Ask any gamer, or specialist in pedagogy, and they'll say the same thing: games are as important to human development as any the rest of our skill-building activities. There’s evidence of game-playing in almost every culture dating all the way back to ancient Sumeria and Egypt. They also offer an entrance point into other cultures, whether by playing a familiar game like chess and seeing how it translates in an unfamiliar environment, or by learning a game representative of a particular place — Xiangqi (Chinese chess), say, or Ghanaian Oware.
But while some games have been around for literally thousands of years, other games seem to drop off the radar almost as quickly as they appear. What essential component gives games like Go, hide-and-go-seek, poker, Monopoly, and Super Mario Brothers such staying power over some of their, perhaps best forgotten peers? This is a question the game designers of San Francisco’s annual Come Out and Play Festival must ask themselves each year, as they present their latest inventions in the hopes of capturing the imaginations, and just maybe the funds, to bring their games to the public at large.
Since the festival itself is free, it’s always fun to drop by for a few hours to see what’s being played. Attending Saturday, myself and my buddy in game, P., stopped to peek at the Mime Boxing tournament, a rowdy free-for-all of imaginary walls and temporary alliances, and play a round of the tabletop Thrown Into Chaos, before assuming our roles as Prohibition-era booze smugglers in Rumrunners, a two hour-long treasure hunt and commodities exchange scenario.
Sent out into the world with a packet of money and a series of orders, we purchase “booze” from a pair of nattily dressed mobsters standing on the street corner, and then hurry to our first drop off point, in order to make more money, in order to buy more booze. We split up in order to make it more confusing for the “agents” who pop out of the shadows occasionally, clipboards in hand, and try to shake us down for the booze we fortunately never have on us when they ask, though one tries to run off with a $500 bill at one point which we protest vigorously.
We come in fifth out of 10 teams, thanks to a pair of particularly persistent agents who stake out one of the drop-off points for at least 20 minutes, forcing us to circle the same block again and again until they leave.
Transitioning into the hide-and-chase game Witness Protection Plan, we draw cards with our characters printed on them: Witness, Detective, Suicide Bomber, Assassin, Handler, Civilian, etc. The “Witness” hurries off to hide, and then the rest of the players spread out through the neighborhood to find them. One-third of the players have to find the witness and hide with them before any assassins or traitors find them first, and each round lasts just 10 minutes, which makes for a tenser, more physically demanding game than Rumrunners.
As far as involved and demanding goes, the centerpiece game of the festival, the annual Journey to the End of the Night can be both, an epic, miles-long scavenger hunt replete with checkpoints, chasers, safe zones, and an outdoor after-party in a unique setting (this year, Corona Heights Park). P. is “game” for it, but I’ve neglected to pre-register so I head off, but before I do we play a few rounds of Stranger Danger, an ice-breaker game clearly aimed for the teen-to-20-something demographic (sample question: “What color describes how horny you are right now?” Answer from stranger: “That’s an awkward question to ask me in front of my 13-year-old brother”).
Whoops, well, still a few bugs in that system, but keep it up friends. Someday you might come up with the next Twister! Now there’s a game with staying power.
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