The Darkest Puzzle

Given certain events of today, it has become very important for me to make it clear I am neither behind nor do I endorse the ARG called The Darkest Puzzle. This game postits that a splinter group of the Cloudmakers went on to try to "solve" 9/11 after the real-world event in which Cloudmakers moderators discouraged such a thing from happening in the Yahoo group. Elsewhere today, the Cloudmakers as a group disavowed any affiliation with the game.

I haven't commented before now because I didn't want to call undeserved attention to a project I privately disapproved of. But I cannot risk my own professional reputation being mistakenly associated with this.

I have nothing to do with The Darkest Puzzle, nor would I.

I find the concept repugnant as a Cloudmaker, as a game designer, and as a New Yorker.

On the bright and beautiful morning of Sept. 11 of 2001, I was on my way to Rye, New York, to visit a client's office. The radio news reported that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. Oh, I thought, how terrible, a small plane has had an accident. I was just on the Whitestone Bridge when the second plane hit, with a perfect view of that smoke plume blossoming toward the flawless autumn sky. It felt like the whole world was ending, planes falling from the sky, the nation under attack from an unknown enemy.

I feel a pang of sorrow every time I go over that bridge even now and see the wound in the skyline where my city is supposed to reach a pinnacle, and instead there is nothing.

I find the very concept of this game tasteless (at best) on multiple levels. Not least is that it casts myself and my fellow Cloudmakers moderators as either patsies or villains, working to conceal some hidden truth. It rankles to be considered the villain, even in fiction, for something that you did a decade ago solely to protect people. It might not rise to the level of libel, but it certainly isn't pleasant.

On Sept. 12 of 2001, I couldn't go in to my office in Manhattan because there were no trains running. There were no trains running because there were too many dozens -- hundreds -- of bomb threats against Penn Station, and I worked just a few stories upstairs. It was a full ten days before I could go back into my broken city. And then I discovered that everyone in New York who had ever smoked and quit had taken it up again to settle their nerves; you couldn't walk down a street without being immolated in clouds of cigarette smoke. Who could blame them?

My complaints against The Darkest Puzzle are not just about people thinking I'm a bad person in fiction. There's also the fact that real people believe there is a conspiracy to conceal the alleged "truth" about 9/11 from the American public, and this quiet undercurrent has a powerful divisive influence on our politics even now.

And there's the fact that had the Cloudmakers truly tried to solve 9/11, we would have put real lives in jeopardy on the assumption that the whole world has clear and straightforward solutions. This is the problem with gamification: It assumes that everything can be solved. This is sadly far from the truth.

And then there's the reported anti-Semitic undercurrent to the game. I simply do not have words enough to describe how angry it makes me to suggest that "the Jews" were behind this tragedy.

I've made it central to my career since then to talk about the ethics of game design, to advocate clear divisions between fiction and reality, and to ensure that by intent or oversight a designer never leads a player into danger. This is no coincidence.

I am extraordinarily fortunate. I didn't lose anyone I loved that day. But as with every New Yorker, I know and care about people who did. At the time, I shared a cubicle with a woman who had not so long before worked at Cantor-Fitzgerald. My husband's company holds an annual golf outing in memoriam of the owner's cousin. At my daughter's school, there are children who lost parents that day.

This is not a game I made. This isn't a game I would make. It's a game I wish nobody had made.