Go Nuts

You don't have to be crazy to play the Go Game, but it might improve your chances of winning

From a distance, it is a typical winter weekend at Washington Square Park. The wind is gusting, and joggers and dog-walkers streak across the grass, soaking in the sunshine. Local residents lounge on park benches holding newspapers and cups of coffee.

But the park is a bit more bustling than usual on this Saturday afternoon because 50 people -- from 50-year-old Web site editors to 26-year-old hotel maitre d's -- have gathered in a corner of the park. The motley and enthusiastic crew has come for the Go Game, a monthly "urban adventure game" in which "the rule book is reality, the board is San Francisco, and the pieces are the players -- you and your team." Or, as participants have described it, the Go Game is like a scavenger hunt-meets-Mission: Impossible, using cell phones, digital cameras, and wireless Web technology as no other game before it. No one knows it yet, but in the next few hours they will all be asked to challenge social conventions by performing a series of "missions," which will require them to do everything from decorating a public statue with colored chalk to convincing a stranger to let them draw a tattoo on his body.

The crowd chatters as teams of four or five approach the sign-up table. The teams are each handed a cell phone that will feed them clues and missions via the Web, and a digital camera to document their accomplished assignments.

The teams gather around the Go Game's founders, Ian Fraser and Finnegan Kelly, as they make introductory announcements. Then Fraser and Kelly launch a toy rubber rocket, and each team hits "Go" on its cell phone. Instructions pop up on the screen. The Go Game has begun.

"Drop your pants and dance ... get ready for your descent into -- hell, we don't know what to call it ...," reads the introduction on the players' cell phones.

Dozens of them immediately throw down their pants and begin jiggling around in the center of the park.

"We meant it tongue-in-cheek," Fraser says incredulously. "But people actually did it."

San Francisco is well acquainted with random acts of weirdness, and the Bay Area is also no stranger to scavenger hunts -- whether of the junior high birthday party variety or the intensely cerebral brand played by Stanford University students and Microsoft employees. But the Go Game is neither.

Using wireless Web technology on a cell phone and a sophisticated computer program written by Kelly, the four-hour game is one part brain teaser, one part performance art, one part double dare, and one part hijinks. Each team runs a unique course through a neighborhood in the city. Players race around -- hastened by a time limit -- to fulfill missions that involve anything from constructing street sculptures to acting out a scene from a movie in a crowded restaurant.

Players also receive riddles or site-specific questions, and type the answers into the cell phones. If the team is correct, it scores points and the phone automatically delivers the next mission or riddle. The digital camera is used to document the missions, and the photos are viewed by all participants at the end of the game.

But even as Fraser and Kelly talk excitedly about the missions they have in store for their next game -- to be held in April -- they also wax philosophic when it comes to the game's ultimate purpose.

"The key philosophy to this whole thing is to use the latest technology and get people out of the fucking office and away from your computer [to] interface with real people," Kelly says. "Scavenger hunts are limited to finding something. We're more interested in getting people to do something."

Those who have discovered the Go Game through discreet Internet postings say it is irresistible. "There's an incredible amount of exercise, logic, and creativity involved," says Cary Hammer, a two-time participant from the Castro District. "And I've learned that if I can drop my pants and dance in Washington Square Park, I can do anything."

The Go Game headquarters lies in the heart of the Mission District in a fading Victorian that also serves as Kelly's apartment. The front room has been converted into office space, with a giant map of San Francisco plastered against the wall.

Much of the scheming for the Go Game courses happens in this room. Kelly sits in one corner fiddling with program code, while Fraser crafts witty clues and game instructions, which he types into a nonpublic Web site that Kelly created specifically for the game.

Fraser and Kelly, both New York transplants, met in San Francisco in 1996 during a game of pickup basketball in Dolores Park. They played on opposite teams, and both threw a lot of fouls. They instantly hit it off.

After Kelly moved back to the East Coast in 1997, they kept in touch. When Kelly visited during a West Coast vacation in 2000, Fraser told him about a dream he had that "shook me to my foundation."

"I had a dream about this game," Fraser says. "I woke up in the middle of the night and drew all these pictures about it. It was weird. The technology does not exist yet for the game I was playing in my dream, but I was having more fun in that dream than I can remember. I was doing all these cool things, and there was a community of people wearing these devices and running through a matrix in the city. So this [the Go Game] is a version of that game."

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