You might have seen strangers super-gluing objects to the sidewalk, sensed them taking photos of your butt or observed them disguising themselves as garbage cans. These strangers aren’t just acting crazy – they're also playing the city’s newest online game, SFZero (www.sf0.org).
Three friends from Chicago and San Francisco – Ian Kizu Blair, Sam Lavigne and Sean Mahan – created SFZero in January 2006. The game is simple: Pick a task and complete it, posting proof of completion online in the form of a picture, video or text. Members of SFZero choose from over 600 player-created tasks to complete, from “Reverse Shoplifting” (players place an object in a store) to “Blindfolded Bus Experience” (players travel a bus route blindfolded). Each task is worth a certain number of points depending on its level of difficulty; harder tasks become available as players build up their scores.
Players choose a group when signing up for the game. The choices include BART Psychogeographical Association (centering on public transportation), Biome (focusing on the living structure and natural aspects of the city), EquivalenZ (emphasizing technology and virtual reality tasks), The University of Aesthematics (concerning the arts) or Humanitarian Crisis (involving public service). Senior Ramon Solis, who joined SFZero a year ago, was originally part of the BART Psychogeographical Association. After learning more about the game, however, he decided to switch groups. “There are some tasks designated to certain groups, and I liked the tasks for the University of Aesthematics more because they were more creative,” he said. “They were also outside the usual confines.”
Senior Anna Vignet, who started playing with the Aesthematics group and switched to the Psychogeographical Association, commented on the interactive nature of these creative assignments. In one task she created “a whole new Zodiac” system with a player she did not know, Vignet said.
No matter what group players choose, all lead them to tasks that get them involved in the city — and out of the house.
“The last task I did was called ‘Journey to the End Of the Night,’ ” Solis said. “It was like a race and there were various checkpoints in the city. I was wearing a blue armband and the players that were chasing wore red wristbands. The last checkpoint was at the beach, by the wave organ, but by that point I had been tagged and had become a chaser. It was cool because I got to meet a lot of people.”
According to SFZero’s founders, facilitating such meetings is one of the game’s main purposes. Lavigne and Blair wrote in an e-mail that SFZero differs from typical online games in that “rather than a simulated space for developing relationships situated within a fantasy world,” it offers “relationships and encounters in local live space.” They added that “rather than a parallel universe,” the game is “a collision of social realities.” SFZero is about spending more quality time with fellow gamers and San Francisco than with a computer.
SFZero player “Flitworth” praised this aspect of the game’s structure. “While the idea of levels and playing for points is a bit odd (there is always someone who gets competitive in an irritating way once points become involved), I really enjoy the structure because it encourages people to interact with others and think creatively,” she wrote.
According to Lavigne and Blair, SFZero is also designed to put the players themselves in charge of the game. “We set up a structure that encouraged values like active-doing rather than passive-watching, exploration rather than comfort and creativity rather than consumption,” Lavigne and Blair wrote. “We put a lot of effort into making sure that players are in charge of the game, not us — it's not our role to tell players what to do or how to live their lives.” Solis agreed that the game has a communal and interactive structure. “The game is very democratic in that sense,” he said. “I can make a task for another player, and another player can make a task for me.”
The SFZero creators based their game in part on the ideas and philosophy of 20th- century thinkers such as Karl Marx, Jean Baudrillard and Paul Virilio, as well as the work of a 1960s Marxist group called the Situationists. “The Situationists issued a manifesto to all beings of agency, to take to the streets and to recapture one’s own sense of active expression in daily life, through the disruption of routine with self-invented games and play,” Lavigne and Blair wrote. SFZero mirrors many of these concepts, especially the idea of constructing unique, individual situations.
With over 1,000 players, SFZero has attracted attention. A May 2006 article in SFWeekly called SFZero a game that “creates an environment unlike that of almost any other game, offering a deeper meaning that extends beyond the traditional notion of what it means to go out and play.” Although the majority of the game’s devotees come from the Bay Area, SFZero’s unique approach has attracted followers in Minneapolis, New York, Chicago and even London.
The founders give credit to the players for what SFZero has become. “We don't like being the voice of authority about what SFZero is,” Lavigne and Blair wrote. “SFZero is created by the players — it's many different things to different people.”
To Solis, it is SFZero’s interactive nature and close-knit community that keep him coming back. “It’s the ultimate democratic gaming experience,” he said.