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COVER STORY

Clued In

To play The Game, you will need: four to 10 players who can decode puzzles at 4 a.m., a van equipped with software, sandpaper and semaphore, and a team of masterminds behind the scenes.

Marisa Milanese

STICKING TOGETHER: Blood and Bones usually place in the top three. From left: Chris, Scott, Kate, Robert, Mike, Rich, Sarah and Rico.

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By Marisa Milanese

Sitting in a van on a residential street in Redwood City, Rich Bragg selects one truffle from a box of two dozen. He examines it, sniffs it and takes a small nibble. He chews delicately. Then, he nonchalantly returns the half-eaten sweet to its square in the box.

“I taste coconut,” he announces to his friends, who seem unfazed by the breach of etiquette. And then, more emphatically: “This should be cryptogram material when we’re done.”

Rich, MS ’00, MS ’02, isn’t playing by Miss Manners’s rules today. He’s embarked on The Game, a heady competition where words like cryptogram, ASCII and PerlScript are parlance for the course.

Put simply, The Game is a puzzle-solving race. Teams of four to 10 players drive around the Bay Area in pursuit of clues, which involve data collection, decryption, even a bit of performance art. Each solution leads a team to the next destination—and clue. Most teams cross the finish line in about 24 hours, while some limp along for 36 straight. The winners get a place in Game history and the chance to head home to bed.

But back to that box of 24 truffles. After further sampling and pondering—two hours’ worth, mind you—Rich’s team solves the puzzle. It isn’t, as Rich conjectured, a cryptogram. The position of the truffles in the box, along with each one’s flavor and encasing (powdered vs. not powdered), corresponds to dots of the Braille alphabet. Once decoded, the truffles spell: “Go to Menlo Park Keplers.”

Rich burns rubber through the streets of Menlo Park. He seems torn between relief, euphoria and self-loathing. Truffles in a 3x8 grid, he seems to be saying to himself. What else could it have been but Braille?

The idea for this mental marathon germinated amongst a group of Clearwater, Fla., high schoolers in the mid-1980s. Joe Belfiore and his buddies created all-night scavenger hunts called Midnight Madness, inspired by the virtually unwatchable 1980 movie of the same name. When Belfiore enrolled at Stanford, he brought his Game along.

Stanford, with its vast, scenic campus and multitude of smarty-pants always looking for a challenge, proved to be a consummate Game setting. Six Games were held on the Farm under Belfiore’s auspices. Now the general manager of Microsoft Windows eHome division in Seattle, Belfiore, ’90, still participates in annual Games with his high-tech colleagues. And his brainchild plays out all over the country. Once a rather secretive pursuit, The Game now flourishes in communities from New York to Michigan to MIT. Mini-Games—which last a mere seven or so hours—are deployed to build corporate unity or mingle alumni of different Ivy League schools. But the Stanford/Bay Area community still hosts the country’s largest group of bona fide Gamers, with some 40 teams competing semiannually.

An aptitude for those anagrams or word searches on the comics page does not predict even a hint of success at The Game. Over the years, the clues have grown more complex and ornate, just as the players have gotten a little older and richer (most are around 28 years old, 80 percent are male). One recent clue required that players wear scuba gear to solve it underwater. Another simulated a 3-D maze in the middle of the Nevada desert. Those are no simple tasks for people whose participation in sports tends to be confined to the fantasy leagues.

Belfiore—who recently kicked off a Seattle Game by dive-bombing players with helicopters—says that a team not equipped with laptops, GPS units, cell phones, walkie-talkies and a portable photocopier “doesn’t have a prayer.” Help is available, however. At any point, teams can call Game Control, the event’s designers, who confirm guesses or offer cryptic hints to nudge teams forward. They also track teams’ progress to ensure no one makes an incorrect assumption and ends up in, say, Kansas City.

The Game is one big geekfest, a time to celebrate super-smart people doing super-smart things, while everyone pretends not to care whether they win or lose. It demands cerebral gymnastics and physical stamina. It demands interpersonal patience. It demands that one eschew sleep, square meals, TiVo. It is—work with me, now—a heroic journey of sorts, the cycle of challenge and self-discovery well trod by the likes of Odysseus, Gilgamesh and all those other paladins from the freshman curriculum.

 

The herald sounded in November 2001. A six-person team known as Orange Crush would be designing a Game for spring 2003. Their theme would be The Goonies, the corny 1985 Steven Spielberg flick whose plot itself revolves around a treasure hunt. First, teams had to apply and pass a quiz on minutiae from the movie. Those who made the cut—20 teams, 112 players—were invited to meet at 9:30 a.m. on an April Saturday at Belmont’s Twin Pines Park. Each team paid $170 to offset the $3,400 Orange Crush spent in planning and clue manufacturing.

