Thursday, 15 September 2011

Sleuthing at speed- Encounter with Encounter

In dark, abandoned houses round Moscow you can see them gather nearly every week. Groups of lights about the rubble flit about for an hour or so then leave. They gather at abandoned factories, in woodland, by lakesides and in car parks. Always at night, always flitting around in small clusters then leaving.

Move closer and the initial mystery will be revealed. These are not, in fact, fairies. They are the players of the action mystery game, Encounter.

Started back in the 90s by the Belorussian Ivan Masliukov the game is rather like a supercharged car treasure hunt. Each team needs a vehicle and a laptop (as well as torches and perhaps an array of other useful artefacts or gadgets). Clues are delivered by logging on to the military looking encounter system. Then the competition is on as anything from a handful to hundreds of teams race throughout the night to various checkpoints throughout the city solving riddles and collection codes. Pictures of long dead artists, words plays on the name of local parks or sites, passwords given by talking to fake ‘strangers’, even announcements on the car radio. They can all be the source of codes. Each code unlocks the next clue.

I was lucky enough to travel around a game with Masha Bardashun, one of the organisers who had come from Minsk to supervise a game in Moscow. When I asked her what attracted people to the game, she said it was about an escape from the drudgery of everyday life. “Even so called entertainment in everyday life can become dull,” she said. “Going to the cinema six times a week, going to restaurants after work, encounter is for people who want a thrill and to spend their night totally differently.”

Since its inception Masliukov’s game has taken off around the world and spawned many versions like it. Andrey Naumov, another of this game’s organisers told me about the possibilities going international has brought. “Now we can set a challenge to find a code say, in, New York. You would have to ring a player there and ask them to help you. Of course they would be wise to help because they might need your help in the future!”

Of course it doesn’t always go according to plan. As Masha explains, reality can sometimes intrude into their fantasy world. “We once put many codes on a cow shed near Minsk the day before the game. When the players arrived there we started getting confused phone calls saying there was no shed. When I arrived I realised the shed had been knocked down that day! Woops!”

As the small hours crept on we sped from one checkpoint to the next. It’s this speed that’s caused controversy for the game. Putting teams of young drivers on the road at night to compete chasing after objectives is certainly a risk. More than once it has resulted in crashes and even deaths. Organisers say that safety is down to individual teams and no point scoring is worth irresponsible driving. But a question mark still hangs over the safety record of the game.

For many though, the danger is just what they crave. One team member I spoke to only wanted to do the driving. He’s helped organise a few games but his real passion was the chance to drive to the limit when the roads were nearly empty. Certainly, if youngsters want to do these games, trying to stop them is virtually impossible.

As the night hours ticked by I thought we were doing well. But as I was to discover, we were nowhere near the lead. In the end we emerged at the finish point, a café where all the teams met, to find the winners already on their main course!

So much for our sleuthing, but I have to say my encounter with encounter was a thrilling way to spend the night!

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