Today Cambridge, tomorrow the world

If you've ever longed to humiliate your rivals and dominate your enemies, maybe even seize territory and rule supreme, then GoCrossCampus is the online game for you.

James Kirchick ’06 is an assistant editor at the <i>New Republic</i>. He last wrote for the <i>Yale Alumni Magazine</i> about hazing night at the Yale Political Union.

Jake Wyman

Jake Wyman

View full image

Last fall, more than 2,700 heavily armed Yale students, faculty, and alumni assembled on the Massachusetts border. Several days later, they overcame the pitifully meager Cantabridgian forces of Harvard, and not long after vanquished the hordes of Brown at the coastal resort of Newport, Rhode Island. At one point, the Elis conquered the entire state of Vermont, ousting the reigning Visigoths of Dartmouth. But after two months of espionage, vigorous recruitment of soldiers, and bloody slaughter across the hills and valleys of the Eastern seaboard, the Elis ultimately fell to the Tigers of Princeton.

No, this is not a fantasy dreamed up by Yalies embittered after years of losses to Harvard in The Game. Rather, it's the abridged history of the latest Ivy League Championship Tournament hosted by GoCrossCampus, the Internet-based brainchild of four innovative Yalies -- Matthew O. Brimer ’09, Brad Hargreaves ’08, Sean Mehra ’08, and Jeffrey Reitman ’08 -- and Isaac Silverman, Columbia ’09. GoCrossCampus (GXC) allows an unlimited number of players to participate in a competition (based on the board game Risk) over virtual land, collectively taking turns attacking and defending each other's territory. "Commanders" order their team members to execute strategies, and players can chat live with their fellow troops and rivals in the field.

The creators of GXC advertised the tournament on Facebook and in student publications and worked with student governments at all of the Ivy League schools (via the Ivy Council, a conglomeration of student governing bodies) to attract players. "Feed your Napoleonic complex" urged the blog of the Blue & White, a Columbia magazine. All told, almost 11,000 Ivy League students and alumni participated in last year's tournament, which ran from October 22 until December 31. The game's creators expect even bigger turnout for the rematch. Hostilities are scheduled to begin on September 16.

For those players not usually drawn to online games, GXC appealed to their innate Yalie competitiveness -- not to mention their antipathy to all things Harvard. "Everyone playing for Yale wanted to just totally, completely dominate the Ivy League"—and especially Harvard, Nicholas Selz ’11, the game's tournament organizer, told me. The game is also an effective way to rally school spirit for academic institutions that don't boast popular sports programs. Sue Yang, a Columbia student who participated in last year's tournament, says GXC "is a great way to fuel school spirit on the Ivy campuses, because let's be honest, we aren't known for our athletics."

The inspiration for GXC came from "Old Campus Tree Risk," an Internet game hosted by the Yale College Council last year that pitted the residential colleges against one another for dominion over Old Campus. (Durfee, occupied by freshmen in Morse and Timothy Dwight, triumphed.) "We saw that game and saw people really enjoying it, and we thought, we can build team-based games," Brimer says. Several months later, GXC was born. Today it hosts free games that anyone can join. GoCrossZodiac began with 12 teams, named after the star signs, fighting over a map of the universe. GoCrossBoyBandz has territories named, for instance, "Hanson brothers" and "Jonathan Knight," after the New Kids on the Block star.

GXC works like this: players join teams competing over control of a map divided into many territories of varying size and shape. For every turn, each player is allotted a certain amount of energy. Players have three options during turns: attack an adjacent territory, defend a territory, or move to another territory owned by their team. When a team decides to attack a territory held by a rival, battles take place between two individual players at a set time, with defenders receiving a strict 58 percent to 42 percent advantage -- meaning that the attacking team needs substantially more players and energy in order to conquer a territory. Team members nominate and vote on commanders to plot overall strategy, and can also remove them from their posts should their generalship prove disastrous.

