Playing the Lost Sport

Posted: June 8, 2008 at 10:17 am in games, nyc

I’ve been a fan of Jane McGonigal for a few years now, and enjoyed playing her Cruel 2 B Kind game in the Come Out and Play festival two years ago. So when she said she was running another game in this year’s festival, I signed up.

The game ties into the Olympics in that it’s a “Lost Sport” that was allegedly banned in Ancient Greece. In cooperation with the Olympic Committee, Jane is running an entire alternative reality game around the sport. The linked wiki includes rules for the Lost Sport itself, aka “The Labyrinth”.

The idea is that a labyrinth is laid out (Jane used chalk yesterday, but string can also be used). A set of people stand on the lines of the labyrinth to form the walls. A blindfolded runner is placed in the center of the labyrinth, and has to make their way out as fast as possible. The wall can guide the runner by humming; in particular, the people ahead of the runner hum, and stop humming as the runner passes them, so the runner just runs in the direction of the hum.

While being in the wall might seem boring, it turned out there were several subtleties. For instance, realizing that the runner runs in the direction of the hum means that you need to stop humming before the runner gets to you, or they’ll run into you. Also, only hum when you have direct line-of-sight to the runner or they’ll run into the wall – the labyrinth has 180-degree corners which are very confusing if the wall doesn’t coordinate the humming. It helps to stick your head out into the middle of the walkway when humming so that the runner can run directly toward the hum.

The really fun bit is that there aren’t enough people to form the walls of the full labyrinth. So after the runner passes you, you have to get ahead of the runner to form the walls that don’t exist yet. Since the labyrinth is approximately circular, the best strategy we came up with was to have both sides of the labyrinth take a step outward, rather than trying to have the inner wall people squeeze through to form the outer wall. Towards the end, as the numbers dwindled, we didn’t even have enough people to do that, so things got pretty silly as the wall raced to try to stay ahead of the runner. We had one runner actually outrun the wall which left him very confused.

I like that the game is cooperative and competitive at the same time – each labyrinth is working with the runner to get faster times, but you can have multiple labyrinths competing against each other (we had four labyrinths side-by-side in Central Park yesterday, and Jane was in contact with other labyrinths in Paris, San Francisco and Tokyo, each competing for the best times). As an example of how the teamwork of the labyrinth really matters, one runner yesterday set a world record of under 14 seconds, and wanted to take another crack at beating that record at the end. We formed a labyrinth out of the remaining people, and it just didn’t work. Each of the four labyrinths had devised their own strategies, and we were bumping into each other and not being coordinated. Apparently, it had taken several runs for him to get that world record time as everybody learned where and when to hum and move.

I haven’t looked into the larger alternative reality game yet, but I really enjoyed the “Lost Sport”. I’ll keep an eye out for future labyrinth runs in New York.

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