I like to play pervasive street games, and last autumn I took part in a game that’s been running for around a decade in San Francisco called Journey to the End of the Night, or “Journey” for short.
Journey happens once a year, and it is sort of like capture the flag merged with cops and robbers, blended with absurdist performance art. It happens outside and players chase each other through the streets, often dressed in colorful costumes. There are “runners” and “chasers.” The runners attempt to make it to a series of checkpoints without being caught by the chasers. At the checkpoints, you have to complete some kind of strange task, like solving a puzzle blindfolded while someone else directs you. If you’re tagged, you have to become a chaser, so the game gets progressively harder as the night wears on. This game is no joke! Not everyone makes it to the end of the night—at least without getting caught!
Inspired by Situationist psychogeography, Journey is a way of remapping urban space to create new meaningful experiences, to really take ownership over public space, as we follow paper maps and invent fun puzzles and quirky characters (i.e. the checkpoint guardians) to entertain each other. Like Slingshot, Journey to the End of the Night is put together entirely by volunteers.
While this game is truly wonderful, there has been a troubling pattern with Journey, and with other street games of this ilk: Where are the people of color? #StreetGamesSoWhite It’s unfortunately a thing. There simply aren’t as many people of color represented in the playerbase of these games as there should be based on the demographics of the population. This is something that has left many game organizers scratching their heads, myself included as I develop my own games.
Last year, at the end of Journey, as everyone shared our stories of the evening’s adventures at the finish line, one of the players who was Black shared a story that led some of us to pause as if we were being choked by an Occult hand.
This young African-American man had been running from some chasers near Golden Gate Park when a group of random bystanders started chasing him too. (!!) The bystanders tackled him in a way that was super not safe. Within live gaming communities, we often have special safety rules about how (not) to touch each other’s bodies, and yeah, these bystanders weren’t even playing and didn’t follow these rules at all, and also: What the actual fuck?!
As the bystanders explained, they hadn’t noticed the colorful costumes or armbands or that a massive street game with hundreds of players was going on around them. All they saw was a Black man running from a group of white people, and they had assumed this meant that the black person had robbed someone.
The player who was tackled was rather jovial about the incident (or was still in shock!?) at the finish line, and shared the story as we stood around eating buckets of gold fish crackers, and he even added the story to the whimsical map we were making of things that had happened that night.
Organizers of the game were deeply troubled when they learned about what had happened to him. “How can we make our game safer for players of color?” is a question asked by more and more creators of live games, whether it is people working on corporate bullshit games like Pokemon Go, or those of us DIYing our own Situationist mirth.
The sad reality is that it simply isn’t possible to make Journey safer for players of color without changing the very nature of the game. A key part of any psychogeography game is that you’re moving through public space in a way that often startles people and wakes them up. If we were to remove random public encounters from the game, all of that will be lost. The point is that you never know if you’ll find yourself chasing each other through a crowd of opera patrons dressed in their best, or a camp of homeless people, or a group of other random humans. Due to the ambient prevalence of racism within the public play space though, it seems all street games ought to at least include a disclaimer like:
We apologize for the ambient racism of society which creates an additional layer of the safety hazards on top of those already in play in this game.
…of course there is another way to make Journey and other street games safer for players of color… This would involve a massive pervasive game in which we change the nature of reality. …Or at least the social reality. So, reality. It would be a game about removing racism. If playing this game, it is important to let people know that Society is Under Construction. This means you should probably put up yellow “Caution!” signs, and wear hardhats to protect your head from falling racists.
Racists come in many varieties. Some are worth more points than others. Don’t focus too hard on the ones who merely use slurs, but rather the ones who use their power to harm or systematically direct resources away from people of color. Go after the ones who put pervasive conditions are in place that increase the likelihood that a person of color will be in poverty, and thus may need to steal to get by, and thus the stereotypes emerge from those social conditions. (The slurs won’t matter any more once things are made equal—just ask the Irish!)
