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Saturday, May 23, 1998

Techno-Geeks Tackle 'The Game'
Competition: Technology-savvy participants in elaborate scavenger hunt boot up their powers of endurance and innovation. The event begins today in Long Beach.
By KAREN KAPLAN, Times Staff Writer

James Gwertsman is on a mission.
     For several months now, Gwertsman and six associates have carefully planned their assault. They have gathered their gear--cell phones, laptop computers, walkie-talkies, flashlights, ropes and duct tape--rented a van and studied maps.
     Their destination is an "investors meeting" that will draw about 70 people from around the country to Los Angeles for Memorial Day weekend.
     But that's just a cover. Because there is no investors meeting; it's just a game.
     "The Game."
     A Microsoft software developer by day, Gwertsman, along with dozens of young men and women mostly from tech companies, will gather today for a grueling marathon of the body and mind that symbolizes the drive, ambition, endurance and offbeat desire for fun that characterizes the tech youth culture.
     For 24 sleepless hours, participants in this secretive, invitation-only event disguised as an investors meeting will scour the City of Angels, retrieving and solving one torturous puzzle after another in a supercompetitive, outrageously elaborate scavenger hunt.
     "It's like playing secret agent for a day," said Gwertsman, 24, who has two Games to his credit. "You're driving around in a van packed with equipment. It's 24 hours and you're up the whole time. It's mentally challenging and it's physically challenging."
     And after a day filled with mind-numbing riddles, arduous detective work and tense group dynamics, what's the payoff?
     "Pure bragging rights," said player Kristina Ota.
     Since its birth 14 years ago in the minds of two Florida high school students, The Game has grown from a small flight of fancy among friends to an invitation-only adventure that has reached cult status, drawing players from Seattle, Boston, Atlanta, San Jose and Wichita.
     Adding to the mystique of the event is the fact that no one knows who's running it. Players didn't even find out they were to meet at the Queen Mary in Long Beach for the kickoff until just hours before they were to board their planes Friday.
     The Game starts off like a kid's scavenger hunt. Thirteen teams--each with four to eight players--gather at a central location, receive an initial clue, then go their separate ways to new locations in search of new clues, ultimately leading to that crucial clue that will deliver them to the finish line--and a well-deserved party.
     If the past is any guide, this year's Game will open with an hourlong skit that may indeed resemble a meeting of investors. Then, something dramatic will force the group to disperse.
     Last year, for example, the introductory gathering was broken up by fake FBI agents; another time, "terrorists" invaded the meeting and took one member of each team hostage.
     But this is no run-of-the-mill scavenger hunt. Like characters in a video game, participants in The Game may be asked to pluck a clue from the bottom of a lake. They may be asked to retrieve a clue from the middle of a black-tie affair in a hotel ballroom. They may be forced to stray off main roads and follow a dusty mountain trail.
     "It's probably the closest any normal person can get to actually being in something like an action movie," said Gamer Jan Miksovsky, 30. "It's like extreme sports for techno-geeks."
     Being required to get to such remote and diverse locations means that players with the foresight to pack a wetsuit or a tuxedo or a mountain bike have an advantage.
     "Being prepared," Gwertsman said, "is as important as being smart."
     Finding clues is only half the challenge.
     One year, participants received a list of 10 minerals, each paired with a different word. "We finally figured out that if we ranked the minerals in order of hardness, it gave us the order of the words and told us the clue," Gwertsman said. (It didn't hurt that his team had packed a physics book for such a contingency.)
     But a sharp mind is more useful than a sharp pencil. Teams once received a die, a light switch set in the "off" position and a plastic male sheep. The answer: die-off-ram, or diaphragm. Using past Game experience as a guide, players typed the word into a CD-ROM program created for the competition. That launched a video showing the location of the next clue.
     To the uninitiated, the mission of The Game may seem like Mission Impossible. But these supersleuths rely on experience for intuition, the way golfers come to know the particulars of a golf course.
     Imagine that you're faced with a string of numbers separated by Xs and /s and a tiny geometric pattern. That's it.
     "We realized they were bowling scores," said Brian Fleming, 31, a Game veteran. "We started adding up the line score, and the first one summed out to 206, which was the area code here and was great positive reinforcement. Then we summed up the rest to get a phone number."
     Calling that number led the team to the next clue.
     These techno-wizards don't spend the day holed up indoors; teams had to make their way to a small island to hunt for a clue one year. Dashing for their motorboats, the first team to find it headed full-throttle for the mainland.
     "The other teams just followed them, and the next thing you know, you're in the middle of a speedboat race," Gwertsman said. "It was very James Bond-ish."
     The Game was the brainstorm of high school pals Joe Belfiore and Mike Martin. Inspired by the 1980 movie "Midnight Madness," in which a character played by Michael J. Fox and his college buddies decoded a series of cryptic clues scattered around Los Angeles, Belfiore and Martin created late-night rallies of their own in Clearwater, Fla., drawing a few dozen players.
     Later, when his pursuit of a degree in computer science took Belfiore to Stanford University, the rallies followed. And there, the competition took on the name Bay Area Race Fantastique and took on a life of its own.
     In one running of that contest, organizers captured team cars and drove them across San Francisco Bay. Players had to follow a trail of photo clues, which led them along public transportation routes to the start of the game.
     At its peak, the race was drawing about 80 participants.
     The contest went on hiatus after Belfiore graduated and moved up to Seattle to work for Microsoft.
     It was resurrected four years later and dubbed The Game, first in the Bay Area and then for a four-year run in Seattle, where it has been dominated by Microsoft employees.
     The changing mix of players has altered the sensibility of The Game from "the ultimate test for the Renaissance man and woman" to an event that relies on high-tech gear in addition to smarts, said Belfiore, 30.
     "I think the fact that we are now able to take it more seriously--we can get better equipment and we can spend more time on it--has raised the level of competition," he said.
     In keeping with the demanding and aggressive culture of Microsoft, the Game's competitive spirit is literally brought home for some players.
     Belfiore and his girlfriend Ota, 30, a professional recruiter for Microsoft, are playing on different teams this year, and preparations for the upcoming Game have put a crimp in their relationship.
     "We absolutely can't talk about it," Belfiore said. "In fact, we're going to have separate flights on the way down there."
     Players take their mission so seriously that Miksovsky took time out from his recent honeymoon in Hawaii to discuss plans for The Game.
     The Microsoft influence has added another dimension to The Game--taunting. Teams have been known to leave stickers and oranges at clue sites as a way of bragging to other teams that they were there first, hopefully to demoralizing effect.
     One year, a team installed an electronic message board in its van, which touted "our philosophy on life and how much fun it was to have you behind us," said Fleming, a former Microsoft employee who recently co-founded the video-game company Sucker Punch Productions.
     That's what drives Miksovsky, a two-time Game champion whose team is favored to prevail again this year.
     "We want to win in such a way that we can tell stories about it and lord it over our friends."

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