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Press Release

UC Berkeley Press Release

"Ilovebees" exhibit explores gaming

– A new exhibit at the University of California, Berkeley's Worth Ryder Gallery will serve up clues about how 10 million gamesters around the world got hooked on a mystery game called "Ilovebees" that sent them sleuthing through real and virtual worlds.

The March 11-18 exhibit will provide an inside look at the stingingly successful game via displays of source codes, hidden code phrases in images, a two-hour sound library, player blogs, design elements and honey samples. There also will be sketches of characters such as an artificial intelligence named Melissa, aka "The Operator," who was portrayed in the game as sending messages from the year 2050 about how to save the world from alien forces. Her communications were said to come through the hacked server and Web site of a retired Vacaville school teacher-turned beekeeper.

"We want to develop scholarship about games like this, and learn how games are becoming so important in our culture," said UC Berkeley's Greg Niemeyer, an assistant professor of art practice, film studies and new media.

"Ilovebees" is a particularly interesting case study, he said, in part because of the large number of players who participated and their intensity in terms of time dedicated, social networks created and competition fostered. Its blend of the real and virtual, recreation and purposefulness, a "dorky" yet sophisticated Web site, and a seemingly underground game with commercial purposes adds to its intrigue, Niemeyer said.

The "bees" phenomenon began with a flicker-like promotion spliced into last year's movie trailers promoting the release of Microsoft's new game "Halo 2" for the Xbox video console. About the same time, 16 jars of honey containing letters for the game's Web site were sent to avid players of previous "pervasive play" games that blended reality and fantasy - like the game that helped launch Steven Spielberg's "A.I." film in 2001. Players were advised that when the mystery was solved, "Halo 2" would be released.

There was an immediate buzz. The number of "Ilovebees" players multiplied. They strategized in Internet chat rooms, developed teams and traced spatial coordinates embedded in source codes for to locate phone booths where clue-laden audio messages were delivered. From California to Connecticut to London, they searched for answers hidden in weekly game dispatches.

Jane McGonigal, a UC Berkeley graduate student in the department of theater, dance and performance studies and one of the game's four designers, or "puppetmasters," is working on the exhibit with Niemeyer in conjunction with a graduate seminar in game studies.

McGonigal said she and the other game designers anticipated the popularity of "Ilovebees" because of its attachment to the wildly successful "Halo" game and because of excitement in the gaming community about "Halo 2."

"But I was surprised by how creative players were and how much influence they exerted over the course of the game," she said.

Part of her assignment was to follow players' activities and monitor their chat room conversations, noting their concerns or questions following weekly game directives from the puppetmasters. Game designers borrowed from that information to craft the remainder of the three-month-long game, McGonigal said.

"We were taking their good ideas . following a sort of bottom-up design process, although the players weren't even aware of it," she said.

Bay Area players comprised a large segment of "Ilovebees" followers, McGonigal said, and she expects many of them to come to the exhibit and her 7:30 p.m., March 14 lecture in Room 160 of UC Berkeley's Kroeber Hall.

The players developed such keen interest in the game that they created mp3 music files inspired by the game, assembled a fan Web site, carved sculpture and sketched pictures of what they imaged various characters looked like, McGonigal said.

Rumors abound of new connections made between "Ilovebees" players and of players meeting and marrying. McGonigal said one true story involves two sisters brought closer together through one sister's interactive interview in a phone booth that was overheard by the other when it was broadcast on the game site.

The game was played during the course of the 2004 presidential race, leading some players to debate the Republican and Democratic campaigns in the "bees" chat rooms. One "Ilovebees" fan turned up at the presidential candidates' debate at Arizona State University carrying a sign supporting Democratic candidate John Kerry. When TV crews arrived, the placard was reversed, flashing the game's name to the cameras instead of a political message.

"I think it's dangerous to blend games with serious pursuits and reality," said Niemeyer. "It's like mixing religion and politics."

The exhibit will be open March 11-14 (Tuesday through Friday) from noon to 4 p.m. Coincidentally, the 2005 Game Developer Conference in San Francisco will run March 7-11.