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(Water) Gun-Toting Assassins? It's Just Some Urban Fun

New Yorkers reclaim the streets and a bit of youth with mass Internet-driven games of tag, capture the flag and killer.

November 12, 2005|Maggie Farley | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — A man loping down Fifth Avenue in a furry jackalope costume the weekend after Halloween usually wouldn't turn a head in New York. But curious police stopped the hybrid mascot Saturday night, and underneath the antlers found A.J. Ortiz Jr., 16, who was late for a scavenger hunt.

"They let me go after a while," he said. "But you know what's worse? I had to sign up to be the school mascot to get the costume. I have to wear it for the rest of the year."

Ortiz is part of a loose network of hundreds of New Yorkers who meet through the Internet to play games every week in the city's streets: capture the flag, manhunt -- a glorified version of tag -- and, most recently, the scavenger hunt.

Most players have never met before they encounter each other at the game sites that organizers post online, but many become friends -- an unexpected connection in a disjointed city.

This is the game version of a "flash mob" -- strangers meeting up for political action, or instant crowds gathering to do something random. Plus there's a touch of online dating. But mostly, it's about reclaiming New York's streets, and a bit of childhood.

"We wanted to take back New York," said Michael Diroma, 21, a software engineer who is one of the organizers of, which organized the scavenger hunt.

For city dwellers who grew up halting stickball games for passing cars, playing in the middle of the street provides a flashback to youth. For others, it's simply an excuse to run that has nothing to do with being late for a train or being chased by a mugger.

"The only point is to have fun," said Diroma. "If we don't organize it, who will?"

Cars and cobblestones are part of the playing field; the players work around them, or even incorporate them into the game.

During a recent game of capture the flag, players momentarily stopped guarding the prize to make way for a cab. Lukas Fauset, one of Ortiz's teammates, leaped out of the Trojan-horse cab and grabbed the flag, Fauset recounted.

Kevin Bracken, the original organizer of the New York games, brought the idea back after playing a game of manhunt in Toronto, where he attends college.

In Toronto, Bracken's last game of capture the flag attracted nearly 500 players. Bracken also has put together an Easter egg hunt, a mass "zombie walk," bubble parades and a party that took over the last car of a Toronto subway.

To help spread the concept of transforming cities into playgrounds -- metromorphosis, he calls it -- he offers manuals and game rule books on the website

"We are creating a culture of people who are willing to assemble and do silly things. It's kind of a social phenomenon," Bracken said by phone from Toronto. The games attract all ages, but the majority who take part are 20-something hipsters, he said.

There is also an ideological undertone.

"The reason we don't play in parks is that everyone knows that parks are public spaces," Bracken said. "We want them to re-imagine the city, and reinhabit it. They can be participants in public art."

In the summer, New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg pleaded with another group to stop a game of "killer," in which players shoot at their targets with water guns; he feared that police might mistake the water pistols for the real thing. Bloomberg called the game inappropriate and suggested that the organizers at seek psychiatric help. A game of killer organized by the website starts in San Francisco on Monday.

The guerrilla element adds to the thrill, but gamers say they just want to have a good time.

On Saturday night, scavenger hunters tallied their results at a Dunkin' Donuts, buying drinks and doughnuts to justify their presence. Teams brought in bags stuffed with items from the six-page list of items to be collected: 23 Chinese restaurant menus, a diplomatic license plate, a slice of pizza that cost less than $2, a gallon of water from the polluted East River, Spike Lee's phone number. The list called for items to be collected from all five boroughs.

High-scoring items included a video of a player singing along with the Naked Cowboy, a street performer who is a fixture at Times Square, and whose guitar doubles as a musical fig leaf.

There also was extra credit for bringing one's mother. Fauset brought his mother -- and his grandmother. "Double points for moms," Diroma said.

Fauset's grandmother, Harriet Moss, also pitched in. She brought Chinese menus, her husband's Army violin case (as a World War II relic) and the explanation for why the expiration date for milk is earlier in New York City than elsewhere.

Although many participants did not know each other before the scavenger hunt, Ortiz's team consisted of four buddies from LaGuardia High School, and their camaraderie showed. After devoting their after-school hours for a week to the hunt, they arrived with nearly every item on the list, and their score was nearly double that of the next closest team's.

"We were totally devoted," said Ortiz. "We take our fun very seriously."

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