Approximately once a month you can potentially witness around 50-70 Russian-speaking people driving and running around London with torches in search for the codes written somewhere around the city. You might think they are just crazy (once, in the middle of the game when I was looking for a code, a policemen approached me asking calmly whether I was feeling ok) but in fact they are part of an exciting urban game called Encounter.
For some reason former Soviet Union countries have a rich tradition of urban games which involves solving tasks and riddles, often under time condition, around the city. From early teenage years we get used to playing various urban games and quests: Running City, Pathfinders, Night Watch and even a quest in the Moscow underground – Metrobooks. They have various formats but with the underlining idea of adrenaline, action, entertainment, fun, erudition and, most importantly, a chance to experience your usual urban environment in a totally different way; to view it through a different lens.
Why did it become so popular in the former Soviet territory? Of course Russians are famous for their extremity and adrenaline-seeking. But I would suggest another reason – there appeared a fruitful potential for playing with really extreme urban experiences after the collapse of the Soviet Union. A lot of original Encounter games would involve abandoned factories, underground tunnels, rooftops and high fences. One of the most well-known examples is when during one of the games the participants were actually caught by the police and, while they thought it was a complete game over for them, they found out that the code was actually written inside the cell they were put in on one of the bars so the policemen were part of the game! Of course such things could only be done in Russia.
Encounter, which was organised first in 2001 by a group of students in Minsk, Belarus, is played today by Russian communities in several European countries. The statistics says there are around 300 000 people playing Encounter in 11 countries. Of course it had to become a bit more mild as it had to adapt to the particular laws and context of each individual city. Only recently the London branch of Encounter (recently re-named into City Quest) has organised its first game for English-speakers, which went very successfully and inspired organisers to continue making games for Londoners. If you want to experience all I have been talking about above, I suggest you participate in one of the games. All information can be found here.