Types of Racists / Point Values:
• People who have been granted the institutional power to kill or physically harm others, and who use it in a biased fashion towards people of color / 1,000,000 Points
• People who have been granted institutional power over other people’s freedom, and who use it in a biased fashion to rob people of color of freedoms / 800,000 Points
• People who have been granted institutional power over images presented in mass media, and who use that power to depict people of color as “threatening” in a biased way / 900,000 Points
• People who have been granted the institutional power to restrict people’s access to food, clothing, shelter, and care, and who use it in a biased fashion to thwart people of color from receiving these things / 500,000 Points
• People with the institutional power to assign other people the ability to direct the labor of others, and who do so on a way that disproportionately goes to non-people-of-color / 700,000 Points
• People who use racial slurs, or who verbally spread stereotypes about people of color, making whatever spaces they occupy emotionally untenable for folks of color / 75 Points
People who say “everything is equal and people of color need to stop whining cuz they have the same opportunities as everyone else” (aka, Colorblind Racism) / 50 Points
The goal isn’t to physically harm racists, but rather to take their toys away and/or put them on a time out, which is to say: strategically limit their ability to harm people of color, and keep an eye on them so they don’t do it again.
Identifying racists within institutions isn’t always as easy as you think. It often means crunching the numbers to find out, for example, if a specific worker in the Food Stamp Office is more likely to reject an application by a person of color, or if a specific film director keeps having people of color appear on the screen in ways that train viewers to fear them. Track this stuff. Write it down. Create a data set.
Once a person, company, or institution has been identified as racist, players will need to develop a specific strategy. These strategies could involve suing them (making it too expensive to harm people of color), removing them from their positions and/or not reelecting them (making it a bad career move to harm people of color), boycotting their products (making it a bad business move to fail to include people of color in wealth-generation practices), and any other excellent strategies you come up with that match whatever unique situation you’ve identified.
Points may only be awarded if the conditions are changed to put people of color—within the context of the racist person or institution—on equal footing. So replacing one racist with another doesn’t count.
This game can be done in single player mode or in teams. Try it both ways!
It is important to avoid Witch Hunts, or situations in which someone is accused of institutional racism without data to back up that claim, or without 1 or more victims who have publically come forward. If you start a Witch Hunt, you will lose 500,000 Points, or your points will go back to zero, whichever is higher. So, if you suspect someone is using their institutional power in a racist way, seriously, crunch the numbers. Get a statement from one (and hopefully several victims). Don’t cherry pick the data. Look at all the cases of a judge—and compile a spreadsheet—and really make sure you’re accurate in your assumption that they tend to give harsher sentences to people of color than to non-people of color who have committed the same crime.
There are lots of things you can do with data: post it on indybay.org and tweet it like crazy, contact lawyers who specialize in that type of lawsuit, email it to journalists, send it to professors, write a letter to the editor of every publication in the area. Extra points awarded for creative uses of data!
Energy Limit. Some games have a time limit. This game has an energy limit, which will be different for each player. Based on your energy limit, you’ll probably only be able to put in check between 5-50 racists per year. Please refer to the points system to help you calculate how to spend your energy most efficiently. The points have been carefully calibrated through years of meticulous scientific efforts in Berkeley’s secret Laboratory of 4th Dimensional Anthropology, a lab that mysteriously appears in spaces throughout the Bay Area and then vanishes just before the authorities arrive.
Don’t get a Game Over! If your Energy Meter drops below 5 Energy Points (your body will tell you when it’s that low), use that remaining energy to replenish yourself. Games are fun, but if you wear yourself out, you’ll be too exhausted to play tomorrow. Go for a steady burn. That said, if you’re on a roll, that’s great! Extra points for single month combos!
Risks include head injuries (wear your hardhat!), indigestion, adventure, danger, singing silly songs, death, life, general tomfoolery, destroying your reputation for being “a nice person,” and complete destruction of the social reality. Extra points for tomfoolery.
Disclaimer: The organizers of this game would like to apologize for the ambient level of racism in society which creates an additional layer of the safety hazards on top of those already in play in this game. We solemnly swear to actively do all in our power to change those ambient conditions, but in the meantime, we ask that players of color play with caution. Society is under construction.