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Originally published Sunday, September 14, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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The Game

In a Nevada desert, the ultimate fantasy adventure suddenly stopped being fun.

More on The Game

For a detailed account of Shelby Logan's Run: www.shelbylogansrun.com

The race to save the renegade spy Shelby Logan began at dawn, when two helicopters dive-bombed a thicket of tents perched on a dry lake bed outside Las Vegas. The choppers jettisoned silver balls packed with videos from Logan and zipped off.

The Agency had planted a chip inside his brain, Logan said on the video, and the chip was set to explode within hours, to keep him from spilling secrets. He would survive only if a resourceful friend found a secret device somewhere along a trail of clues scattered across the Nevada desert.

Get to me before the Agency does, Logan said, or I'm dead before my 35th birthday. The trail starts at the Hoover Dam. Don't think. Move.

The brain trust perched on the dry lake bed seemed able: about 60 bright, adventurous minds from Seattle's high-tech community. Microsoft VPs. Inventors. Start-up founders. Multimillionaires. Serious geeks.

Over the next 28 hours, the race to save Shelby Logan propelled these would-be rescuers across 275 miles, from the arid moonscape of the desert to the neon glare of the Las Vegas strip. They would scuba dive, rock climb, sing karaoke with a drag queen and fire automatic weapons. They would decode the Declaration of Independence inside a prison and befriend a white rat named Templeton, whose shivering little body carried a message.

If this sounds ripped from a Hollywood movie, it essentially was. The race to save Shelby Logan was conceived as a weekend fantasy to be played on the proportions of the big screen, by invitation only.

It was the latest in an annual run of what was simply called The Game. An adventure scavenger hunt. The ultimate test for the Renaissance man or woman. Or just a really good excuse to turn off your Blackberry, forget work, ignore spouses and have a hell-raising good time.

"Most of our days roll out as anonymously as another Honda Accord at the front of the metered 'one car per green' entrance to the highway," reads a Game manual given to players. "Not this one. For about as long as you can stand it, The Game forces you to be an active participant. Think, do, run, feel — the devastation of failure, the ecstasy of success, the incredible click of working together as a team. For these 24 hours, you are fully alive. Welcome to The Game."

But a full day into the race to save Shelby Logan, The Game suddenly stopped being fun.

Someone almost died. Fingers were pointed. Lawsuits were filed.

The Game was up.

SHELBY LOGAN'S Run, which unfolded over two days in late October 2002, was the apex of Games staged annually since 1985. The six-member team that birthed it — all current or former Microsofties — included The Game's godfather, Joe Belfiore, an amiable Microsoft vice president with an impishly high laugh, a taste for '80s music and a keen eye for drama.

In the early 1980s, Belfiore and his high-school classmates in Clearwater, Fla., fell in love with a kitschy Disney teen movie, "Midnight Madness," about an eccentric genius named Leon who staged a wild night-time clue hunt. It inspired them to make their own game, with clues stashed at a police station, inside a talking robot and at the nation's first Hooters. Belfiore played the Leon role, and the teenagers carried rolls of quarters to check in from pay phones.

"When you are making a game, it's like making a movie or writing a book," says Belfiore, now 40. "You're creating an experience for people to engage in that is thrilling and memorable. The scale of experience depends on the time and energy and money the participants are willing to invest."

Belfiore transplanted The Game as he established himself out West — first at Stanford, then in Redmond, where he was hired in 1990. He launched his first Seattle-based Game in 1995 with a "bomb threat" aboard a tour boat and ended it with a helicopter ride to the summit of a ski resort in British Columbia. The puzzles involved cryptography, anagrams, braille and a computer game called "The Game of Life." There was no prize for winning, just bragging rights.

Word spread among fellow Microsofties. Game stories became like fish stories, expanding with age. Games ballooned in sophistication. Rolls of quarters were replaced by vans wired with their own power grids and stocked with laptops, GPS locaters, fax/copier combos, code books for semaphores, toolboxes, cases of Red Bull, folding bikes and an occasional chainsaw.