Right on time, Rich pulls up with his crew in tow: Sarah Barnum, ’01, Chris Cheng, MS ’00, PhD ’03, Robert Cheng, MS ’99, Rico Fisher, MS ’02, Scott Krueger, MS ’00, Mike Holzbaur, MS ’01, and Mike’s fiancée, Kate Saul, MS ’02—a coterie of PhD candidates, postdocs and high-tech employees. Collectively, they’re known as Blood and Bones, a reference to the biomechanical engineering division represented by those MS degrees. Among them, they’ve played in 30 Games. They usually place in the top three. But they’re not competitive people, they’re quick to point out.

The rumored teams to beat are Copper Pot, a grizzled group of Game veterans, and Advil, who arrive smiling broadly, sporting crisp Hawaiian shirts and passing out Baby Ruths in a nod to Goonies character Chunk. It turns out that several Advil members attended UC-Berkeley in the early 1990s, when Jeff Cohen, who played Chunk, was student body president. Advil’s sugar-coated bonhomie suggests utter confidence.

Blood and Bones seem to have things under control, too. As I climb in, I note that their van has been reconfigured to create a Round Table of sorts. Friends have been drafted as phone lifelines for emergency Google searches. Sandwiches are packed; pit stops will be taken only when the group has halted to work on a clue. And players know their assignments: Sarah, the team newbie, will approach each clue using prime numbers or sign language; Robert, the quiet one, will use semaphore or the Playfair cipher. As Gamers know, the absence of clear strategy courts self-destruction. As Gamers also know, clear strategy crumbles when you’re staring at a puzzle at 4 in the morning.

The vibe around Twin Pines is part Burning Man festival, part Dungeons & Dragons convention. One can sense the eagerness to transcend the humdrum, to be as geeky as you wanna be. Even amidst the aggressive zaniness, Blood and Bones’ uniforms of bright blue surgical scrubs stand out.

Orange Crush assemble the troops and issue rallying cries. Rule No. 1: Have fun. If anyone isn’t having fun, call Game Control. No. 2: Don’t eat anything with a “Mr. Yuck” sticker on it. Everyone cheers. Game Control’s phone number is shouted out. There is the sound of 112 top-of-the-line cell phones being programmed simultaneously.

Orange Crush distribute bags with puzzle-solving pieces for later clues. As winners of the pre-Game Goonies trivia test, Blood and Bones are handed the first bag. They make a mad lumber for the van. Rich emits a warrior cry. Their mood couldn’t be more ecstatic: 35 minutes into The Game, Blood and Bones are in the lead.

Crossing the Threshold

King Arthur had Excalibur. Luke Skywalker had his lightsaber. Blood and Bones have a 14-passenger Ford E-350 XLT Super Duty van. It’s stuffed with, among other things: laptops with GPS and code-breaking software, walkie-talkies, digital camera, power inverter, extension cords, AAA maps, Thomas Guide, protractor, drawing compass, tape measure, photocopier, calipers, scissors, tweezers, magnifying glass, binoculars, sandpaper, digital multimeter, motion-sickness pills, Gatorade, and a big black binder jammed with 191 pages of codes and lists, everything from DNA codons to Chinese zodiac symbols to phobias. At Orange Crush’s request, they’ve also packed in QuickTime Player, Flash 6, a hammer, a screwdriver and “fire (more like a lighter, less like a blowtorch).” The prospective use of fire sends a frisson through the team.

Rich revs the van. Competing vehicles idle nearby, all teams wishing to save the 10 seconds it takes to get their motors running. Whenever one pulls away, heads snap up to wince at the departing team.

Clue No. 1 sparks the kind of polymathic conversations that occur during The Game. It’s a piece of paper with Goonies references, a list of paired names and addresses, and a second list of “sponsors.” Rich makes photocopies for everyone. Every word, letter and number is scrutinized. Could “Brittney” refer to Brittany spaniels? Might “Elsinore” be a reference to Hamlet or to the brewery in the film Strange Brew? Rico, with a chipper Midwestern tenacity, assembles possible phone numbers from the numerals on the page and makes cold calls. Chris thinks the names have something to do with the 50th anniversary of the discovery of DNA’s double helix, which happens to be this year. Sarah points out it’s also the 50th anniversary of Marshmallow Peeps, but that doesn’t get them anywhere. Something in this farrago of allusions is making Rich think of “Family Circus.”

“Don’t think of ‘Family Circus,’” says Kate.

Ninety minutes pass.

Rich looks out the window. “We were leading for a little while,” he sighs. He runs a hand through his bleached blond hair. Hey, he adds, wasn’t “Avery” the ex-wife in Jerry Maguire?

Chris, who got only six hours of sleep the night before, suggests calling Game Control for hints. The others threaten to kick him out of the van. Chris yawns and says he needs a sugar high.

