A.I. Game Scores Big With Online Players

"Mother" awaits your e-mail. Send one, and you'll join 6,000 others already playing a Web game designed to boost audience interest in Steven Spielberg's A.I. Artificial Intelligence, one of this summer's most-hyped mega-movies.

The game, a "viral marketing" or grassroots promotional campaign, is part of a broader movie-marketing tradition as old as Star Wars action figures and Batman T-shirts. But will a game that entertains an elite group of highly intelligent Web geeks really make a difference at the box office?

Warner Brothers, estimated to be spending upward of $1 million on the project, seems to think so. Players say the "elegant," multi-faceted game has already attracted a super-smart subculture to a film they otherwise might have rejected as too mainstream.

"I'd be lying if I said it didn't pique my interest," said Sean Murray, a game designer for Funny Garbage, a Web design company whose clients include the Cartoon Network and Comedy Central. "It retains the spirit of Stanley Kubrick (the movie's creator) and makes Spielberg more legitimate to the science-fiction scene."

The game, which Murray calls downright "daunting," spans 30-50 full Web sites, all of which are set in the year 2142. There are a number of ways to start playing, one of which is to click on the Web site thevisionary.net. Send an e-mail to the above-mentioned "Mother" and you will suddenly start receiving real-life phone calls, emails and faxes, all with clues to solving an intricate sci-fi murder mystery.

Sound complicated? It is.

Mastery of the game requires vast knowledge of world literature, math, history, science and other subjects, according to Bronwen Liggitt, a moderator at cloudmakers.org, an online "community" of A.I. game players.

Competitors may even have to be familiar with material as arcane as the old World War II "Enigma" code, according to Eric Hester and Bruce Klassen of troutmakers.org, the self-proclaimed "local watering-hole" for A.I. players.

But A.I. is not the first movie to make a playground of the Web. Harry Knowles, "Head Web Geek" at aintitcoolnews.com, credits The Blair Witch Project — one of the first movies to use the Web to orchestrate a successful viral marketing campaign — with being the best Web-based movie game before A.I.

The game "created a deeper mythology," he said. "It got people hooked on the idea."

Games were also used to promote nerd-friendly movies like X-Men and Swordfish. And next month's Planet of the Apes also features a Web game, a high-tech scavenger hunt in which players compete to win film props and other prizes.

But in typical Spielberg style, the A.I. game is the biggest — and many say the best.

On May 12, 2001, or 2142 to game players, competitors were told to wear red and bring their cell phones to sites in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles for "rallies," or group efforts to solve the game. Working with co-players at home, the group struggled to solve the latest puzzle.

That's a level of sophistication that games like Planet of the Apes just can't touch, according to Knowles.

So Blair Witch may have started it all, but A.I. has certainly raised the bar for Web games. Spielberg once again has outdone everybody else.