GAME ON

Peo­ple of ev­ery stripe are tak­ing to the streets to pur­sue ur­ban ‘games’ within the cityscape. It’s one part live board game, one part tech­nol­ogy and one part civic pride. Chris­tian Cotro­neo fol­lowed the trail of ‘Magic Dust’ in Wak­ing City.

Toronto Star - - Sunday City -

day be­fore the world was sched­uled to end, a hand­ful of peo­ple gath­ered on a grey evening in a Toronto park in a bid to stop it.

For­mer Cana­dian rally cham­pi­onJohnBird,who­had­justcel­e­brated his 80th birth­day was there, try­ing to de­ci­pher im­pen­e­tra­ble code. Ge­orge Flie, a 64year old ex­pert on ephemera was also on the scene, bend­ing his en­cy­clo­pe­dic mind to ob­scure his­tor­i­cal dates. They were joined by ho­tel clerks, fresh-faced stu­dents, lawyers and just about ev­ery­one else in be­tween.

In a way, Jean Si­belius, the al­most-fa­mous Fin­nish com­poser who died in 1957, was also on hand. Be­hind his statue, in the An­nex park that bears his name, some­one had placed an en­ve­lope full of sheet mu­sic, with par­tic­u­lar notes sus­pi­ciously high­lighted.

“Has any­one found a sin­gle word in there?” asked one mem­ber of the mot­ley con­gre­ga­tion.

They taped clues they had col­lected so far on a park bench, cir­cling, star­ing, puz­zling over them, search­ing for a com­mon thread.

“Does any­one rec­og­nize this pic­ture? It’s some place here in the An­nex.”

Not far away, a clus­ter of park pa­trons looked on, equally puz­zled, while a cou­ple of their dogs got to know each other in­ti­mately. “Maybe that’s sym­bolic of what’s hap­pen­ing to us,” mused Flie from be­hind misty spec­ta­cles.

Time was tick­ing away on Toronto’s first glimpse of a new ur­ban ad­ven­ture game called Wak­ing City, the latest in a re­cent ex­plo­sion of games turn­ing the con­crete jun­gle into a play­ground. In Wak­ing City, play­ers spend two weeks — and $28 reg­is­tra­tion fee — rac­ing across the city, un­cov­er­ing a loom­ing dis­as­ter and, ul­ti­mately, if they make the right de­ci­sions, avoid­ing it. There is no prize, as teams are grad­u­ally nudged into one heroic herd, tasked with sav­ing the world. On Wed­nes­day night, 20 or so peo­ple gath­ered in Si­belius Park in the An­nex hop­ing to stop the clock by piec­ing to­gether the strangest mys­tery Toronto has ever known.

The idea be­hind Wak­ing City, a first-time pro­duc­tion by a group called TorGame, is that the city re­mains obliv­i­ous while some 100 peo­ple in 20 or so teams, race to bizarre des­ti­na­tions — parks, her­itage build­ings, mon­u­ments and busi­nesses — at all hours ea­ger to solve an un­fold­ing mys­tery.

Ul­ti­mately, their ef­forts would come down to dust. Magic dust.

The “plot” sees the stuff scat­tered and buried in cer­tain neigh­bour­hoods through­out Toronto. A fic­tional com­pany called Mur­drum Inc. did the scat­ter­ing. But there was a power strug­gle among the com­pany’s three CEOs — who just hap­pened to be im­mor­tals.

One wanted to keep the dust dis­persed and rel­a­tively in­ert. An­other wanted it out­right de­stroyed for safety rea­sons. And some­one else, the most di­a­bol­i­cal of the trio, wanted to, well, snort it — and reap all of its earth-shat­ter­ing glory.

“Whoever pos­sesses all this gets a ridicu­lous amount of power,” said Mike Glidewell, a 31year-old cos­tumer.

But here’s the twist, this almighty dust can pass through fi­bre-op­tic con­nec­tions. So by us­ing a se­ries of tele­phone booths, the play­ers were un­wit­tingly suf­fused with it. Ul­ti­mately, they had to de­cide if they wanted to pool their dust for max­i­mum mojo or keep it sep­a­rated and pow­er­less.

It’s a heady plot for an ur­ban game. But Wak­ing City creators say it’s more about hearts than minds.