Mike has been mysteriously quiet in the front seat. Kate says he’s the team’s dark horse, and he soon proves she’s not just an adoring fiancée. At 11:28, he utters the three words that are The Game’s grail: “I got it!”

It’s an auditory clue. Saying the first sponsor’s name—“Great Dogs”—aloud sounds out the number 8. Counting eight letters in yields the “g” in “Dogs.” (If you can figure out why the next one, “Pogo California,” produces an “o,” you may have the makings of a Gamer.) In this way, the words gradually spell out a location in Redwood City.

Rich peels out.

After this sluggish start, Blood and Bones hit their stride, surmounting one challenge after another with Herculean efficiency. They smash open a miniature David statue to remove encoded potato-chip-bag strips. They decipher a sculpture of semaphore flags from the top of Hoover Tower. They almost ignite counterfeit $50 bills and then—just in time—discover a hidden message embedded in the serial numbers.

Their journey takes them from Belmont to Fremont to Milpitas, with the speedometer hovering at 80. At each stop, they do a quick scan for Advil and Copper Pot, who have invariably beaten them. But by 8:03 p.m., when Blood and Bones arrive at the Shark Tank in San Jose to face down 51 minicartons of ice cream (with Mr. Yuck stickers) and a complex cryptogram, the top teams are nowhere to be seen.

“Maybe they’re dusting everyone,” says Scott, whose wire-rim glasses and faint irascibility make him seem the most at home in his surgical scrubs.

I point out that not 12 hours ago, Blood and Bones claimed having fun was more important than winning.

“Winning is fun,” Rich insists.

The ice cream cartons comprise a “scent clue,” paying homage to Chunk’s Goonies exclamation, “I smell ice cream!” With some speedy sleuthing and another bit of guesswork from Mike, Blood and Bones tear away. Advil and Copper Pot, who have since arrived, are still back there sniffing cartons and scratching their heads. Twelve hours into The Game, Blood and Bones are “destroying” the clues with such ferocity that Game Control asks them to slow down or some won’t be in position. They’re close to doing what’s known as “breaking The Game. ”

Rich cackles, refusing to slacken the pace. “Tell them we’re kicking bloody ass!”

It’s 9:30 on Saturday night as the van roars through downtown San Jose en route to Santa Clara University. Twenty- and thirtysomethings are lining up at bars in a leather-jacket-and-miniskirt mating ritual. Blood and Bones don’t seem to notice the queues of cute girls, the bare legs, the pulses of lust and one-night stands taking shape around them. They’re still reveling in their victory over those 51 flavors of ice cream.

“That was beautiful solving, guys,” says Scott as the van lengthens its lead.

The Supreme Test

Just as Beowulf faced down Grendel and Achilles went mano a mano with Hector, every hero confronts a supreme test. It’s a climax of sorts, the chance to prove once and for all what he’s really made of. For Blood and Bones, this kicks off at nearly midnight, on the cusp of what is known in Game-ese as “the stupid hours.” They’re the first to retrieve the 14th clue from the Lexington Reservoir near Los Gatos: a wallet holding 25 business cards, purportedly belonging to Goonies character Chester Copperpot. For anxious minutes, they stare at the cards. The van’s ceiling light is the only illumination for miles.

Playing The Game is like taking the SAT: after several attempts, you don’t necessarily have more knowledge, you’re just better attuned to how things work. Certain cryptographic methods tend to recur. Players get better at identifying useful information and discarding red herrings. Some veteran Gamers also talk about getting inside Game Control’s head—that after a few clues, they’ve figured out the tenor of a Game and how far to push their conjectures.

But these business cards are intractable. Blood and Bones alphabetize the cards six different ways. They concentrate on the orientation of the text. They attempt to find a link between the names on the cards and the periodic table. Nothing. And Game Control, intent on slowing teams down, is offering hints as disconcerting as the cards themselves. Rich suggests lighting the cards on fire. No one laughs. Kate, with characteristic focus, is the only one still testing ideas on her notepad.

“I hate tedious clues in the middle of the night,” says Scott.

“This certainly jeopardizes our Number One-ness,” says Chris.

Perhaps this is the beginning of Blood and Bones’ self-destruction. Or, I speculate, at least a small fight?

“It takes energy to fight,” says Rico, forcing a smile.

At masochistic moments like this, one has to wonder: why bother? Lest one need reminding, there is no prize. This is challenge for challenge’s sake. Gamers say that’s precisely the point.

“It’s almost sad how much I enjoy working hard all night without sleep to do pretty much pointless tasks,” Rico writes later in an e-mail. “It makes me wonder how much I’d get done if I was that hardworking with everything else in my life.”