"There was a tendency to one-up with each Game," recalls Dan Egnor, a 33-year-old Google engineer who played four Games. "It emphasized exotic locations and extreme activities rather than being just intellectual puzzle-solving. This was really part of that late-'90s Microsoft culture. Very competitive, hard-working, hard-playing."

In 1999, for instance, a New York-based game with a terrorism theme was nearly shut down when police were called to check out a suspicious bottle of green liquid marked "biohazard." Belfiore's team won that one and the next year, a Game in Seattle requiring teams to climb on the roof of the Space Needle and organize cheers at a Mariners game.

Another team organized The Game in 2001 because it was a charity event, but following a tradition that winners hosted the next Game, it was Team Silver's turn in 2002.

This time, they had another thing to consider. Two team members already had children. Belfiore and his wife, Kristina, were planning a family. The clock was ticking.

"Crap, this is the last Game any of us is ever going to make, so let's go big or go home," Belfiore wrote to fellow team members in August 2002.

One evening soon after, an agitated man appeared at the Bellevue home of a veteran Gamer. Do you have a message from Shelby Logan? It's OK, you can trust me, the man said.

Suddenly, two burly guys in white shirts and black ties jumped the mystery man and hauled him off into a waiting van — but not before leaving a scrap of paper with a phone number for a "Witness Protection Hotline."

The scene was repeated at a dozen or so other players' homes and freaked out one Gamer so much he called Redmond Police to report a kidnapping.

But for the attentive, there was a clue. The van's license plate:

GOTGAME.

THE "KIDNAPPINGS" having served as invitations, nine teams of five or six Gamers each quickly assembled. They paid $250 each and signed liability waivers warning they may be exposed to running, climbing and walking in unlit, steep terrain at night.

Among them was Bob Lord, a then-37-year-old software engineer who'd worked for Microsoft before launching, then selling, his start-up Internet search company, XYZFind. This was his first Game, and when he kissed his wife and three kids goodbye in Palo Alto, Calif., he brought a wet suit, walkie-talkies, laptop, GPS device, extension cords, reference books on compact disc and clothes for any kind of weather.

Belfiore and Team Silver had attacked Game planning like Microsoft goes after its competition. Kevin Shields, an athletic Microsoft manager, handled clue-site logistics, cajoling businesses for access with wine-and-cheese baskets and a free fax machine. Walter Smith, a puzzle wiz, conjured dozens of brain-breaking puzzles. Kristina Belfiore kept the books.

In all, Team Silver spent more than $40,000 and invested hundreds of hours, on 10 weekend trips to Vegas and nearly a year of Tuesday-night meetings. They set up Game Control at a Las Vegas hotel. Early on Oct. 27, they called in the helicopters.

In the video they dropped, images flashed in stark black-and-white as Logan gave the backstory: a cave opening, a prison, a cemetery. These must be important, Lord thought.

The race was on.

First was the Hoover Dam, where teams zipped in rented boats to a spot requiring players to solve a complicated spinning puzzle underwater. Topside, teams were handed a puzzle with 22 of the 23 Tintin comic-book covers and told to figure out which one was missing.

Logan's trail pushed the teams north, to the exotic moonscape of the Valley of Fire and the Mouse's Tank, a perfect bowl cut out of red rock, where Game Control released live white rats. Find the clue inside Templeton the Rat, Logan told the teams. One team fed Templeton rodent laxatives and sifted his poop. Others simply took him to an all-night pet clinic to scan for a microchip tucked inside his fur.

The adrenaline kept pumping: a 3-mile race through the pitch-black desert on ATVs; a gun club where a lucky geek on each team fired a 50-round clip from a machine gun; then a gay nightclub where an unlucky geek had to dress in drag and sing "It's Raining Men" on stage. Teams rode the Big Shot, a breathtaking 160-foot plunge from the top of the Stratosphere Hotel, and sprinted down the Fremont Street Experience in old Vegas as clues flashed on a four-block-long screen overhead. At a tattoo parlor, a player on each team was supposed to volunteer for a piercing (extra bonus for a non-ear piercing!) or tattoo (The Game), but the tattoo artist took $50 bribes to hand over the clue.

