An underground guild of assassins roams MIT at night. Armed with brightly colored rubber dart blasters, they strategize against one another, resurrect at stairwells, form alliances, and make enemies.
It sounds fantastical, but the MIT Assassins’ Guild is a very real live action role-playing (LARP) society at MIT founded by Stephen Balzac (BS ’85 Computer Science; SM ’87 Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences) in the mid ’80s. At the time, Balzac had been playing interactive role-playing games and applied to MIT’s association of student activities (ASA) to form a group that would allow students to reserve rooms for gaming and to fund attendance at interactive gaming conferences.
Balzac says that initially the people in the ASA “were a little weirded out by this Assassins’ Guild thing.” He adds that he wonders whether the group would be able to get approval today. In light of the horrific school shootings that reoccur across the country and the murder of MIT police officer Sean Collier, it’s easy to understand why MIT would be resistant to an Assassins’ Guild. Captain Craig Martin of the MIT Police says, “I reached out to them to make sure that we’re all on the same page and make sure that their games are safe for everyone.”
Captain Martin added, “They were pretty forthcoming. They agreed to notify me whenever they were going to have games. We talked about the importance of not using realistic looking weapons, and making it apparent to people that it was a game.” It is clear that the Assassins’ Guild have addressed his concerns: the scene of enthusiastic MIT students wielding rubber dart guns in shades of neon is more reminiscent of analog laser tag than anything else.
On the last Saturday in August, around 30 years after the Assassins’ Guild was originally founded, students gathered in Building 36 for the first weekly Assassins’ Guild Patrol game of the year. Patrol is the Assassins’ Guild gateway game that focuses more on combat strategy than do other games that focus more on propelling a character through an interactive world. Game Master (GM) Tom Boning, brandishing a bright orange plastic blaster and wearing the skull and crossbones headband that identifies him as a GM, is in charge of explaining the rules of the game to newcomers. “The objective is to have fun. You do this by shooting people and dodging other people’s bullets. Well, they’re not really bullets—they’re more like darts,” Boning says.
The dart guns are a sight to behold. They come exclusively in DayGlo colors, and require the user to load the darts one-per-shot in a very specific orientation for the gun to fire. They’re actually “rather terrible,” Boning says. “They don’t fire very far…To rectify this, we have a technique called ‘throwing the dart’ where you throw your arm forward as you fire, and you get about twice the distance.” Besides keeping a safe distance from players throwing the dart, the secondary rules are: don’t shoot people in the face; there’s no cap on lives—you can re-spawn, or resurrect, at the stairwells once you’ve been shot; and the shooter calls the hit to avoid any “I hit you!” “No you didn’t!” controversies.
For many students, the night’s game had been long anticipated—for some, since before they even applied to MIT. Taking a break in a resurrection stairwell, Victoria Longe, a freshman majoring in Computer Science and Molecular Biology, says, “When I was looking up MIT and looking for things that I wanted to do, I also found their Assassins’ Guild and I was like, ‘I have to do this.'”
The Assassins’ Guild’s allure to prospective students is not a new phenomenon. Boning, now a senior, discovered the Assassins’ Guild on a poster in the Infinite Hallway during a visit when he was still in high school, and has been a part of it since his freshman year. Susan Shepherd, a graduating senior majoring in Comparative Media Studies/Writing, discovered the Guild on MIT’s website two years before she applied to MIT.
Balzac, who now applies interactive game playing principles to organizational psychology, explains that some of the Assassins’ Guild’s enduring appeal lies in its ability to transport people outside of their everyday worlds. “When you’re playing in a fantasy in this type of game and you’re essentially playing an alter ego, it is possible to learn from your mistakes in ways that are very difficult when you’re being who you are.”
More than that, the Assassins’ Guild brings people together in intense situations that can be simultaneously collaborative and competitive. For Balzac, this sparked a romance—he met his wife Aimee Yermish (’88 BS, Biology) role-playing when they were both students at MIT, and they continued to build both real and fantasy worlds together following the formation of the Assassins’ Guild. For this year’s batch of students, some connections—platonic or otherwise—seemed to be sparking during the year’s first Patrol game. One unidentified freshman could be overheard saying, “I could shoot her, but I feel guilty. She’s on my floor.” Let the games begin!