characteristics of Internet wikis.

'SFO' offline

How so? To start, most of the game's tasks are created by players rather than the organizers.

Right now, the more than 100 people playing "SF0" are trying to provide solutions to dozens of tasks, each of which is worth a set amount of points. Players must provide proof of some kind to receive points for any completed tasks, and the community can award extra points for creativity.

Examples include the "anti-wallet freedom venture," which asks players to wear an extremely nontraditional wallet for three days; "the beautiful letter," in which players write a love letter that will be seen by a large number of people; and "the blindfolded bus experience," in which one person leads a blindfolded collaborator onto a bus and then leaves him or her there to ride for 30 minutes.

"What makes it work is the wiki model, the collaborative, bottom-up, open-source model."
--Aaron Muszalski, self-styled "evangelist" for "SFO"

"What makes it work is the wiki model, the collaborative, bottom-up, open-source model," said Aaron Muszalski, a self-styled "SF0" "evangelist" and visual effects instructor at San Francisco's Academy of Art University. "It's a wiki ARG (alternate-reality game)."

Certainly, "SF0" bears some resemblance to ARGs, mixed-media games like 2005's "Last Call Poker" that require competitors to play both online and in the real world, to work in groups to solve clues and to do so in the pursuit of a broad narrative story line.

To one of the architects behind alternate-reality games, however, "SF0" has some of the same kinds of multimedia elements but provides players with an all-new game mechanic.

"It's more in the category of urban superhero gaming, because they're not really doing a narrative," said Jane McGonigal, a lead designer at 42 Entertainment, which has made several of the best-known alternate-reality games. "I really like the modular missions. You can do them any time and at any place, and that's really different from ARGs, which tell you what to do and where to do it."

But unlike many alternate realities, which often serve as marketing vehicles for things like video games from Microsoft or Activision, "SF0" is an unfunded project run by Sam Lavigne, Ian Kizu-Blair and Sean Mahan, three recent San Francisco transplants operating an arts nonprofit organization.

The three had run a similar project in Chicago before relocating last summer, and on arriving in San Francisco, decided they wanted to do something that would get players out and about discovering things they've never seen or done in the city, while still maintaining their independence.

For the organizers, one rewarding element of "SF0" has been holding events in which many of the players come together to, for example, go onto a downtown rooftop garden that's normally off-limits, and learn that it can be a good--if sometimes legally precarious--exercise to go beyond their usual personal boundaries.

"The events work really well for getting people involved, because it's an introduction to doing the types of tasks that you're asked to do in 'SF0,'" said Kizu-Blair, "that are beyond what people normally do but which aren't beyond the realm of possibility."

McGonigal is a fan of "SF0," in part, because of the way its designers worked around problems with the underlying mechanics of the game. Organizers had to grapple with the reality that some players would do things--such as creating a comfortable bench out of bus stop seating--that while funny, could be illegal. And she said she appreciated the way the organizers used the fine print of the game's disclaimer to address such instances.

"Due to the malleability of digital media, any appearance of (violations of the law) by any player may not be considered evidence, precedent, or approval of such a violation," the disclaimer states. "Any material displayed as part of the Game should be considered fictive until and unless proven otherwise."

"With 'SF0,' a lot of the missions involve you leaving traces," McGonigal said, "so the places are physically altered. That's going to be a potential problem for the game, so they're fictionalizing the experience. It reverses the trend of realism in games, so I was really struck by that."

To players, the chance to invent tasks themselves and to be directly involved in the creation of the game is a unique opportunity, and one they relish.

"I think it's really innovative that they put all the actual game-creation tasks on the players themselves," said Nicole Aptekar, a Burlingame, Calif., systems administrator.

Aptekar said one of her favorite tasks has been one that requires players to get random strangers to write postcards to the players' friends.

"It doesn't sound so interesting" at first, she said, "but everyone's response to someone coming up and asking them to write a postcard to a person they've never heard of, especially if you don't mention the game at all, is really fun to see."

For Muszalski, one of the best parts of "SF0" is imagining the ways that the game's community will attack some of the harder tasks.

For example, he pointed to the highest-value task the game offers: planting a flag on top of San Francisco's Sutro Tower, the city's tallest structure and one that's located behind well-secured fences. It's a fairly unrealistic and certainly illegal goal, but nonetheless a humorous rallying cry for game participants.

Muszalski said he was having fun thinking of ways to approach the problem and that in the end, he imagined that the only way to achieve the goal might be for the game's entire community to show up outside the fences and announce that they were there to plant the flag.

In any case, both Muszalski and Aptekar said they were in some sense jealous of the game's designers for bringing to life an idea that's so simple and elegant.

"I'd been trying to figure out how to make a game like this myself for some time," Aptekar said. "Pushing the content to the players keeps it as fresh as everyone playing it makes it, and causes everyone to really strive for neat things to do."