More Than Zero

A trio of twenty-something San Franciscans have invented SFZero, a game that bleeds far into reality

A bizarre deck of playing cards, including the Ace of Goats and the Three of Ducks; dozens of foam kernels, pierced by paper clips, with random second-millennium dates written on their edges; newspaper headlines sliced and pasted into gibberish: “Ethiopians network with Chinese shooter on MySpace.” These are the items that an insane person would pack into a box and anonymously ship to someone.

Kelly Revak has created such a package, but she swears she isn't crazy — it's all just part of the game.

Revak, aka “pirateymonkey,” is one of several hundred players of SFZero, a collaborative game based in San Francisco, and online at SFZero combines the narrative of multiplayer games like World of Warcraft, the community of social networking sites like Friendster, and the offline intrigue of alternate-reality games like The Beast. This blend creates an environment unlike that of almost any other game, offering a deeper meaning that extends beyond the traditional notion of what it means to go out and play. For people like Revak, it's become an obsession.

The basic structure of SFZero is simple: create a character on the SFZero site, complete tasks as that character, document them online, and score points. The document can be a written memoir, a photo, or a video clip.

The catch is that the “character” you create is basically you, or, at least, a version of you, and that the alternate universe of SFZero occupies the same space as the real world. You can “become” your character at any time in order to complete tasks, which run the gamut from the deceptive (tell your family you joined the CIA) to the charitable (pay the bridge toll for the car behind you) to the absurd (bring a fish to an accountant).

“[They're] enabled by the game to do things they wouldn't do themselves, but they're doing this as themselves, not on a screen,” says game co-creator Ian Kizu-Blair.

For one task, Kizu-Blair led SFZero co-creator Sam Lavigne, wearing a red scarf as a blindfold, onto the F Muni train and the 9 bus, then left him there. Barely half an hour after leaving the Lower Haight, Lavigne withdrew his blindfold and found himself several miles south, at the Cow Palace. The goal of the task was to make the player feel uncomfortable, but judging from the stares they gave him, it was the other passengers who were ill at ease.

Many of the tasks do seem ridiculous, until you consider that Americans spend millions of hours every year sitting in front of a computer monitor playing video games, shooting at imaginary monsters. Part of SFZero's charm is its similarity to a childish game of make-believe — combined with more mature concepts like social activism and self-improvement.

SFZero headquarters is the kitchen of a cramped flat in a Lower Haight Edwardian where Kizu-Blair, Lavigne, and co-creator Sean Mahan live with a roommate. All three are just a few years out of the University of Chicago, and the place has a raw, post-college feel, with bottles of liquor crowding the counter and signs stenciled in spraypaint on the wall.

None of the three game designers has much formal training as a programmer (they each studied some form of liberal arts), and Kizu-Blair is the only one who really considers himself a “gamer.”

The group was inspired to create a game several years ago, when Kizu-Blair read an academic article about The Beast, a Microsoft-designed murder mystery game used to promote Steven Spielberg's film A.I. It was the first mainstream member of a genre known as alternate-reality gaming (ARG), where players follow a narrative across a range of Web sites, voicemails, e-mails, and real-world locations.

The three students and their friends then spent hours building the elaborate alternate reality of a Beast-like game, centered on a fictional artist named Helen Chanam. They produced a Web site, a blog, and a text-based online game that mapped out a virtual Chicago Loop, all attributed to Chanam. The alternate reality was so complex, though, that few players went very far before giving up.

Last spring, they moved to San Francisco to try again, choosing the city partly because they thought local techies and radicals would be interested in playing an alternate-reality game. Mahan took a job as a systems administrator and Lavigne became a freelance Web designer. Kizu-Blair worked on and off as a temp, and in his free time was absorbed into World of Warcraft, a massive multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG). World of Warcraft is like an infinitely complex, digital version of Dungeons & Dragons, with players from around the globe competing as fantasy characters in a virtual world, and Kizu-Blair spent three hours every day playing it. He was fascinated by the idea that the game's millions of users, as opposed to a small group of designers, determined the story line. Kizu-Blair wanted to create a game geared even further toward individual players' stories, and more grounded in the real world. It would be an inverse of games such as Second Life, which allows players to “live” and “work” in a virtual world. SFZero players would live and work in the real world, but the game's alternate reality would always be there for the taking.

For months, the group toiled away during late nights in their kitchen, plotting the intricate set of rules and tasks that would become SFZero. Since the site launched in January, SFZero has attracted more than 250 players. Though they originally designed the game for San Francisco residents, a dozen or so Minnesotans (and a couple Russians) have become active members, and users have begun creating their own tasks and collaborating on real-world tasks with people they've never met. Instead of just the skeleton of a site, has emerged as a remarkable collection of notes, photos, and other documentation of the players' in-game exploits, like dispatches from a strange alternate universe. Though it's not nearly as successful as mainstream online games, it's an achievement for a grassroots effort (the total budget is about $100 per month for the server).

“I think what they're doing is really valuable,” says Greg Niemeyer, a UC Berkeley new media professor who teaches a class on game design. Although most games take place in a defined space — a basketball court, a Monopoly board, a virtual computer world — SFZero can take place anywhere, at any time. “Where people gather to play this game, [they] create a magic circle, claim that physical space, and temporarily transform it,” Niemeyer says. In completing tasks, SFZero players also momentarily alter not just the space around them, but themselves.

The alternate-reality games that originally motivated Kizu-Blair were mostly promotions for products like movies or cars. What sets SFZero apart from these games, besides an open-ended narrative, are its staunch, anti-commercial values: no ads, no subscription fees, and no promoting products. It's everything that the most successful alternate-reality games are not, but it means that as the SFZero community grows, its creators may not be able to financially sustain it.

“We absolutely don't want to do things like product placement,” says Lavigne. “It's difficult to see how we can support ourselves with the site and not make us hate ourselves.”

They're applying for nonprofit arts grants, which would keep the site running and pay at least one of its creators to manage it. They also have ideas that might bring in limited income from outside the game, such as selling SFZero books or charging for SFZero-related events.

In the meantime, the SFZero community has begun to generate its own competitive drama, with a rivalry developing between players in Minnesota and the Bay Area. Revak, a recent graduate of UC Berkeley's folklore master's program, was SFZero's scoring leader until early May. Then a Minnesotan named OliverX pulled ahead, sending Revak a digital ransom note to let her know he'd kidnapped her top spot. A few days later, OliverX posted photos of himself handing out tulips to strangers, some including a slip of paper that said, “we must defeat pirate monkey.”

“It's neat. I have a nemesis,” Revak says, her chuckle hardly concealing an obsession with regaining the lead.

She and OliverX have racked up hundreds of points since then, but they took a short break two weeks ago when Revak called a truce. She had to complete a different sort of task: finishing her master's thesis.

“Real-world responsibilities sometimes interfere with SFZero tasks,” she says, “but I'm not at the point yet where I'm willing to starve to death or flunk out of school because of it. Yet.”

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