AUSTIN, Texas--"Is that the hat, Mr. Terdiman?"
My inquisitor was Alice Taylor, a prominent British video game journalist and, like me, an attendee at the South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi) festival here this week. But the bowler Taylor--whom I know through professional and social circles--had spotted on my head and was asking me about was most definitely not the hat she thought it was.
And she was hardly the only one seeing this black chapeau resting atop my dome and thinking that it was something other than a stylish headpiece. In fact, all day Monday, strangers and friends alike had been coming up to me after spying it on my head and asking me about it.
"Excuse me, sir, but I do believe you have my hat," one eager forty or fiftysomething SXSW male volunteer with salt-and-pepper hair had rushed over to say to me in the halls of the Austin Convention Center earlier that day.
"No, I don't," I told him confidently. After all, I knew for a fact that my bowler actually belonged to my friend Chris, a local, who had lent it to me for the day. After a moment of the gentleman looking confused, a group of his fellow volunteers burst out laughing, and one woman said to me, "You're going to get asked that a lot."
Indeed. And that's just exactly what I had planned.
It turns out that an outfit called Arts Council England had sponsored a group of UK companies to come to SXSWi to showcase the state of interactive and creative work being done these days in Britain and as a visceral way of doing so, had commissioned a small games company called Simon Games to create what became called "The hat game."
This was one of a number of so-called pervasive games that companies or small independent teams had sprung on SXSWi this year. Others involved companies like Zappos, FreshBooks, Iridesco, and SocialBomb, and tasked players with things like trading cards, snapping pictures of Robert Scoble, and playing a geek tech version of bingo.
"The hat game" revolved around a bowler hat embedded with a GPS chip, and the idea was that somebody would be wearing the hat around Austin, tracked live on the Internet, and when someone privy to what was going on would see them, they would come over and inquire, "Excuse me, sir (or madam), but I do believe you have my hat."
Discovered, the bowler wearer would hand it over, photographs and e-mails would ensue, and eventually the person who had managed to hold on to it the longest would be declared the winner.
When I told Chris about that, he said he had a bowler and I should wear it around the conference to see what trouble I could get in. I certainly do love a little culture jamming and gaming of games, so with a big mischievous grin crossing my face, we both knew I had to do it. And write about it of course.
That explains why, not long after the salt-and-pepper gentleman suggested that I had his hat, another fellow, this time much younger and with a thick British accent, approached me and said, "Would I be close in asking for your hat?"
At least that's what I think he said. He spoke too softly to understand fully.
A spin-off of "MooseHunt"
Being SXSWi, where serendipity rules, I found myself in line for lunch Tuesday next to Alex Fleetwood, a pervasive games festival organizer from England who had helped out with the creation of "The hat game." I couldn't resist explaining that I had spent the previous day gaming the project, and asked if he could tell me more about it.
Fleetwood, who created the Hide&Seek festival in England, got me in touch with Simon Johnson, from Simon Games, and we sat down a little later to talk about the project.
Johnson--fully informed that I was hacking his game--explained that the basic mechanics of "The hat game" had been lifted from a game, called "MooseHunt" that he and his business partner had created for IGFest, another street and pervasive games festival in the UK. He said that for that project, his partner walked the 80 miles from his home to the town where the festival was being held in a moose suit.
Like the hat, the suit had a GPS chip in it and could be tracked on the Internet. Players could send a text message and get an online map of where the moose was at any given moment, and if they managed to find him and take a picture of him before he took a photo of the player, they would win.
So, looking for a way to create a game for SXSWi that would borrow the mechanics of "MooseHunt," but that involved something small that could be easily passed around between people, Johnson and his partner settled on the bowler hat.
Over the course of the three days that "The hat game" was played, it was always possible to load the game's Web page and see where in Austin the hat had gone. According to Johnson, the very first person who found the hat--Johnson began the game wearing it around--was a teenage Austin girl. Having acquired the bowler, she promptly got in a car and drove off for parts far from downtown, where SXSW is being held.
"We had no expectation that anyone outside the festival would be involved at all," Johnson said, "so it was great to see that kind of (local) involvement."
He said he asked the girl how she had found out about the game, since she wasn't in any way connected to SXSW. She told him her uncle, who lived far from here, had heard about the project and had called her, telling her that since she lived in Austin, she should keep an eye out for someone wearing a bowler.
And, of course, if she spotted it, to say, "Excuse me, sir, but I believe you have my hat."
Johnson said that over the three days of the game, about 12 people had had possession of the hat for some period of time, and that one had it three times. He explained that one man had spent $35 on a taxi to follow a woman wearing the hat, eventually knocking on doors on the street he was sure she had ended up on. He got the hat.
The winner, meanwhile, a woman named Erica, managed to hold on to the bowler for 4 hours, 7 minutes and 39 seconds. And several others had it for more than two hours.
But back at the Convention Center, I was walking around, innocently wearing my own bowler--okay, not that innocently--when out of the corner of my eyes I saw a woman see the hat on my head and spring into action. I moved forward, and she followed, eventually circling in front of me and saying, "Is it over?"
"Is what over," I said.
"Excuse me, sir, but I believe you have my hat," she said.
To which I replied, shaking my head, "I'm afraid not."
The woman grimaced, embarrassed.
My plan was to wear the hat all day, especially at the Convention Center, where I knew that there would be the highest probability people would see it and make the connection. But even there, only the tiniest fraction of conference attendees knew what was going on. That's because knowledge of "The hat game" was spread mostly through word of mouth, although a BBC reporter had done a story on it on Saturday that included a video and which had risen to a top spot on the BBC's Web site. That, in fact, was where I had first come across it.
At the end of the day, the plan was for me to go to one of Monday night's parties, where Chris was a volunteer, and return it to him. It was to be as simple as that.
A few more times though, I was approached, and each time, I had to tell the rather excited person asking me for the hat that, no, it wasn't theirs.
Finally, evening came and I made my way to the party. And being SXSWi, where, as I mentioned, serendipity rules, Chris was working the door when I arrived. I walked towards him and caught his eye.
Without missing a beat, Chris said, "Excuse me, sir, but I believe you have my hat."
Indeed I did. I took it off and handed it over.