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A scavenger hunt of technological proportions

Yesterday, as the Buffalo Infringement Festival entered its second-final day a flurry of events at venues across the city, I decided to dedicate a large chunk of my time to a single, particularly intriguing project.

It's called Play/Share Beyond/In, and it turned the entire city of Buffalo into a sprawling, interactive board game. The Infringement version of the project was something of a test run for its actual launch in October, to coincide with massive, regional art exhibition known as Beyond/In Western New York.

Here's how it worked:

At 10 to noon on Saturday, players either showed up at Play/Share headquarters in Sugar City (Allentown's do-it-together art enclave) or signed up for an account at the project's website. They then registered for a team name and sent a text message to something called the PSBIbot. The tech-geniuses behind P/S, a project of the University at Buffalo's Intermedia Performance Studio, had programmed this virtual bot (the cardboard version of which is pictured below) to send players a series of missions and trivia questions that could only be discovered by following the bot's instructions. The players would text back an answer, and the bot would instantaneously process it and dispatch gamers on the next mission. (Here's an explanation of the texting process, which was a tad laborious, but in my experience, entirely functional.)

Psbibot

The idea behind the game was to give players a hand in discovering Buffalo's "fantastic, secret and sometimes entirely imaginary history." There were two levels, one for walkers and another for bikers and drivers. Having gotten a late start, my boyfriend and I chose the biker/driver tract, and soon were off to explore a series of Buffalo's monuments and strange, previously unknown (and sometimes fictional) facts about Buffalo's long and (and often sordid!) history.

Our first mission was to go to Our Lady of Black Rock School in, you guessed it, Buffalo's Black Rock neighborhood and identify a plant or animal along the creek that runs behind the school. (We found a willow tree and thought that would do.) For a bonus, we were instructed to bring back a piece of trash form the site, though it was unclear, aside from the obvious benefit of cleaning up the area, what historical purpose this served. Next, we were dispatched to the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society, where we were tasked with figuring out what lake the statue of Abraham Lincoln was facing (we had no idea the name of that brackish lake in front of the Historical Society, but fortunately found it on a plaque.) For a bonus, we were supposed to "interview" Abe, which I did with my camera phone. I would post the results, but they were a tad one-sided. Let's just say Abe didn't turn out to be quite the raconteur I had been led to expect.

From there, we undertook similar missions at the Lincoln Park Bridge, Forest Lawn Cemetery, Arlington Park, Niagara Square and Symphony Circle. At the end of the game, at 4 p.m., we returned to Sugar City, where they tallied up the points and had a small awards ceremony. We wound up with a respectable 540 points -- right in the middle of the pack of 10 participants. Thanks to my boyfriend's capably delivered air-drum solo in front of the statue of Chopin near Kleinhans Music Hall (not excerpted here, in order to protect the innocent), he took home the trophy for "Best Media." 

This sort of mini test run for bodes well for October's Play/Share game. It was a constantly engaging way to discover parts of the city that even a couple of longtime residents hadn't seen (for instance, the underground canal that flows into Forest Lawn Cemetery!?) and it was the perfect palette for the creatively minded resident craving a deeper engagement with their surroundings.

This is just the thing people are talking about when they use that often tossed-about phrase, "sense of place." There is this wildly dynamic and almost endlessly intriguing place out there, this place called Buffalo, but many of us are so tied into our jobs or to Facebook or simply to the unspectacular routines of our daily lives that we don't have anything approaching a genuine sense of this place or its history. And a lot of us don't even desire it, because we assume that our woebegone city contains very little that's worth the effort to discover. This project, like the whole of the Infringement Festival, is a slap in the face to that philosophy. It gives us all a little push, lets us do the real exploring and succeeds by unlocking just a few of the the city's buried secrets and hidden pleasures.

--Colin Dabkowski

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