Usman Akeju packed his bag frantically. He only had half an hour before he needed to catch a flight to Los Angeles and vanish from everything – and everyone — he knew in New York. He shoved what he could in his bag. Ripped jeans to blend in with the surfers, business suits to pass himself off as a professional.
The 27-year-old software engineer and freelance consultant wasn’t in any legal trouble, but as part of an alternate reality game, he was on the lam from, well, any tech-savvy American hoping to win the “bounty” on his head as part of a game created by Universal Pictures in conjunction with Wired magazine and Lone Shark Games, keyed to the new futuristic action-thriller “Repo Men.”
“I didn’t tell anyone about it,” Akeju said. “I was super hush-hush about it. It wasn’t real to me until I had to pack for it. It wasn’t something that was easy to explain. I just told people I was going to be unreachable and let them know I wouldn’t see them for a while.”
What Akeju didn’t tell people was that he was one of four people chosen as “runners” in the game to see if they had what it took to disappear into thin air — though they would have to leave a few traces behind to giving their pursuers a fighting chance.
In the film, Jude Law and Forest Whitaker portray repo men in a nasty future in which artificial organs — called “artiforgs” — are available for purchase on layaway. If buyers fall behind on their payments, they are tracked down and the valuable medical implants are repossessed by any means necessary. In the film, Law’s character falls behind on payments for his own artiforg and he has to go off the grid. Think “Logan’s Run” meets the healthcare crisis.
Doug Neil, senior vice president of digital marketing for Universal Pictures, said he began developing the contest with his team after seeing a story in December’s Wired, in which reporter Evan Ratliff attempted to live under a new identity for an entire month. He was caught after 25 days by a team of Facebook hackers, Twitter sleuths and New Orleans pizzeria owners. Ratliff is lending his expertise to the game.
(The game is just part of Universal’s plan for “Repo Man” — the movie was also promoted with a viral site for The Union, the company that sells the organs in the movie, as well as bar-coded posters that interact with an iPhone app to give fans information about the film and its fictional world.)
Neil said Akeju and the other three runners were selected from more than 160 applications they collated from those who followed Ratliff’s attempt. Akeju, Ciji Thornton, Alex Gamble and Will Laferriere were flown to L.A. at the end of February to begin their journey.
“The goal was to go underground,” Neil said. “We gathered them, took them to the airport, gave them a plane ticket, cash, GPS (their “artiforg”) cellphone and a flip cam.”
As each runner was dispersed to random cities across the country, they were given daily tasks to complete and upload evidence as clues to the “hunters,” Neil said. Some of the tasks included telling a stranger your life story, calling a hunter and talking for at least two minutes, or creating a fake Twitter account and sending five tweets related to the city they were in.
But if it was determined that a runner didn’t provide sufficient evidence of his or her task, that runner have his or her GPS coordinates exposed for all the hunters to see, which happened on more than one occasion.
“[The runners] are very crafty. You’ve got people who are analyzing every piece of evidence to determine where they are,” Neil said. “It’s a real community that has tried to hunt these people down.”
Akeju started his journey in San Diego, where the beach-bum look came to his benefit. He said the game changed for him when, after visiting a karaoke bar in New Mexico for a challenge, some hunters figured out his exact location.
“That was surprising and scary,” Akeju said. “My mind was blown. It changed my thoughts on the hunters. From that one image, I thought completely different. I knew there were some serious people on my tail. I had left the city by the time they found out where that was. Once I found out they knew, I figured I had to go elsewhere.”
Having his coordinates exposed led to Akeju being captured on March 9, after nearly two weeks of running. He was caught along with Thornton, whom he had begun traveling with, in Greenbelt, Md., as they attempted to complete a task of roller-skating.
“Later in the game, there was a new rule where if we didn’t provide sufficient evidence about our task we’d have extra information leaked about our location,” Akeju said. “That’s kinda what happened. They gave a clue that showed we still were in the city. Doing the tasks in the same area had the hunters more ahead than I expected.”
Akeju said he never thought there would be someone in Maryland tracking him down, but a 22-year-old Silver Spring resident named Kei Majewski had been keeping a close eye on Akeju and Thornton.
“We had clues that they had been traveling together. There was some speculation,” Majewski said. “We did know Usman’s task was to go to a skating rink, and I was already scouring the suburbs. [Other hunters were] sending me texts of different locations.”
Majewski said the online community of hunters banded together and began communicating via Twitter, chat rooms, e-mail and the phone. Once they got the clue of a drawing of a doctor in a green belt, the hunters took that as Greenbelt and once she got directions, she figured she’d “give it a shot” and hop the bus for the 10-mile trip.
“I had been toying with the idea all day, what if I do repo one or both of them,” Majewski said. “The instance that I saw them, it was completely surreal. I wasn’t even sure they were going to be at that skating rink. Maybe they went somewhere entirely different.”
Once she approached them, she gave the required passwords, they surrendered their GPS “artiforgs” and it was game over, making her $15,000 richer for collecting both runners. Although she doesn’t have the money yet, Majewski said she does have some plans for the bounty: getting out of debt, putting some cash toward tuition and getting “as promised” a tattoo of the Union logo as seen on promotional posters of Law and Whitaker. Gamble and Laferriere have yet to be captured. If they make it the full 30 days – ending March 25 – they will each receive the $7,500 prize.
— Gerrick D. Kennedy
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PHOTOS: Top: Runners (left to right) Usman Akeju, Alex Gamble, Will Laferriere and Ciji Thornton pose in Los Angeles before leaving for their journey. (Credit:Ben Schneider) Center: A poster for “Repo Men.” Bottom: Jude Law and Forest Whitaker in “Repo Men.” (Credit: NBC Universal).