“This is about com­mu­nity,” de­clared Adam Clare, one of the five young Toron­to­ni­ans who de­vel­oped the game. “We have 100 peo­ple who didn’t know 100 peo­ple be­fore. Now they’re talk­ing.” In­deed, play­ers were ar­gu­ing al­ready — and learn­ing to love the city along the way.

“A lot of times, we hear Toron­to­ni­ans com­par­ing them­selves to Lon­don, New York, Chicago,” Clare added. “Why are we com­par­ing our­selves? Why not just cel­e­brate who we are and what we do — and look at Toronto and re­ally en­gage Toronto in a way you don’t nor­mally do it?”

That’s the siren call of ev­ery ur­ban ad­ven­ture, as more and more peo­ple em­brace the ur­ban space.

An 2004, art store clerk and mu­si­cian Matt Collins called peo­ple out to a Toronto street cor­ner for a not-so-sim­ple game of hide and seek. Might be

Ia dozen peo­ple play­ing: as they get tagged, they be­come the hunter, un­til one fugi­tive re­mains. Dubbed Man­hunt, and co-or­di­nated through the In­ter­net, the game takes place ev­ery week in the city. And to­day, there are sis­ter chap­ters in Van­cou­ver, Mon­treal, Edmonton and even Nanaimo, B.C.

Last sum­mer, Joel Friesen took the ven­er­a­ble board game Scot­land Yard to Toronto city streets, com­plete with a real-live ver­sion of Mr. X, who plays the fugi­tive. He hides out in one spot, and play­ers use cell­phones and the In­ter­net to de­duce his lo­ca­tion. Also, more than 70 peo­ple showed up for last year’s de­but of Cap­ture the Flag, a Kens­ing­ton Mar­ket-based game de­signed by Kevin Bracken and Lori Kufner. Sev­eral games, such as Man­hunt, in­spired by Toronto’s ex­am­ple, have since emerged in Lon­don, Paris and New York.

“Psy­cho­geog­ra­phy,” a term that would surely make the late lu­mi­nary Mar­shall McLuhan proud, turns cities on their heads to see what they’re re­ally about. The word is used to de­fine the phe­nom­e­non of flash mobs, where cell­phone-tot­ing strangers spon­ta­neously de­scend on a cer­tain lo­ca­tion and then dis­perse quickly. And it in­cludes an in­ner-city project called Mur­mur, an In­ter­net­based­com­pendi­u­mo­fau­dios­to­ries set in spe­cific Toronto lo­ca­tions.

Out­side of Toronto, the Big Ur­ban Game, com­mis­sioned by the De­sign In­sti­tute of the Univer­sity of Min­nesota, in­volves teams push­ing a nearly eight-me­tre­tall in­flat­able game piece through check­points in Min­neapo­lis and St. Paul, Min­nesota. New York City boasts a hu­man chess game span­ning streets. And Los An­ge­les hosts a city­wide sal­vage ad­ven­ture called Repo Man. Yes, it’s tied glo­ri­ously to the clas­si­cally corny Emilio Estevez film, and, like the film, it has play­ers trawl­ing the city in tow trucks search­ing for a leg­endary pink Cadil­lac — com­plete with mys­ti­cal junk in the trunk.

“I’m not sure why it’s started now, but once it’s started it’s opened the flood­gates,” ob­serves Toronto artist Brian McLachlan, who has or­ga­nized city-wide scav­enger hunts for friends and com­pa­nies.

“It re­ally seems to me that there were peo­ple say­ing Toronto had a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing re­ally not that great a city — sure, it’s got a great mu­seum and tall of­fice tow­ers — but it didn’t re­ally have peo­ple you want to hang out with or a sense of fun.”

McLachlan finds his fun fix in a game of Man­hunt ev­ery week — even meet­ing his girl­friend along the way. And that way is paved with tech­nol­ogy.

“I think it’s the In­ter­net and I think it’s cell­phones,” says Matthew Black­ett, pub­lisher of Spac­ing, a mag­a­zine that urges read­ers to take own­er­ship of their ur­ban land­scape. “Those things make it so much eas­ier to com­mu­ni­cate.”

Photo blogs, fea­tur­ing pic­tures of var­i­ous nooks of the city, taken by peo­ple who pass through them, may have been the first sign of such play­ful civic en­gage­ment.

