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Capture the Flag
July 17, 2009

Written by John Proctor


Photo Credit: Miles Storey

“Play has even inspired somewhat of a social movement.”

Three years after proclaiming this in his 2006 book Rejuvenile: Kickball, Cartoons, Cupcakes, and the Reinvention of the American Grown-Up, former speechwriter for disgraced Junk Bond King Michael Milken and current music consultant for Weeds Christopher Noxon sounds prophetic, especially in NYC. The McCarren Park kickball league aggregates more semi-athletic hipsters than you can shake a stick at every Sunday, every bar seems to have a ping-pong table (wait, wait, most of them have now moved on to bocce ball), and there are actually Cuddle Party organizers for gentler souls looking to score a quick snuggle (the next facilitator training session for NYC is in October).

But I’ve never been much of a cuddler – the jutting collarbones always seem to get in the way – and call me a purist but I think a bar is best utilized for drinking. And I got Mad Kickball Skilz, but I’m just not a good enough dresser for the McCarren Park league (one team actually plays the whole game in full pirate regalia, and they’re one of the better teams). But 4 years ago I found my niche – Capture the Flag, aka CTF. Remember playing it on field day in grade school or summer camp, or maybe even getting an inpromptu game together in the streets? It’s the same game, played on the streets of a given Brooklyn or Manhattan neighborhood (the busier the better).

I last played CTF in 2006, with group that called themselves the Gotham Gamers who would post times to meet and play CTF, Manhunt, and other games through their website or MySpace. Then, sometime in late 2006 the guy who ran the website died, the remaining people charged with keeping things going had issues keeping the domain name, MySpace was usurped by Facebook, and I lost touch completely with the CTF crowd.

If that guy’s death represented the end of my gaming days, I can’t helping equating my renewed interest with a birth. In the last 3 years, I fell in love, got married, and we had our first child last month, which theoretically should have matured me a little. I suppose it has, but looking at my 6-week-old daughter and wondering if she’ll be playing the same games in a few years hasn’t made me think I’m too old to play anymore; quite the opposite, in fact. Maybe I want to be able to relate to her child’s sensibility or maybe I just want her to think I’m cool, but I totally want to play games with her every chance I get. I even bought a book of baby games, but “games” to a 6-week-old baby consist mostly of moving my hands in front of her face while making noise and cuddling – amusing because I’m doing them with her, but not enough for me to meet up with people devoted to playing them (not that there’s anything wrong with that, Cuddle Partiers).

Enter NewMindSpace , a gaming consortium founded in Toronto that moved to New York at the beginning of this year, hosting public pillow fights, all-night parties at their loft in Bushwick, and finally this summer in a joint venture with Urban Madness, bringing Capture the Flag to the streets of Williamsburg.

The event happened on Friday night, July 17, and I met up with my friend and old neighbor Paul, who’s still involved in some of the best loft gallery shows in Bushwick , by the way. The Festival of the Giglio aka Festival of Our Lady of Carmel and St. Paulinus was happening near the BQE and you could see the ferris wheel from the meeting point, but just barely over the crowd of over 700 people who were gathered to run around the streets chasing each other. There were lots of hipsters, shirtless fellows with abs of steel, a guy in a Robin outfit, and generally lots of women and men in much better shape than I am, with much more current fashion senses. The map we received at the event is pictured below, with the general area highlighted and the rules laid out in the vaguest possible language:

Photo Credit: Tamari Tambourine

The rules are pretty standard fare – each team has a separate territory where they hide and defend their flag while sending attackers into the other team’s territory to find their flag, if you get tagged on the other team’s territory you have to go back to your side, the flag has a “bubble” around it where opposing players are safe if they enter it until they take the flag out of the bubble, and once out of the bubble the attacking player either gets tagged and the flag goes back or gets to their own side and scores a point for their team.

CTF Running
Photo Credit: Cheyenne Aguayo

One thing that the rules don’t mention is that they make everyone wear red or blue glowsticks to show what team you’re on, a fact I found especially annoying. I guess it felt like something more in line with a pillow fight, or a snuggle party. Also, when explaining the rules at the game the organizers noted one major addition to the rulebook – players could use bikes, taxis, buses, anything but cars to get the flag back to their own territory. My immediate reaction to this was, “Somebody’s going to get hit by a car tonight.”

There were volunteer referees, but I found they were a lot like the refs at professional wrestling matches – they didn’t really know the rules themselves, and they were hopelessly ill-equipped to control a bunch of people who didn’t want to follow the rules anyway. Case in point: after spending a good half hour locating the enemy flag and gathering a handful of people on my team to strike, we all got inside the enemy’s bubble and started calling for reinforcements from our side. Then the strangest thing happened – they decided to move their flag. This is of course an egregious violation of the basic rules, which I told the ref who had somehow approved this. “The bubble moves with the flag,” he said. “Just move with the flag.” We did this, and the minute we stepped out of the old bubble a swarm of red-teamers tagged us.

“Ha!” they yelled, “You’re out!”

I looked at the ref imploringly.

“Sorry,” he said, “You’re out.”

“What? You just said the bubble moves with us!”

“No, I said you’re still safe in the bubble. Then you all stepped out of it.”

“What the fuck?!” I yelled , then proceeded into an expletive-laced tirade that should make me glad my 6-week-old baby still can’t understand words, including my opinion of the ref, his mother, and the intimate relationships both of them had with the red team, and my hopes for where they and the rest of the red team would all end up. Actually, I felt kind of like a professional wrestler.

Turns out it didn’t matter that much, as on my way back to my side of the map I heard the game had been postponed because a guy got hit by a car. That stopped things for about a half hour, and after that the police presence was pretty thick. After another half hour, the team leaders got both teams together to notify them that the cops were threatening to cite someone for public assembly without a permit. This struck me as kind of silly, as 1) there were no real “assemblers” to cite, just 750 or so people running through the streets which is hardly new around Bedford Avenue, and 2) it’s common knowledge the cops take great pains to report as little crime as possible in Williamsburg in order to keep the official crime rate down, especially with so many recently built condos that aren’t filling up. But it was enough to keep the game from being much fun after that, and after an hour or so of varying reports as to whether we were still even playing the game, it was officially called off.

As we all were leaving with most everyone headed for either the afterparty in Greenpoint or the ferris wheel near the BQE, the red team called the final score was 1-0 red, while the blue team said it was 1-0 blue. Considering no one could state with any clarity when either flag was captured, I’m calling the game a tie.

UPDATE: I just talked to Kevin Bracken, the organizer of the event, and he states emphatically that no one was hit by a car.

To see the next pillow parties, loft parties or other shenanigans NewMindSpace has planned, click HERE.

And if you want to annoy cops and pedestrians alike at the next game of Capture the Flag in another busy neighborhood, see when the next game’s happening HERE.




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