Indeed, it is difficult to overestimate the fervor of Gamers. Extensive websites offer detailed accounts of Games past. Documentaries and books have been proposed. Several Stanford alumni, some of whom make up Team Copper Pot, recently formed a company called Just Passing Through that hopes to turn the concept into a reality TV series. Dealing with a maddening clue in the middle of the night is central to the experience.

Back in the van, the conversation veers from the business cards to the upcoming Beverly Hills 90210 reunion. I conk out in the backseat. Sometime later, I am awakened by the van roaring to life. Three hours have passed since retrieval of the business-card clue.

The solution, Scott complains, contained “one leap of logic too many.” Blood and Bones had to organize the cards by the addresses on them, ordering the pile from north to south along Highway 101. They then had to overlay each card with the one beneath, holding it up to a light to see which letter on the bottom card was crossed by the letter “X” on the top. Those letters spelled out their next destination, a park in Scotts Valley.

It’s a Pyrrhic victory. Blood and Bones had to place three calls to Game Control, a painful admission of cluelessness for a team that, until now, has demonstrated ingenuity and enjoyed a little luck. Bags have formed under eyes. Heads hang over the backs of seats. Mike claims to feel like crying. Their expressions say it all: it’s 3 a.m., and Blood and Bones have lost the lead.

Reward

Winning The Game is more like “winning” The Game. Because Game Control doesn’t penalize for hints, victory is measured imprecisely. There’s nothing tangible awaiting those who cross the finish line first, anyway. No foreign land. No maiden’s hand. No immortality elixir. Nothing more than the respect of a group of people who are really good at logic puzzles. For those who pretend not to take competition seriously, it’s enough.

In The Game’s early days, the team who finished first won the opportunity to plan the next Game. From an outsider’s perspective, it seems a dubious honor. Designing a Game usually consumes the better part of a year. Today, Game protocol dictates that teams volunteer for the job. It’s considered “giving back to the community.” Over 365 days, Orange Crush held weekly planning meetings and sacrificed snowboarding for cryptography. In the month leading up to the event, they worked practically around the clock.

“I had to give up a lot of stuff,” says Teresa Torres, the sole XX-chromosomed member of Orange Crush. “I’d say to people, ‘Talk to me in May.’ ”

One Orange Crush teammate spent an entire academic quarter constructing a single clue that involved solenoid actuators and looked like an octopus mentioned briefly at the end of The Goonies. The project earned him credit for a graduate-level MIT class entitled Unusual Alternative Input/Output Devices. During The Game, that octopus didn’t get a whole lot of love. No team spent more than an hour deciphering the vibrations it emitted in five-bit binary.

One year of planning. Thirty-six hours of running. And then, like a wedding, it’s all over.

“Way more fun than a wedding,” says Torres, ’99.

Blood and Bones might agree. As soon as the end of this Game is in sight—nearly 300 miles have been traveled—and the van attacks the switchbacks of Los Trancos Road toward the finish line, the reminiscing begins. The mood is decidedly self-congratulatory. Blood and Bones are already fine-tuning their strategy for the next Game, scheduled six months later. They’re just hoping it won’t conflict with the nuptials of Kate and Mike. It would be a tough call.

This Game, however, does not belong to Blood and Bones. As the van pulls up to Game Control’s headquarters at 12:32 p.m. Sunday, another team screeches behind. Rich and the rival captain race for the door. In the end, Orange Crush award a tie for third place. Copper Pot came in second, beating both teams by 57 minutes. Team Advil, their Hawaiian shirts still neatly pressed, arrived first, at 11:12 a.m. They’re still smiling.

Return

All weekend, big black clouds lurked overhead, threatening to deluge the festivities below. Only as the last team rolls in to Game Control at 7:30 Sunday night do the showers break.

“God is a Goonie!” Torres shrieks in gratitude.

By this time, Blood and Bones have already cleaned and returned the van, taken in a first-round NBA play-off game and napped in Rich’s living room. Rico has plummeted into a 19-hour marathon sleep. Chris has showered with his eyes closed. Tomorrow, they will go back to the office, back to the lab, back to their TV routines and fantasy sports teams. Tomorrow, things that once had an air of insurmountability—doing taxes, standing in line at the DMV—won’t seem quite so hard.

After The Game, it always takes some time to feel normal again. For the better part of a weekend, Gamers live in an alternate reality. They have a glimpse of what veteran Brent Holman describes as the “possibility of perfection.” In everyday life, one encounters random streams of information that have no meaning. But when one seeks meaning in The Game, it’s there.

“You look at the world differently,” says Holman, ’92. “You start to examine everything around you. You start to wonder: Where is the secret? Where is the little thing that’s hidden?”

This will happen to Blood and Bones. They just need to wake up first


MARISA MILANESE, ’93, is a teacher and writer in Columbia, Mo.

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