“When I saw all th­ese photo blogs cap­tur­ing images across the city, it made me re­al­ize that there were all th­ese other in­ter­est­ing things in Scar­bor­ough and Eto­bi­coke and North York,” Black­ett says.

“It also made me more familiar with my sur­round­ings. When you be­come more familiar, you take own­er­ship. And when you take own­er­ship, you take pride in it. This ball gets rolling.”

If there’s any tes­ta­ment to an emerg­ing sense of city love, it’s the mag­a­zine Spac­ing it­self. In­tro­duced in De­cem­ber 2003, by its sev­enth is­sue, Spac­ing had found its au­di­ence. “We’re about five times larger than we were when we started in terms of cir­cu­la­tion and sub­scribers,” Black­ett says.

Cir­cu­la­tion now stands at 5,000, with an es­ti­mated 50,000 peo­ple read­ing each is­sue. Spac­ing doesn’t only preach the pub­lic space, but pub­lishes from it.

“We don’t need an of­fice,” Black­ett ex­plains. “We op­er­ate all on our lap­tops. Meet­ings take place in wire­less hotspots. Matt stores the mag­a­zines in his garage.” ppropriately enough, it was a bo­gus email that drew one Arvin Can­tos into the game Wak­ing City.

Can­tos, a job re­cruiter, got a mes­sage on Sept. 14, just two days be­fore the mys­tery game was of­fi­cially set to com­mence.

It was the kind of mes­sage that has most of us tick­ling the delete key af­ter the first few lines. TorGame, the com­pany be­hind Wak­ing City and “a re­search and de­vel­op­ment leader” called Mur­drum Inc., were form­ing a strate­gic al­liance.

“Ba­si­cally, what’s hap­pen­ing is Mur­drum is giv­ing them money to help them run the game,” Can­tos said. But hold on. “It’s a nice lit­tle page,” Can­tos says. “It looks like it’s real un­til you ac­tu­ally read about their prod­ucts and stuff. None of th­ese things ac­tu­ally ex­ist. Mur­drum is a com­pany that doesn’t re­ally ex­ist. It’s part of the game.”

Not long af­ter­ward, Can­tos re­ceived an­other mes­sage, this time from some­one at TorGame. Some­thing isn’t right with this part­ner­ship, the in­sider wrote, promis­ing more de­tails in the days ahead.

Those de­tails, fil­tered through the In­ter­net, led play­ers to count­less build­ings, parks and pub­lic spa­ces across the city, im­mers­ing them in a kind of cross be­tween the Da Vinci Code and the Amaz­ing Race.

“If you like those kinds of puz­zles and you like com­pe­ti­tion, it’s ad­dic­tive,” says Don­ald Short, the Toronto lawyer who

Ahelmed his team, the YongeGun­ners, through ev­ery twist.

“Most peo­ple play­ing games are used to try­ing to win ... ” Short says. “Some of us were still try­ing to win, but tak­ing ad­van­tage of any help we could get along the way.”

Just have a look at the on­line chron­i­cles, a blog that any player could post on at www.iplay.torgame.com. The web­site was a sort of record of the game in progress, with users shar­ing in­for­ma­tion, pool­ing re­sources and knowl­edge. At one point, the pho­to­shar­ing web­site Flickr.com hosted 100 gamers’ pic­tures.

As play­ers combed the city for clues, find­ing words and dates, they would of­ten lead to even more cryp­tic web­sites.

In one strik­ing ex­am­ple, a site only flashes black and white.

“It’s Morse code,” Short says. And it spells yet an­other word, an­other clue. An au­topsy re­port sprang up some­where along the line. Mad­ness reared its head.

At This Ain’t the Rosedale Li­brary, a Church St. book­shop, teams had to find a cer­tain CD with song tracks on one side and pho­to­graphs on the other. One of those pho­to­graphs was of Johnny Car­son.

“Well, if you went to the AIDS me­mo­rial next to the build­ing where we got the other clue in Cawthra Park, go to 1998, find some­body whose last name was Car­son . . . his name was ac­tu­ally Ge­orge who died of AIDS. That gives you the let­ter G,” Short fig­ures.

“When you put all the let­ters of peo­ple’s images to­gether, you end up with the word ‘Grand­dad.’ ”

Now, add that word to one of the web­site ad­dresses pre­vi­ously pro­vided and . . . Bingo. It’s umm, a pic­ture of some un­named street in the city. Some­how, play­ers had to find it — and the clue it con­tained. So the game churned on, stitch­ing a plot to­gether from one city scene to the next.

