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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

Assassin Game Is a Hit, Man

Squirt-gun stalkers play StreetWars: Killer to the hilt. But some question the safety -- and the sanity -- of the murder fantasy contest.

March 13, 2006|Scott Martelle | Times Staff Writer

Roderick Gonzales and his brother, Raul, lurked in the darkness with the patience of predators.

Their target -- Franz Aliquo, the Supreme Commander of the Shadow Government -- had already spotted them once and, with his bodyguards, slipped away into the San Francisco night. But in his haste, Aliquo had left the door to his North Beach safe house ajar, a mistake the Gonzaleses were quick to exploit.

The brothers slipped inside, guns ready, and waited. Three hours later, just after the bars closed, Aliquo and his entourage returned, scurrying from the car into what he thought was the safety of the apartment.

"As soon as I see a piece of his fur coat, I let loose with a blast," Roderick Gonzales recalled, relishing the memory. "He was surprised, with it coming out of the dark like that, so he tried to run across to the kitchen, and my brother got him from the other side and he just was knocked over.... He was soaked like he had just come in from a storm."

It's not exactly a scene from "The Bourne Identity" or "The Godfather," but for Roderick Gonzales it was a moment of triumph -- sealing him as the grand champion of the San Francisco version of a bizarre game of squirt-gun assassin designed to help adults get in touch with their inner hit man.

The game, called StreetWars: Killer, is an elaborate version of hide-and-seek, an update of older assassin role-playing games. It is played on city streets by scores of participants armed with water guns. For weeks, they stalk, pursue and ambush in the hopes of being the ultimate -- and dry -- hit man.

The game is poised for the leap from the margins to the mainstream: Earlier this month, a "CSI: NY" story line intermixed real murder with a fictional StreetWars-type game. And Aliquo, the game's co-founder, says he's in talks to steer the game into a reality TV show.

StreetWars began two years ago in New York and, in addition to the November game in San Francisco, has also been played in Vancouver, Canada; and Vienna. A new game, with more than 200 assassins, was to begin early today on the streets and in the buildings of Los Angeles (details at www.streetwars.net).

Although it may be hard for most to see a serious threat in squirt-gun-toting adults who refuse to grow up, the game has picked up a wide range of critics, including New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who suggested last year that Aliquo "could use some psychiatric help."

And the Cincinnati-based Parents of Murdered Children criticized the game as an insensitive mockery of violence in a society that has one of the highest homicide rates in the industrialized world.

"Murder seems to be the only tragedy that we make a game out of," said Nancy Ruhe, the group's executive director. "We don't play rape. We don't play cancer. We don't play airplane crash.... If you stop to think about it, would you play Clue if Professor Plum was sexually assaulting Miss Scarlet in the Billiard Room with a pool stick? Then why is it acceptable for Professor Plum to murder Miss Scarlet?"

But David Markland, who grew up "during the last burp of the Cold War" as a fan of James Bond and other spy thrillers, takes a lighter view.

"I don't see anything psychologically wrong with people wanting to play this," said Markland, 33, a Hollywood resident who signed up for the L.A. game. "Is it any more childish than fantasy football or even softball leagues? All entertainment is escapism. This is just a little more extreme."

Still, the game has "inherent dangers" and is susceptible to misinterpretation by those not involved "as assassins stalk their targets, sometimes sneaking onto their property, and then using guns that outsiders may perceive as real," he said. "I also made sure to have a conversation with my girlfriend about the game, to make sure she was cool if I started having strangers knocking on my door at odd hours trying to shoot me with water."

Organizers said they try to work with local police during the games, but department spokesmen in New York and San Francisco said they knew nothing about the games -- and wouldn't unless complaints were filed.

But the element of assault as play, potentially spinning into real fights, poses one of the game's risks, as does providing personal information about where you live and work to fellow players who are not screened, said a dubious Craig A. Anderson, an Iowa State University psychology professor.

"I certainly would not want to provide details of my life to 200 strangers who are interested in a stalking/killing game," he said. "Spending a lot of time looking out for potential threats and thinking about how to find one's 'enemy' can produce subtle changes in how one perceives the rest of the nongame world."

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