[The following is a true dramatic account of almost a month spent playing Street Wars, a live action watergun assassination tournament. For an audio cast of this story, go here
As I write this, I’m starving, but I dare not go out for food. My assassin could be anywhere. Eventually I break down and prepare the meal of the desperate: Two frankfurters scavenged from the back of the fridge, boiled limp and naked. Spoonful of mustard. I am in genuine fear of being shot.
Everyone thinks they would make a good hitman. Maybe you think you are just a bit braver than everyone else, steadier. You would, you reason, be more likely to be calmer under pressure than most. Or you think that you’re smarter: You shout reproachfully at the criminals on the forensics shows, the careless ones who get caught. You’ve learned from their mistakes, and you will know, when the time comes, how the spatter analysis should read, how not to leave your epithelia as you step soundlessly over the threshold of your victim.
Or you play video games, and therefore you are a systems thinker. Calculating the most efficient way to achieve the objective is what you do. You have been virtually aiming your whole life. You’ve stolen uniforms, made improbable mustaches out of cat hair. If anyone can do this, it’s you.
Monday morning I wake at 6:30 AM. In the dark I pull my hair back, I change into black jogging gear. No one suspects a jogger. Where, after all, would she hide the gun?
I put the gun in my sports bra.
Grizzled but alert my partner escorts me downstairs, pointing double barrels into the dark of our flat’s stairs. He prowls, he looms. We clear the laundry closet on each floor. He does a sweep of the yard, and nods. All clear. I take off, sprinting down the gray sidewalk, gray English morning, toward the bus stop. Already a cold little trickle is running down my belly.
By 7:15 I’m running up an alley outside the target’s building. I spot a low little garden wall across from the entrance and make a graceful dive behind it, crouching low in the mulch under a bush where I can’t be seen. It’s perfect.
...I also can’t see anything. A white-bearded man walks past, looks down at the bizarre interloper and frowns a little. Okay. Probably this isn’t an ideal place to wait.
Time passes as I stalk the parking lot. I get tired. I get cold. I get desperate. When a resident emerges through the apartment building’s big security door I sidle in without a second glance, unremarked upon. I reach the target’s floor and I stand in his elevator lobby, my phone is rattling in my hand, my knuckles are adrenaline-locked. I feel deeply I am in a place I do not belong. It’s a good thing there are no security cameras here…. because it’s a good ten minutes before I think to look for them. Fuck.
Down the hall and around the corner, I hear the soft click and ensuing moan of an opening door. I call the elevator, and then I hold absolutely still, inoffensively postured with my phone casually to my ear and my weapon in my damp hand, tucked at the nape of my spine. I’m going to black out, I think academically, as steady footsteps creak ever closer to me.
"Every time one of us leaves the house, the other one of us has to clear the yard, wielding a double-barreled super-soaker."
“Good morning,” says a man who is not my target, smiling at the lady jogger in his elevator bay. “Good morning,” I say, with no choice but to step into the elevator behind him, ride it down and down.
In the building’s lobby I notice I’m disarmed: Somewhere along the line, all the water has leaked out of my pistol and spilt down the gutter of my back.
I am playing a game called Street Wars
, a city-wide watergun assassination tournament. I have paid sixty pounds for the terror of hunting and being hunted, and for the excellent lesson that I am not at all a good hitman. That systems thinking cannot save me, that the world is not game-designed.
Here is how it works: You receive a target, another player who’s signed up for the same experience. You get pictures of their face and body, the address of their home and their workplace. You get their mobile number and their email address, and you have one week to squirt them with a watergun or similar aquatic weapon --- water balloons are encouraged, as they are much less likely to unnerve the genuinely-armed, say, police or gang members. If you can’t get them in a week, you’re out. If you’re shot, you’re out.
You can play as a team, but if your team leader is shot, you’re all out. I am playing in a team with my boyfriend. I’m making him be the leader.
Sunday night we went together for the launch of the game. We had to stealthily meet with our Shadow Government contacts in a pub in the middle of nowhere. They gave us directions to a warehouse, where we drank whiskey shots with absolute madmen. We were given small cards bearing our killcodes; they will be the prize for whoever shoots us, to log our deaths. And we were given an envelope, with a man’s dossier inside. I feel fairly certain that one of the drinks we were given had pee in it.
After my failed early morning attempt on my target I’m feeling jittery, discouraged. I’m tired. The thought of going out again in the evening, of waking up again in the morning to stalk, chilly and early, a creepy interloper in a stranger’s building, is intimidating.
“You don’t know,” I tell my man, my partner, detached and breathless in the night, embracing, “how scary it is.”
Already we’ve been thinking about the game, plotting, strategizing -- arguing, sometimes -- for some 48 straight hours. We are one another’s responsibility constantly, now. Every time one of us leaves the house, the other one of us has to clear the yard, wielding a double-barreled super-soaker. Every time one of us is out, the other has to watch for the text, ten minutes til home, make sure it’s clear. Every time the doorbell rings, one of us says “be careful”; every time one of us opens the door, it’s “don’t get shot. I’m working too fucking hard for this.”
