The Chicago Game

  • Dad, I’ve hit a roadblock. I need an idea for a project about the first years of the web.
  • The aughts were the best time ever. Back then, we weren’t sure what was fiction or fact, if events were true or false, and who the hell we were talking to or where they came from. All discussions took place on forums where everyone was anonymous, yet we forged connections, built networks, and made things happen. Nothing was real, but we had power. 
  • Alright, I get that it was a lot cooler, but give me examples. Something freaky. The worst you have. 
  • Do you know the Chicago Game?
  • No.
  • There was a webpage which showed a white space with a single word, Chicago, followed by a date 01/01/2004, and an hour 00:00. On forums, users started talking about what it meant. They realized this was the ideal time and location for murders to occur. If enough of these happened by the side of Lake Michigan on New Year’s Day, the emergency services would collapse. Cops would be overstretched because of the celebrations, computer systems would overload from people reporting incidents, and there would be too few ambulances to help every victim of stabbings, shootings, and poisonings, or people thrown from buildings and bridges. Murders would not be investigated in the first hours after they took place. Attackers would have time to escape. Across the web spread two pieces of advice: If you want to kill someone in Chicago, you should wait until 1 January 2004. If you want to kill someone from any other part of the world, you should bring them to Chicago for New Year’s Day.
  • This was crowdsourcing homicide?
  • Yes, and any other crime.
  • So what happened?
  • On 1 January, news agencies reported several murders in Chicago, along with a high number of assaults, robberies, and burglaries. One thread on a forum claimed to be from a high level source in the police, who revealed that across Illinois, the cops had taken the threat seriously, and had canceled leave, brought in reinforcements from out of state, and prepared for a crime wave. Another insider said the cases were piling up, but no one would dare publish the actual figures. There had been a lot of traffic on the airwaves from DC, but no one was sure why. Users of the forums immediately started posting reactions. They argued this showed the Game had worked. The police sources suddenly vanished. Many users believed this was further proof that their allegations were true. 
  • And were they true?
  • A few weeks later, a post appeared on the same forums which identified the Game. It was from a woman who claimed to be the creator of the website. It was an experiment, she said. The idea was to test how rumors could develop on the Internet. Six months before January 2004, she uploaded a link to the page on forums, along with a single question: ‘Do you know what this means?’ and made no further intervention. She let the users talk.
  • Did anyone believe her?
  • It didn’t matter. 
  • Why not?
  • By then, we were all discussing something else.

Michael Bird is a writer and journalist specialized in east Europe, with fiction published in the last year in Route 57, Porter House Review and Panel Magazine, and previously in Here Comes Everyone, the Bristol Short Story Prize, and Bandit Fiction, among others. His story ‘Fry Girl 4 Eva’ for Daily Drunk Mag’s ‘Hello, can I help you?’ anthology was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2022. 

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