'Last Call Poker' celebrates cemeteries

Players use alternate-reality game as a way to celebrate graveyards as public spaces and think about the people buried there. Photos: Games in the graveyard

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
4 min read
LOS ANGELES--When around 60 people convened on the Hollywood Forever cemetery here Saturday for the finale of the alternate reality game "Last Call Poker," it may not have seemed to some observers as the most respectful thing to do.

But to the dozens of players of the last Graveyard Games--the real-world component of "Last Call Poker"--and hundreds of others who played in one of the five previous iterations across the country since mid-October, running around this famous cemetery playing a game called Tombstone Hold 'Em could not have been a more appropriate way to show respect for the dead buried here and the venue itself.

Graveyard Games

"You have to spend a lot of time and look at a lot of names," said James Calentino, a "Last Call Poker" player on hand Saturday, "and you see people that lived...and you wonder who they might have been."

After the initial Graveyard Games, in mid-October in Colma, Calif., some relatives of people buried in the Italian Cemetery where the event was held objected to the notion of a game being played in what they consider to be a sacred space.

But to Jane McGonigal, who led the design of the Graveyard Games for 4orty2wo Entertainment, the "experience marketing" firm that created "Last Call Poker" as a promotional vehicle for the Activision video game "Gun," such sentiment misses the point of what cemeteries are and have traditionally been.

"It's only in the last 100 years that we've treated cemeteries as very separate spaces and not a part of everyday lives," McGonigal said. "Prior to the 20th century, they were the original parks and recreation areas."

Indeed, she added, some cemeteries had once even been known as common places for men to take women they were courting.

As such, McGonigal and her colleagues conducted six official Graveyard Games events at cemeteries around the country, as well as at least one unofficial one. In the case of the six official events--in Colma, Washington, D.C., Kansas City, New York, Atlanta and Los Angeles--organizers had the explicit permission of the cemeteries' directors.

And that's because, she said, the directors appreciated what the games were about.

Inviting the living
"All the cemeteries we worked with consider it their mission to invite the living to use the space in social ways and everyday ways," McGonigal said.

In any case, the Graveyard Games event at the famous Hollywood Forever cemetery here Saturday where celebrities such as rocker Johnny Ramone are buried, marked the culmination of "Last Call Poker."

That game, the latest entry in growing alternate reality game genre--in which thousands of players mix game play online and in the real world, often working in tandem to solve clues and puzzles--revolved around a fictional storyline in which the late Lucky Brown decreed that upon his death some of his fortune would be used for poker-based "wakes" at various American cemeteries.

And to the many players who took part in the game since its late-September debut, especially for those able to take part in one of the cemetery events, "Last Call Poker" became a way of joining a large and widely dispersed group of creative thinkers.

"One of the things that makes these things great is the community, because it brings together people not just from around the country but from around the world," said Bret Shefter, a Los Angeles attorney known in the "Last Call Poker" world as Shadow.

Indeed, at the Graveyard Games here Saturday, there were players on hand from a number of states and Canada.

As well, the game gave its players what many considered to be a valuable opportunity to explore cemeteries as a place to think and reflect on their lives and those of the people around them.

One player, Zachary Hernlen, had traveled to Los Angeles from his home in Florida to take part in the Graveyard Games. He said that his brother and sister had recently been murdered and that the "Last Call Poker" community had been a place to turn for support. Further he said, he came to understand through his participation in the game, that cemeteries are worth spending time in.

"I stopped in (a lot of) graveyards in between" Florida and Los Angeles, he said. "When you walk through them, you should pay attention."

One element of the game tasked players with completing "favors" in which they did such things as go to their local cemeteries and clean what appeared to be a neglected tombstone.

After completing each favor, they would send an e-mail to the "Last Call Poker" team, hoping the favor would give them extra credit in the game.

And to Patricia Pizer, the lead designer on "Last Call Poker," the opportunity to read through the flow of the e-mails was the highlight of the experience for her.

"People would set out with this lightweight game in mind," Pizer said, "but then they'd get involved and they'd write to me about it. I found myself being really affected by it."

She said that one player had written her with a story of going to a cemetery with her young daughter. After cleaning several neglected headstones, Pizer recalled, the daughter turned to her mother and asked, "Did they not have mommies to take care of them?"

Ultimately, said most of the people involved with the Graveyard Games, the experience became much more about learning that cemeteries could be a place to learn about the past and the lives of people they'd never known.

"I think that's the best kind of respect you can give someone," said Calentino, "to think about who they were."