Why the hell are we doing this again? What if we somehow survive, succeed, and have to do this for three straight weeks?
Can you shoot yourself? (Yes, you can).
There has to be a better way. I Google-stalk our target. He’s a game programmer, which puts us in the same field. He works at King, makers of Candy Crush Saga
. I’ll get him for that, I think. Programmers are jerks, I tell my partner.
Well. As it turns out, he has retweeted the cancer fundraiser of one of my dear friends. Hes retweeted another friend’s blog post about how to avoid sexist harassment situations at E3. He has provided numerous resources on his website for free.
Okay. So he’s… one of the good ones, and… I like him. But still. It’s a game.
I notice he’s interacted several times with a colleague -- let’s call him “AJ” -- who owes me a favor. I did some free voice work for AJ’s prototype last year. When I search for AJ’s name in my Gmail inbox, I notice that our last correspondence has the subject heading “a favour.”
“Now I’d like a favor in return,” I type.
"I am nauseated by anxiety all day. My own assassin could be lurking outside as we speak, wreathed in the tall grasses and wild landscapes of the healthland that sprawls outside our door."
AJ arranges it. He connects my target and I via email under pretenses of an interview about programming. I make a plan to meet the target in a pub. Pubs are “safe zones” -- restaurants that include bars are not, but you cannot shoot someone in a pub. No matter: I figure my ready agreement to a pub would divest me of suspicion. There, I think, I can disarm him by talking shop for half an hour. Then, when we exit, there my partner will be, waiting with the shotgun.
It has to be this week, I tell the target. I’m on deadline. ‘Deadline.'
Eventually it’s all arranged. I show my boyfriend the series of professional correspondence that I’ve engineered. I told you, I tell him, I’m like Varys the Spider, I’m the queen of King’s Landing, I have fucking connections, I told you I could do anything.
I love you, he says. We roll around kissing luxuriantly, like proud conmen. His ‘assassin name’ is Canon, and mine is Valentine. We are living in a movie. Oh my god, it is so fantastic to play games.
The day of the hit arrives. I’m to meet Canon and a colleague of ours in Soho a couple hours before, to bring him the shotgun, to go over plans, contingencies, failsafes. Our third, Olly, is going to try to catch everything on film. If the target gets suspicious and bolts, I give chase, I shout. The assassin shouldn’t hang out on the block until 15 minutes after the meeting time, in case the target is surveilling the pub secretly first. The assassin should watch for the target and I to exit the pub at about 7:30. If anything comes up, I’ll text.
I am nauseated by anxiety all day. My own assassin could be lurking outside as we speak, wreathed in the tall grasses and wild landscapes of the healthland that sprawls outside our door. It’s all too perfect. What if he reschedules. What if Canon gets assassinated in town, what if I get shot along the way?
I don’t leave the house without a disguise: A short black wig and a fake pregnancy belly. They’ll be looking for the hair, I think. The wig might make them hesitate. My ‘pregnancy' means they won’t take the risk of shooting unless they’re sure. Unless they get close to me, and by then I’ll know to run.
I have a purse with my note-taking equipment. For the interview. And a plastic shopping bag with Canon’s heavy Super Soaker tucked in. I look like just another mum in Greenwich -- I throw myself fully into character, slouched into a hoodie and jeans, walking with difficulty, a palm on my motherly belly. Every figure that passes me prickles my neck. I keep an eye out, but not too much eye. Every car that pulls up alongside me as I walk to the train station slows in traffic, and every time my heart rattles my ribs. All I really see are other mothers, with their prams.
I mean. I thought about how diabolical would be a pram full of water balloons. Maybe someone else did too.
But I make it. It’s too good to be true. I board the train to Charing Cross, no one in sight but an older lady who sits across from me and smiles. I am slightly worried that I look like a weirdo who obviously just has a fluffy coat stuffed under her shirt, so I shift uncomfortably, I puff warmly, I rub myself. I smile at her again.
“Do you get tired when it gets hot,” asks the older English lady, warmly, with a nod to my baby bump.
I should have just said yes. Instead I do something horrifying: I lean toward her, terrified to speak too loudly lest there’s someone sitting nearby, following me. I lean toward her and I croak, in a bizarre whisper:
IT’S NOT REAL.
IT’S A DISGUISE. I’M PLAYING A GAME, AND SOMEONE IS TRYING TO SHOOT ME WITH A WATERGUN.
Oh god. Oh god what am I doing.
“Are you a student?” She looks bewildered, but not unkind.
NO, I whisper urgently. I AM TOO OLD FOR THIS SHIT.
“Well,” she says, “have fun,” and she gets off at Waterloo.
I was feeling so cool, for a second there.
Then I notice my phone has 8 percent battery life left. My backup plan, my warning sign, dead. I could have sworn I charged it before I left the house, but the power switch for the outlet must not have been on. This entire precarious, precise plan could be blown because of the fucking English and their utterly un-American outlets and their goddamn passion for power saving.
"I don’t leave the house without a disguise: A short black wig and a fake pregnancy belly."
My netbook is dead, too. How am I supposed to do an interview without a netbook, and why didn’t I think about this?
