'Big Game' Safari In Manhattan

Where's the ball? It's in the air...airwaves, actually. Here, one of the Come Out and Play festival organizers, Greg Trefry, attempts Sonic Body Pong.
Courtesy of Greg Trefry
By's Christine Lagorio.

Nicole Zeiss knew her pay phone could be ambushed at any moment, so she guarded it diligently. With one hand on the receiver, Zeiss, a 36-year-old Manhattan lawyer, looked up and down Broadway for fellow warriors.

Across the street, Juan Carlos Belair had seized a pair of adjoined pay phones.

"That means we get double the points," Belair said, panting.

"Game's over!" Zeiss yelled after a few tense minutes, abandoning her phone and jogging across the street to join Belair. They high-fived.

Belair, 37, who works for a mobile phone company in Mexico, was teamed with Zeiss in a super-sized, frenetic version of the childhood game Capture the Flag called Payphone Warriors. Equipped with handfuls of quarters, each team sets out to capture (by dialing a number and the team's extension) pay phones within a three-block radius and control them for longer than other teams.

The game was one of dozens hosted by the Come Out & Play festival, which sought to transform Manhattan into a high-tech, urban playground.

And how. In midtown Manhattan last weekend, more than 150 New Yorkers paid compliments to strangers in hopes of routing their enemies. In the Chelsea neighborhood, two men with green blocks on their heads jockeyed along opposite sides of a large art studio space, hoping to hit a ball of sound. Real balls were in play on sidewalks of the East Village, where golfers attempted to avoid obstacles such as cabs, fire hydrants and baby strollers.

They are called "big games." Making use of the spaces between skyscrapers — think of benches, scaffolding and Starbucks as components of a giant urban playground.

An estimated 800 to 1,000 people participated in the weekend festival's 20-plus games. The appeal is something between that of a public bike ride and the trendy flash mobs of 2003.

Most of the players were young professionals, artists and technology enthusiasts. News of the games spread online, mostly on blog sites such as What's Up: NYC and just days before the festival. Locations and game details were kept quiet, too; they were sent via text message only to participants.

Big games are generally on the scale of city blocks rather than pixels or board game squares. There is a philosophy to setting the games in tight urban places that leads to talk among enthusiasts, such as New York University professor Frank Lantz, who teaches a class on the subject, of "altering the urban landscape" and "putting public space in play."

"Everyone pontificates about the theory behind all this, and how it changes urban space, yadda, yadda," said Greg Trefry, one of the festival's organizers, who studied under Lantz. "But what hooked me is running down the street jumping over garbage cans. I thought, 'Wow, this is just the highest-resolution game you'll ever play, and this is really fun.' "

Several of Lantz's former students, including Dan Phiffer, 26, contributed games to the festival. Phiffer worked with other students and designers to make a guided tour of Baghdad, Iraq — using the streets of Manhattan.

"We became interested in layering spaces on top of each other. It's a project about extracting space, because when you're in a city, you're really just in a place, in a spot on a map that could be anywhere," Phiffer said.