April 14, 2006 4:00 AM PDT

Collaborative gaming takes to the streets

If you happen to be in San Francisco in the near future and someone issues you a "pedestrian permit," there's a pretty good chance you've wandered into the middle of "San Francisco Zero."

The new Web-based game, also known as "SF0," asks its players to take on and complete a wide variety of often-absurd or even borderline-illegal tasks in and around San Francisco. It's appealing to a small but growing number of people interested in the way real-world communities can take on the collaborative characteristics of Internet wikis.

'SFO' offline

How so? To start, most of the game's tasks are created by players rather than the organizers.

Right now, the more than 100 people playing "SF0" are trying to provide solutions to dozens of tasks, each of which is worth a set amount of points. Players must provide proof of some kind to receive points for any completed tasks, and the community can award extra points for creativity.

Examples include the "anti-wallet freedom venture," which asks players to wear an extremely nontraditional wallet for three days; "the beautiful letter," in which players write a love letter that will be seen by a large number of people; and "the blindfolded bus experience," in which one person leads a blindfolded collaborator onto a bus and then leaves him or her there to ride for 30 minutes.

"What makes it work is the wiki model, the collaborative, bottom-up, open-source model."
--Aaron Muszalski, self-styled "evangelist" for "SFO"

"What makes it work is the wiki model, the collaborative, bottom-up, open-source model," said Aaron Muszalski, a self-styled "SF0" "evangelist" and visual effects instructor at San Francisco's Academy of Art University. "It's a wiki ARG (alternate-reality game)."

Certainly, "SF0" bears some resemblance to ARGs, mixed-media games like 2005's "Last Call Poker" that require competitors to play both online and in the real world, to work in groups to solve clues and to do so in the pursuit of a broad narrative story line.

To one of the architects behind alternate-reality games, however, "SF0" has some of the same kinds of multimedia elements but provides players with an all-new game mechanic.

"It's more in the category of urban superhero gaming, because they're not really doing a narrative," said Jane McGonigal, a lead designer at 42 Entertainment, which has made several of the best-known alternate-reality games. "I really like the modular missions. You can do them any time and at any place, and that's really different from ARGs, which tell you what to do and where to do it."

But unlike many alternate realities, which often serve as marketing vehicles for things like video games from Microsoft or Activision, "SF0" is an unfunded project run by Sam Lavigne, Ian Kizu-Blair and Sean Mahan, three recent San Francisco transplants operating an arts nonprofit organization.

The three had run a similar project in Chicago before relocating last summer, and on arriving in San Francisco, decided they wanted to do something that would get players out and about discovering things they've never seen or done in the city, while still maintaining their independence.

CONTINUED: Reversing the trend of realism…
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