The reason it is hard to murder people is not because you might get caught or someone might suspect you or it is hard to dispose of a body or to get a weapon. It’s because when you’re on your way to do the damn thing you might have noticed your phone died while you weren’t paying attention and now you can’t call your getaway driver. One tiny component and the whole works comes apart.
But we press on. I mean, I’m getting the target into the pub. The pub has only one exit. All my partner has to do is be outside the pub. We might have to improvise, but there is no way to blow this. We’ve got this.
“We’ve got this,” we say about a hundred times over beers with Olly, who loans me his tablet so that I can look like a real interviewer.
I get in position. I’m watching the clock. The target’s name is Steven “gambit” Yau, and he is right on time.
I buy us drinks, and I keep him talking for half an hour. He ought to be disarmed by now, I think, as I ask him legitimate professional questions about the implementation of SCRUM, as I swap stories about methodologies at other game developers. At one point Olly comes in, inconspicuous, unseen, any guy trying to find a toilet, and I know he’s doing reconnaissance, that my partner is ready. This is going to fucking work. And then I tell Steven “gambit” Yau that’s all I need, and I have to go, and maybe we can walk to the station together.
“I think…” he speaks slowly, “I… actually, I’m going to wait here to meet my girlfriend.”
“Okay,” I say, as evenly as I can manage. I cannot act alarmed. I cannot insist. I can only walk out onto the sidewalk, where I meet Olly’s eyes, spot Canon to one side of the pub door, in position, puzzled that I am alone. I shake my head slightly, and walk on.
Olly texts Canon and we decide to regroup at the pub across the street, to watch. I take the long way around, removing my telltale white jacket, shrugging into a nondescript hoodie, less likely to be easily spotted if Gambit is watching for me. We convene, we set up. We’ll just wait him out. We’ll just wait him out. The pub only has one exit, and that’s why I chose it.
“I’m going to the toilet,” says Canon.
I duck under the windowside banquette, quickly shoving my hair into my wig just in case Gambit is keeping an eye out for me, just in case. And while I’m snapping the wig strap behind my head, Olly gasps: “That’s him. There he goes!”
Gambit, sheathed in a different coat and a black beanie, is shuttling out of the pub across the street. Canon is in the toilet. I have, thank god, a backup plan in my bag, a small water pistol. Where, where. There, over there. I stride into the street, I bear down on him, and when I get close enough, I run.
“I’m sorry,” I say over and over, as I pull the trigger over and over and over. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry!” He is still stunned and damp between the shoulder blades as I pull him into a hug. He gives me his card.
"'I'm sorry,' I say over and over, as I pull the trigger over and over and over. 'I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry!'"
When we go for drinks all we can talk about is the what ifs. What if there had been no pub across the street. What if I hadn’t had my own water pistol as a back-up plan. What if we hadn’t had Olly, who spotted Gambit’s quick escape while Canon was in the toilet and I was rummaging through my disguise bag.
“I should have just run,” says Gambit. “I should have waited longer. I suspected you, and I should have asked you to meet next week.”
“Do you even play Netrunner,” he says, as he assesses the possibility that the entire contents of our correspondence were a lie.
“Yes!” I say. “Yes. I’m sorry.”
There are so many things that could have gone wrong. When it all ebbs away, I allow myself a little moment of triumph anyway, gamboling on the way home, reaching for my partner’s hand. But his mood has gone dark. He feels he let me down, maybe, or has dumped all his adrenaline and doesn’t have the bandwidth to be excited for me, proud of me. We go to bed like quiet strangers that night, not like filmic assassins in champagne celebration. Success feels barely-won, anguished, and slightly empty.
I am no mastermind. I’m no honey trap. I am just fucking lucky. I just got lucky, is all.
That’s the thing about games. When luck is a factor, it’s just one within a generally-predictable ecosystem. In a video game there are only so many things that your enemy can do. You can learn what those are. You can, through practice and repetition, gain complete control over an environment where there is only so much that can go wrong.
We hang in for weeks, wearying from the rules updates, the constant missives. We go un-assassinated. Sometimes we wonder if there’s some administrative muck-up and no one is actually hunting us at all. We start to give up, to go to the shop undisguised and unarmed. We walk with our shoulders thrown back, like, come on, already.
In the end a man arrives at our apartment building, bearing cakes. He pretends they are samples from a new local shop, and he knocks on all of our doors. He brought enough cake for everyone. He seems to have forgotten that our office is a safe zone during the day.
When he leaves Canon chases after him, this affable cake-bearer, and says, it’s okay, you can shoot me. That’s how our time as assassins ends -- my partner running down our block to catch up with the man with the bag full of cake, to offer him our lives.
The beauty in video games, in all designed interaction, is that they offer you the delusion of grandeur, the intoxicating misconception that all challenge in life is simply a matter of systems thinking. People talk a lot about video games’ unique ability to soothe our desire for achievement, our wish and will to challenge our wits.
None of us would make a good hitman, but in our vast library of stealth games, of gun games, of logic puzzles, we find friends who are too kind to tell us that. They are safe worlds, really. No matter what, they will always reward us, basically in the way we expect.
Video games will always protect us from the truth: how smart we are not.