June 21, 1999

Software Wizards Test Wits in a City-Spanning Game


When the custodial worker at the World Trade Center Marriott found a bottle of green liquid labeled "Caution: Radioactive Material" yesterday, he did the only responsible thing: notified security officials, who evacuated the entire 14th floor.

How were they to know that it was only Palmolive dish detergent? After all, they were not in the Game.

Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times
A complex scavenger hunt took 60 people, most of them connected with Microsoft, on a chase around New York this weekend. In Central Park, a mime, Darian Corley, acted out a clue for one of the teams.
While other natives and out-of-towners lazed in the warmth of a sunny Father's Day weekend, another group of highly unusual tourists turned New York City into their own private game board over the weekend, racing from one borough to the next on a frantic 24-hour mission that was half spy chase, half mind-bending puzzle.

"The Game," as the players call it, is a sophisticated scavenger hunt for computer geeks -- mostly current and former employees of Microsoft. It is normally played in Seattle, near the home of Microsoft, but this year the organizers decided to "raise the rims" and bring the Game to New York City, to add a new level of complexity.

And so from Saturday morning to yesterday afternoon, 60 players in 11 teams raced across four boroughs, with forays as far as the Hudson Highlands in Putnam County, trying to solve a series of puzzles. Some involved secret codes. Some were mathematical problems. Others required quick deductions of logic. Many involved whimsical and puzzling artifacts, like the radioactive detergent. Each puzzle yielded a clue, which in turn sent the team to the location of the next mystery.

The players -- more than a handful of them millionaires -- were armed with their wits and an arsenal of technological gadgets. Their rented vans were equipped with laptop computers, night vision goggles, portable photocopiers, police scanners, radios, cell phones and global positioning systems.

At its root, the Game is a frivolous adventure, but one that reflects the players' and designers' creativity, not to mention their stock options and not inconsiderable egos.

Nothing goes to the winners except a small black obelisk, a year's worth of bragging rights and, if they want, a chance to design the puzzles next year.

It is, participants say, an expression, celebration and product of the intense competition within Microsoft.

"Our self-esteem is based on the fact we think we are smart, so we constantly need reinforcement," said Cy Cedar, a 33-year-old retiree from Microsoft, and one of only a handful of women playing on the predominantly male teams.

Of the 11 teams, only one, Team Brown, had no ties to Microsoft. But misfortune waylaid it early in the hunt. Outside Central Park, the team locked the keys in its minivan and paid a locksmith $145 to open it. In SoHo traffic, they crashed the van into a sport utility vehicle, and at an Astor Place pizza restaurant, a fireball erupted from an oven, singeing the hair of a team member as he worked on one of the clues at a table nearby.

"Mission control? There has been an assassination attempt -- a pizza oven exploded," Jason Tulley, 28, told game organizers by cell phone shortly after the fireball. "No, I am not kidding."

Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times
Dan Brescoll in one scavenger team's van. They held computers, night goggles, copiers, police scanners, phones and global positioning systems.

The Game began at 10 A.M. Saturday at Horace Mann School in the Bronx. The first puzzle yielded the next clue: "Central Park Castle, Writer."

Sitting inconspicuously on the steps of the castle was a man writing in a notebook. The "writer" handed each team the next clue. The teams then spent the rest of the day searching for clues in Manhattan. As night fell, the game organizers sent the players north first to Riverdale, the Bronx, then to the Palisades State Parkway, then halfway up a mountain outside Cold Spring, N.Y.

By noon on Sunday, most of the teams were at the Unisphere in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in Queens, trying to solve a puzzle based on the etchings around the globe. The winning team, Team Silver, finished the game at 1:10 P.M. yesterday, driving from Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn to Drovers Tap Room in Greenwich Village for the victory party.

While the vast majority of the clues were intensely difficult, a good number exhibited an equally sharp sense of humor. In the southwest corner of Central Park, game designers posted a mime, Darian Corley, and forced teams to play charades to learn the next clue. Next to the mime was Dr. Geek, a New York rapper dressed in overalls, a red T-shirt and a billowing polka-dot top hat who offered passers-by a little bit of an explanation.

"They are playing a scavenger hunt, trying to find out what they can scavenge. You understand what I mean? Are you above average?" he rapped. "You got to be like that if you are playing the Game; you got to understand and use your brain."

Scenes like that left more than a few locals scratching their heads. Puzzled hotel operators across lower Manhattan fielded calls for "Joe Scorpion's room," and Columbia University security guards kicked out the teams after one inadvertently set off a burglar alarm. The evacuation in the Palmolive scare lasted two hours.

But some New Yorkers were all too happy to play along. This weekend, the Pop International Galleries in SoHo offered works from the likes of Andy Warhol and Keith Haring. But there also were two paintings by the lesser-known, and completely fictional, Mathias Sandorf.

When alert team members asked about the Sandorf works, they received a packet of information that included a copy of the painting. Players had to cut up the pieces, reassemble them into a grid, and then extract a hidden message.

The painting was actually the work of J. Allard, 30, a game organizer and pop art collector on sabbatical from Microsoft. "It's my first showing," he joked. "You know how hard it is to get into a SoHo gallery?"

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