The race was about 24 hours old, and most players had snatched little sleep, when the teams rolled up in the dark to what looked like an abandoned prison. A former set for the MTV reality show "Fear," it was thick with creepy ambience. Up in a guard tower, Shields, Team Silver's location scout, watched as the players anxiously wandered the huge prison yard with no illumination other than flashlights, hunting for clues.

Suddenly, the prison alarm sounded. Shields fired up the tower spotlight. The flashlights jumped and bounced as players panicked. Calls flooded into Game Control. Are we supposed to be here? Are we getting arrested?

Did you get the clues? asked Belfiore, once again playing the role of Leon.

Martin Reinfried, co-founder of the Internet search company Excite.com, was impressed. He is one of the most experienced Gamers around and co-owns a Bay-area company that stages Games for corporate clients. Those Games reflect the Bay-area spin: more cerebral and focused on puzzle-solving, versus the premium on thrill and theater.

As Shelby Logan's Run unfolded, Reinfried saw the risks: "It had a dark feeling to it, a little more edgy from the legal standpoint."

THE MORNING sun was parching a desolate landscape of sagebrush and broken beer bottles when Bob Lord climbed out of the Team Plaid van on a dusty parking lot in the desert foothills southeast of Las Vegas. This was the 17th clue site, and Lord and other players had slept little in 28 hours, which may partly explain what happened next.

Lord and other players didn't know it, but this was the Argentena Mine complex, a warren of abandoned openings left over from a 1927 silver-mining operation. All Lord had were a set of GPS coordinates found at the previous site — a cemetery in the ghost town of Goodsprings — and instructions: Walk exactly 1,133 feet on a precise compass heading and find something called 1306. It was Lord's job to follow the directions. But, wanting to scout the route first, he veered off course to climb up a small hill, then used recalculated bearings he'd figured out using trigonometry on his handheld computer.

The clue also had an unusual message: "1306 is clearly marked. Enter ONLY 1306. Do NOT enter others." To Lord, this was just another clue, perhaps a head-fake from Game Control. Enter 1306? What could there be 1306 of in the desert, he wondered. Parking stalls? Telephone poles?

Lord led the way until his recalculated bearings pointed directly into an opening. He flashed back to the video dropped from the helicopter: This must be the right place, he thought.

The "NO! NO! NO! NO! NO!" spray-painted in fluorescent orange was no deterrent. Again, Lord flashed back to an earlier point in The Game: "NO!" had been part of a previous clue. Absorbed in his own musings, Lord missed one other salient clue: the number 1296 spray-painted in blue next to the opening.

Followed closely by other team members, Lord walked into the opening nearly 100 feet, until the only light was the LED screen on his GPS.

His team members heard him slip. Bob? they called. Bob?

Nothing.

LORD'S WIFE, Jacque, was with their three kids at a friend's house in Ballard when Bob's friend called from Las Vegas. Bob's been badly hurt, the friend said.

By the end of the day, she was in Las Vegas.

Bob had walked into the wrong mine. He had fallen head first down a 30-foot vertical shaft. The fall crushed the vertebrae high on his neck; a doctor likened the fracture to stomping on a sack of flour, spraying bone fragments. His right arm was mangled, and his left arm required surgery. If he survived, he might have brain damage, Jacque Lord was told.

The next three months were agonizing. Once it was clear Lord would never walk again, he began losing his eyesight as a result of the injury to his head. Lord was — and remains — a C3 quadriplegic, able to type with just one pinkie, but with no control below his chest. He is blind in one eye and can only see vague shapes with the other.

Jacque Lord blogged obsessively about the impact on their children (ages 3, 9 and 13 at the time), and her dawning realization that the man she married was gone. "I think about it this way: The man I married died in the bottom of that mine. In his brain, he has the chip that holds the memories — of us, of our life, of our children — but he is not the same man."