Press clip­pings ar­rived in the mail, de­scrib­ing the Great Fire of 1904. Peo­ple killed in the fire had sim­i­lar names as the peo­ple play­ers en­coun­tered in the game, “as a for in­stance of strange things.”

And phone calls from strangers —“You don’t know me, but . . . ”

The the­ory emerged that a cadre of peo­ple, per­haps from the Great Fire, are rein­car­nat­ing them­selves us­ing “some magic process” in­volv­ing dust. Some of that dust may have been buried in Lit­tle Italy on Col­lege St., of all places. There might be more in the fi­nan­cial dis­trict, a lit­tle in the Church St. area and Park­dale. Mur­drum Inc. turned out to be be­hind it all.

In fact, the Google hit for Mur­drum slyly slipped in the line, “man­ag­ing com­mu­nity tech­nol­ogy to col­lect the DUST.” But it’s nowhere to be found on the ac­tual web­site.

Play­ers slipped on red her­rings, never know­ing whose ad­vice to fol­low. And the real clues couldn’t have been denser.

“They’ve been busy try­ing to slow us down, stop us,” Short said.

Last Mon­day, Arvin Can­tos and two mem­bers of his team, Ni­cole La­porte and Jac­qui Chua, met at the Tim Hor­ton’s at the cor­ner of Carl­ton and Jarvis. That much, at least, was easy. They pored over notes and maps, and pon­dered per­haps their most crit­i­cal clue in solv­ing the next rid­dle: a foam wedge called a ci­pher. When placed on a street map just so, the ci­pher ideally points the way to the scene of the next puzzle.

“This thing is sup­posed to help us . . . ” said Can­tos, twirling it in his hand. The team had ze­roed in on a stretch of Jarvis be­tween Carl­ton and Welles­ley. A mo­ment later, they ram­bled up the street, eyes peeled for any­thing that seemed, er . . . puz­zling.

Chua, a 27-year old project co­or­di­na­tor at the Min­istry of Cul­ture, am­bled ahead with La­porte, who holds a sim­i­larly civic job at Cit­i­zen­ship and Im­mi­gra­tion Canada.

Can­tos took up the rear, scan­ning for any clues they might pass.

“What street is this? Mait­land?” he asked. “Okay, this is where we start.”

“I think a call to the help line might be in or­der,’ mused La­porte, as the trio sat on a street cor­ner won­der­ing where to go next. Can­tos brought the wedge to bear up against a street map, lin­ing up lit­tle holes with ar­cane sym­bols printed on it. A mo­ment later, eureka. “Church St.!” Can­tos de­clared. They had the right idea; the wrong stretch of street.

With so many day-job­bers on the team, and the fact that many puz­zles can lead to even more con­fu­sion, not ev­ery team mem­ber made it out for ev­ery ad­ven­ture. Ex­cept for Can­tos. “Hey, I paid money for this,” he said. “I’m go­ing to be there ev­ery sin­gle day.”

Be­sides, hav­ing never played a city game be­fore, he wanted to be there right to the end.On Thurs­day night, the game ended not with a bang . . . but with pop­corn.

At the zero hour, play­ers clam­bered into the Bloor Cin­ema. Os­ten­si­bly, they were watch­ing three indie shorts on coun­ter­cul­ture, weird­ness and ev­ery­one’s re­spon­si­bly to “ec­cen­trify” the pub­lic space. Some­time dur­ing the show, cell­phones vi­brated or lit up, and play­ers were asked to vote on what to do about all that dust: De­stroy it, spread it around, or pool it into one cat­a­clysmic per­son. In other words, bring on the end of the world.

They voted to keep that dust dis­persed, in their very bod­ies no less. With no one shoring up a greater share.

Then the game’s creators — David Fono, Adam Clare, De­nis Cyone, Tony Saad and Alee As­lani — ush­ered in the finale with one fi­nal ren­dezvous.

Ev­ery­one across the street to a pub for drinks. And so a com­mu­nity was born of fun, and froth.

RICK EGLIN­TON/TORONTO STAR

A group of play­ers in a lo­cal park fig­ure out clues in Wak­ing City, one of the new types of ur­ban games cel­e­brat­ing pub­lic space.

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