'GoCrossCampus,' 'Turf' Draw College Students Into Virtual Battles, Corporate World To Follow

Suddenly, 'Risk'-like games are cool, and Google is getting in on the action.

There's a fierce competition afoot. Alliances are forming, and armies are fighting for recruits, territories and, of course, bragging rights. These intense rivalries have yet to graze the front pages of newspapers, but to those who spend every day defending their territories, these daily clashes are worth the blood, sweat and tears shed in the ultimate fighting ground, cyberspace.

The online game "Turf" and rival "GoCrossCampus" ("GXC") have caught the attention of thousands of college students around the country. The games' young creators have taken the concept of strategic territorial conquest — the bread and butter of board games like "Risk" — online, allowing students to duke it out on cyber versions of their campuses. And, lest grownups get too jealous of the college kids, the corporate world is eyeing its own versions of the games, beginning with Google.

Yale University alum Gabe Smedresman gave birth to the idea that translated intra-campus rivalries into the virtual realm. As an undergrad, he created "Old Campus Tree Risk."

"I wanted to make a game that existed both in the real world and on the Web and sort of somehow involve flags on trees, and it just evolved from there," Smedresman explained. And though he had to drop his real-life flag idea, he eventually developed "Turf" in January 2007, which attracted an estimated 62 percent of Yale undergraduates (3,300 students) to its first tournament.

Smedresman released the code of his creation to the open-source community so that students at other schools could create their own versions of the game. It spread to Harvard in May, and then to Stanford in February. As buzz and fanaticism grew among students, many devoted players began ditching exams and study sessions for covert meetings about battle tactics and espionage.

After winning their school's first tournament, Harvard undergrads Hugo Van Vuuren, Andrew Fong and Matt O'Brian contacted Smedresman about adding improvements to the game. That led to the birth of their company, Kirkland North.

Eight months after the debut of "Old Campus Tree Risk," Yalies Brad Hargreaves, Sean Mehra, Jeffrey Reitman and Matthew O. Brimer joined Columbia University undergrad Isaac Silverman to found "GXC." Smedresman initially worked with them too, but they parted ways due to creative differences. Their online competition has since extended to 24 universities and high schools.

In both games, students are divided into teams, and each player is given a certain number of units or troops to control. The teams then coordinate troop movement to conquer adjacent territory by outmaneuvering and outnumbering enemy units while defending their own turf. Each tournament consists of several "turns," periods in which teams make their moves. In "GXC," for example, each turn is 24 hours long, ending at 8 p.m. ET. Commanders strategize with their teams during the day by scheduling real-world meetings on campus or chatting online.

"GXC" players often spend an hour a day meeting with their teammates. "The last game I played online was 'Tetris,' " said Katie Loftin, a Rice University junior majoring in political science. "Somehow I got addicted [to 'GXC']. I'm not really sure how it happened."

These games hope to foster team spirit and intensify sentiments of school pride that already exist in many college campuses. Players move their own armies but must adhere to their team's battle strategy to be a united fighting machine. In order to be successful, teams must tie online game play to the real world by regularly recruiting members around campus and formulating battle plans during scheduled meetings away from the computer. Most teams choose to place one or more of their armies on the designated territory during the final hours of each turn, so that the opposing team has little or no time to devise a new battle plan and strike back. In order to win, a team must capture all territories.

"['Turf'] is an online game that reinforces already existing local communities," said Smedresman. "It lives both online and in the real world."

And what better way to unite residents of a dormitory than giving them a way to totally "pwn" the dorm next door?

"The idea is that teams in 'GoCrossCampus' have a common affinity, because they are in a similar geographical area and are on the same team," Hargreaves said. "The game is uniting them towards a common goal."

In order to join most campus competitions, you must be a student or alum of that school, with a valid university e-mail address. But "GXC" currently has a tournament that allows students from any college to take part in the action: "GoCrossPoliticalBash08," in which supporters of presidential candidates vie for regions on a map of the United States.

The rivalries in this political battle are heated. So far, Ron Paul is in the lead, with Stephen Colbert in a close second. Hillary Clinton is the only other candidate left standing and is on the brink of elimination. Then again, if this is anything like the real world, she could make a surprising comeback.

When Google project manager Jonathan Rochelle worked as a speaker and advisor at the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute (where students pitch their business ideas to venture capitalists), he met the "GXC" developers and realized he'd like to bring the game to his own workplace. Now the corporate giant is adapting the game for its New York office.

"We obviously would like to take this, and potentially other games that we're planning on doing, not only to more colleges but to corporations and other affinity groups as well," Hargreaves said, though he wouldn't elaborate on any deals he has pending.

Kirkland North also has some potential corporate pairings in the works, according to Smedresman, and there are three public "Turf" tournaments scheduled at Harvard, Harvard Business School and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the upcoming weeks.

With the increasing popularity of "Turf" and "GXC," and possible profit at stake now, one would expect the two companies to be bitter rivals. A recent New York Times article about "GXC" sparked some controversy by not crediting Smedresman or "Turf" with originating the concept. (The Times has since posted a blog entry about the error.) But there's no bad blood between the two startups, insisted Smedresman, who actually works for Google in California now.

"It's a friendly competition," Smedresman said.

"They're good guys," Hargreaves said of Kirkland North. "They're just trying to do their own thing."