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Mysterious puzzle game embedded in official Burning Man map

Tied to this year's Burning Man theme, 'Cargo Cult,' The Cult of the Hat tasks participants with solving puzzles and, hopefully, working with others.

Each of the up to 68,000 people who attend Burning Man this year will be invited to play Cult of the Hat, a game embedded in the official map. Lisa Hoffman/

There are a lot of people who probably think that Burning Man is a game, but this year, it's actually true.

When the gates open this Sunday to the annual countercultural arts festival in Nevada's Black Rock Desert, each of the up to 68,000 people who enter will be initiated into a participatory game designed to make their experience at Burning Man just a little bit richer.

For the past 12 years, Bay Area artist Lisa Hoffman has designed the official map handed to all attendees when they arrive at what's known as Black Rock City. Inspired by a class she took in graduate school from the well-known game designer Jane McGonigal, Hoffman has long wanted to embed a game directly into the map.

The game, known as Cult of the Hat, is tied to Burning Man 2013's official theme, "Cargo Cult:"

Our story begins in Melanesia during World War II. Thousands of American GIs suddenly descended on this South Sea island chain, bearing with them unimaginable riches: magical foodstuffs that never spoiled, inconceivable power sources. Just as abruptly the troops departed, leaving only broken, rusted Jeeps, crumpled beer cans, and the memory of Spam. To the astonished eyes of the natives, this was a miraculous occurrence, and they yearned for the return of abundance. Accordingly, they built totemic sky-craft in an attempt to summon back these Visitors and their legendary leader, the man the Melanesians called John Frum. They had formed a Cargo Cult.

Hoffman's game is actually two different things meant to inspire Burning Man participants to "explore and interact and get them to do things that they might not have done otherwise," she said.

First is the game incorporated into the map itself. To play, participants will work to solve a series of puzzles printed on the map, each of which depends on a certain amount of historical knowledge or ability to solve visual clues and which takes them closer to deciphering "the mythologies of another cult," Hoffman explained.

The official Burning Man map, which is given to all participants who enter the gates of Black Rock City. Lisa Hoffman/

The more puzzles someone solves, the more they'll learn about the Cult of the Hat. "Once the puzzle is solved," she added, "there will be an action that the players will be asked to do, and upon doing that exploration, they will learn more about the Cult of the Hat."

While any individual attendee could probably solve the whole puzzle in a couple of hours, Hoffman said, she's hopeful that people will team up, possibly even with strangers, to figure it all out. "It works better when multiple brains work to solve them," she said, "because some people will have certain pieces of knowledge, and others" will have other pieces.

Hoffman also designed a second game that will come with participants' maps, but which is an insert rather than being directly embedded on the map.

This is called the Oracle Machine, and it is also tied to the mythology of the Cargo Cult. But the Oracle Machine is meant to be played differently, ideally helping people interact with strangers "in a fun, game-like way," Hoffman said.

There's no way to know, of course, how many people will play either game, but Hoffman is hopeful that some players will end up sharing their feedback through various social networks using the hashtag "#CultoftheHat." Then again, Internet connectivity is sparse at best in Black Rock City. And anyway, Hoffman doesn't endorse using electronic devices while at Burning Man. Rather, she hopes people will at least share their thoughts on the game once they're back home.

Either way, Hoffman's game could be a great ice-breaker for a lot of people. Burning Man is known as a place that easily breaks down social inhibitions, but a little help is always appreciated.