Toronto Star


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.


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 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 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.
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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