The day after the injury, Team Silver dropped off balloons and a get-well card. Jacque Lord empathized with them. Their creation had been destroyed; only three of the nine teams finished before Team Silver shut it down. Bob, she thought, simply made a mistake.

A short time later, Jacque Lord went to the mine site to answer for herself why her husband had walked 100 feet into a pitch-black mine. There, she ran into Bill Durbin, a mine-safety inspector with the state of Nevada. When she introduced herself, Durbin blurted out something Jacque Lord will never forget. Mrs. Lord, I'm so sorry, she recalls him saying. When Kevin Shields called me and asked me about those mines, I did everything I could to tell them that was the stupidest thing I ever heard.

Jacque Lord was dumbfounded. "All of a sudden, I felt my heart go eeeeerrrrrr," she remembers, closing her fist, "like the Grinch's heart going black. Someone told them not to use it, and they used it anyway? I was floored."

IN THE LAWSUIT that followed, Lord's attorneys portrayed The Game as a reckless, juvenile pursuit, and accused Team Silver — each was sued individually — of putting thrill over safety by not mentioning the mine in the pre-Game liability waiver.

The suit, filed in Las Vegas, confronted a unique question: What exactly was The Game? Was it like an extravagant softball league, where a player who blows out a knee sliding into second base assumes responsibility? Or was it akin to a bungee-jumping business, where the owners have a duty to avert risk?

Lord's attorneys turned up evidence suggesting Team Silver weighed the danger of using an abandoned mine site. One e-mail sent among Team Silver linked to Nevada's mine-safety program Web page (Motto: Stay Out, Stay Alive).

Most damning was testimony from a mine expert hired by Shields to assess the safety of mine 1306. The expert, Steve Russell, found it safe, but he said he told Shields he was "nuts" for sending Gamers anywhere near mines. "People die in these things all the time," Russell claims he told Shields.

Five members of Team Silver — including Joe and Kristina Belfiore, Shields and Smith — eventually settled for $10.6 million, paid by their homeowners insurance policies. The sixth, Chee Chew, refused to settle, in part because he did less pre-Game planning.

At a two-week trial in Las Vegas last year, Shields accused Russell of lying, and the expert hedged on the stand. The jury took just three hours to find that Chew was not culpable.

In recent interviews, Team Silver members said they felt bad for Lord, but compared The Game to an extreme sport with inherent risks. "Every Game I've ever made is for my dearest friends," said Joe Belfiore, who is still a Microsoft vice president. "My wife played in Games I made. The groomsmen at my wedding played in Games I made. The fact someone got injured in a Game I made, it hurts. It put a serious damper on my enthusiasm for The Game and other people's enthusiasm. It was not my intention; far from it."

Smith, who left Microsoft to start up a boutique software firm in Pioneer Square, declined to say if mistakes were made. "A decision can be bad without being wrong. You can get lost in a fog of probabilities. I feel badly it happened, which is not the same as saying I caused it."

Shields, a general manager at Microsoft, said, "I felt completely horrible about what happened. It was a horribly emotionally bad thing, on multiple levels. Ninety-nine percent of it was that he got hurt so badly. And part of it was having worked so hard for so long on something and having it completely and utterly destroyed like that. What should be a huge positive turned into a massive negative."

Lord's injury crushed the Seattle branch of The Game. Microsoft still stages an annual puzzle hunt, and Stanford continues the tradition set by Belfiore. But few Gamers envision anything on the scale of Shelby Logan's Run in the future.

Trapped in a wheelchair and a nearly-sightless world, Lord replays Shelby Logan's Run in his mind. For him, the mistake was one of trust: "They led me into a dangerous minefield without telling me because they thought it would be more fun that way."

For Lord — and Lord alone — The Game will never be over.

Jonathan Martin is a Seattle Times staff writer. Mark Nowlin is a Times news artist. Game photos courtesy of Kevin Shields.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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