The creators of GXC, ever the enterprising Yalies—all of them are members of the Yale Entrepreneurial Society—believe there's more than just fun to be had with their creation. Even though they claim on their website to be "concerned more with creating the best game we possibly can than with making a quick buck," they're after serious money, through both advertising and sponsorships. Brimer says GXC has raised approximately $1 million in venture capital from two firms, Easton Capital and the WGI fund. In July, GXC announced it had hired the 38-year-old co-founder of Major League Gaming, the largest organized video game league, as an executive vice president. And the group has branched out into the business world by launching GoCrossOffice (GXO), which allows corporations to design their own games for employees. Slingshot, a Texas-based advertising agency, hosted a game earlier this year. Google's New York office fought over Manhattan Island this summer.

Human resources managers and residential college deans need not worry that their charges will be spending all day transfixed before their computer screens. Teams have 24 hours in which to complete a turn, so all players have ample opportunity to strategize and execute their next move. But the actual amount of time a player spends attacking, defending, or decamping is just a few minutes. "You don't have to sit at your computer for hours a day" playing GXC or GXO, Brimer e-mailed. "That's what makes it so appealing to these companies." Still, the game can bring out the addict in some. Danni Babik, of Slingshot, says that when her team lost, their commander's wife said, "Oh, thank God!"

While players spend relatively little time taking turns on the virtual game map, says Brimer, there is "a huge offline component." There's an incentive for players to reach out to friends, classmates, or even that dorm-mate down the hall they hardly know -- because the more players a team recruits, the stronger it becomes. "You have to get up, walk around the office, dorm hallways," Brimer says. For companies, the offscreen interaction brings a degree of camaraderie and fellowship to twenty-first-century cubicle culture. Babik, who designed the Slingshot game-map using office blueprints, says that in the course of play she's "gotten to know some people a lot better." Players at several schools say they held regular, sometimes daily, strategy sessions in their dorm rooms or libraries to discuss upcoming moves. At Worcester Polytechnic Institute, teams appointed spies to snoop on their opponents' strategy meetings.

Some alumni associations are also getting interested. Andrew Gossen, senior associate director at the Alumni Association of Princeton, heard about the competition last year and immediately saw the potential in a web-based game that attracted more than 250 alumni from his university. When he logged onto GXC to see what the fuss was about, Gossen noticed a new kind of student-alumni interaction. "Normally, undergraduates approach alumni for advice, direction, and jobs," he mused on a collegiate alumni relations blog. "With GXC the Princeton team's commanders were a freshman and a sophomore, and approximately 1,450 Princetonians were happily following their orders."

But on the screen, as in life, war brings out dirty tricks. One recent Yale graduate who participated in last year's tournament says players for both the Princeton and Yale teams devised computer scripts that allowed them to create puppet accounts -- and thus to unfairly stack their team with extra players. As this tactic became "a bigger and bigger part of the game," he says, GXC "really lost its charm and became more like the schoolwork I was using GoCrossCampus to avoid."

Selz admits that last year's GXC site had "security holes" that players exploited to create extra accounts (which the rules forbid). But he writes in an e-mail that, for this year's Ivy League championship, "We have made many technical and gameplay changes that directly fight against such account abuse."

Yale GXCers will have something to prove in this year's tournament. Last year, toward the end of December, Yale's forces controlled Connecticut, Massachusetts, and most of New York state. Victory seemed imminent. But, beleaguered by repeated attacks from the Columbians holed up in Vermont and New Hampshire, its soldiers scattered across the snowy fields of New England, Yale found itself too weak to repulse the advance of Princeton from the south. In an all-or-nothing attempt to mount a defense, the Elis massed their remaining troops on the shores of Massachusetts. Two days later, after a final stand on the frigid beaches of Cape Cod, the Blue armies fell to the invaders.

Yale may have an unfortunate record against Harvard in football. But now there's a new battlefield on which glory can be found and heroes made. Virtual heroes, at least.

The comment period has expired.