Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Microsofties' Elaborate Game a Substitute for Religion?

Given that the last few days we've had actual warm, sunny weather here in the Northwest, I felt compelled to soak some Vitamin D (touted to prevent cancer, after all) on a lounger in my backyard while leisurely reading the Sunday paper.

I got completely engrossed in an article in our Seattle Times' Pacific Northwest magazine describing an elaborate annual scavenger hunt for techy geniuses that some intense Microsofties staged between 1995 and 2002--which finally concluded in tragedy.

The ultimate version of "The Game," as it was called, cost forty thousand dollars to stage, and brought participants literally to the edge (of precipices), titillating them with dangerous maneuvers in remote locations and puzzling clues requiring mind-numbing calculations and the aid of powerful computers. The teams of players used "vans wired with their own power grids and stocked with laptops, GPS locators, fax/copier combos, code books for semaphores, toolboxes, cases of Red Bull, folding bikes and an occasional chainsaw," explained writer Jonathan Martin.

The premise for the two-day ordeal was an effort to save fictional CIA "renegade spy" Shelby Logan from exploding from a chip implanted in his brain that could only be defused using a device the teams were charged to find. "The Game" compelled its players to "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 namned Templeton, whose shivering little body carried a message." The "invitation" to play came in the form of a kidnapping so realistic one participant called the police, and the locations included the crowded Fremont Street Experience in Las Vegas and deserted mine shafts, where The Game's final mistake was made.

When you read the article, you might have thoughts similar to mine: "What kind of guys consider this scary pressure fun?" Or, "It's way too complex for me; trying to figure this out would be frustrating." Or the one I most considered, "What kind of lives do these guys lead to have the time/priority for this?"

First off, the article didn't say how many of the players were women, but I'd guess very few. Competitiveness is hard-wired into guys, a by-product of the testosterone saturating their cells. There's no prize awarded the winners; no charity for which they labor--just "bragging rights." And, the article noted, organizers "attacked Game planning like Microsoft goes after its competition." There's the magic word.

Now, I can see how devising such a project would be fun. But it became an obsession that beside the $40K, required "hundreds of hours, on 10 weekend trips to Vegas and nearly a year of Tuesday-night meetings" that culminated at "Game central" in a Las Vegas hotel. The prep involved over a 275-mile distance was detailed and grandiose. Why such dedication? Why leave your family to indulge this dangerous competitive urge?

Here's the article's most revealing answer: "'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...Think, do, run, feel--the devastation of failure, the ecstacy of success, the incredible click of working together as a team. For these 24 hours, you are fully alive.'"

Why, that's what my religion does. Think, do, run, feel. This is what Jewish observance requires, but in the context of a purpose that relates man to God, not just lurching for a temporary heart-thumping high. It could be, however, that we are created with this irresistible desire to think, do, run and feel in order to spur us toward more profound pursuits than a Game.

For Jews, the 613 commandments include high amounts of everything the Game offers. We think--we're commanded to "break our teeth" trying to understand the meaning, basis and connections of the Torah. We "do" in the execution of mitzvot that are demanding and exacting and yet, provide freedom to follow or not, and to discern how, why and when they apply. (e.g. we intensify our connection to times of year by linking them with characteristics exemplified by their holidays).

We run. Okay, we dance. We dance with the Torah on Simchat Torah; we dance fervently at weddings and happy occasions. And as far as running--we're taught to "run to do a mitzvah," ie don't delay in following commandments, whether it is to visit the sick, provide hospitality, give to the needy.

Finally, we feel--with great intensity. We're actually commanded to "love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your resources" in the seminal Jewish prayer, the "Shma." We are to be happy in the month of Adar and especially the festival of Purim (celebrating events in the book of Esther); we are to cry on Tisha b'Av, and mourn for three weeks before. "The season of our rejoicing" comes as we build and then sit in a succa outside at the beginning of fall; on the opposite side of the calendar, we mourn the deaths of 24,000 Torah scholars in the weeks after Passover.

In fact, the most noticeable impact of Torah observance is just that--observance of everything in one's environment; of everything NOT in one's environment, expanding to the mystical and theoretical. When, half awake, you stumble into the bathroom at 3 am and suddenly must remember whether it's Shabbat or not (and thus cannot tear off toilet paper and must use the pre-torn pieces in a basket nearby), you're forced to be more aware. When you have to say a blessing over your food that relates to what it is you're about to munch, you're forced to consider the source of that morsel (from the ground? From a tree? Made of wheat?).

When you're Jewish, no days "roll out as anonymously as another Honda Accord at the front of the metered 'one car per green' entrance to the highway." In fact, the analogy of "being on the derech," or the Jewish path, is eerily similar to the metered freeway that symbolizes deadness to afficionados of The Game. The difference is that their road leads to excitement with no payoff. Ours leads beyond the face of the earth. The players of The Game have "the devastation of failure, the ecstacy of success, the incredible click of working together as a team." For these 24 hours, their endeavor promises, they are fully alive.

We too have the devastation of failure (Viduy on Yom Kippur), the ecstacy of success (reliving the freedom of Passover), the incredible click of working together as a team (innumerable moments of "ahavat Yisroyal," especially on Shavuot and Yom haAtzmaut). For me, that's a major attraction of Judaism: For the rest of your life, you are fully alive.
BTW, the final "Game" in 1992 left player Bob Lord blind and "a C3 quadriplegic, able to type with just one pinkie, but with no control below his chest," paralyzed when he fell down an abandoned mine shaft. His wife, Jacque, sued five of the Game creators, a two week court trial eventually settled for $10.6 million, which I suppose is but small consolation to the couples' three young children.


  1. I so enjoy these essays when you reveal the daily life of a holy woman of faith. And I am most appreciative of anyone pursuing holiness so assiduously. In the tradition I follow, it is morning prayer and daily crosses and eternal 'offering up' little sacrifices and a calendar of feasts and saints' days and seasons. There is no detail left unseen to God.

  2. Thank you, Ruth Anne. When I posted that I thought my Jewish friends would think it tiresomely basic, but your kind words made the post worthwile. I'd love to read more about your own observance.

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  4. I hafta say, you convey a very deep richness that of your religion. You explain it with a poigniancy(sp??) that is wonderful to behold. I also loved your nine eleven post.

  5. OOps, many typos in that comment! Sorry!