War Games

In an online competition, hundreds of Cornellians defend East Hill from invading Ivies On a dark night in October, Cornell undergrads studied peacefully, most unaware that the fate of their campus hung in the balance. After an unsuccessful attempt to forge a military alliance with Penn, Cornell's ground troops found themselves pushed north, cornered, and […]

In an online competition, hundreds of Cornellians defend East Hill from invading Ivies

On a dark night in October, Cornell undergrads studied peacefully, most unaware that the fate of their campus hung in the balance. After an unsuccessful attempt to forge a military alliance with Penn, Cornell's ground troops found themselves pushed north, cornered, and rapidly losing strength. The Big Red made a final stand in New Hampshire, but ultimately fell to an assault by Yale, leaving control of East Hill up for grabs—online, that is. It was all part of GoCrossCampus (GXC), a game that allows Ivy League schools to compete for control of the East Coast.

The GXC Ivy League Championship was founded in 2007 by a group of Yale entrepreneurs as a way to generate competition and interaction among students and alumni of the Ancient Eight. The game has since taken off, spawning YouTube videos, forays into espionage, and a writeup in the New York Times. GXC— which is akin to classic war games like Risk—offers contests for various affinity groups year 'round, but the Ivy championship is held only in the fall. In September, even before the Big Red football team had taken the field, hundreds of Cornellians had logged on to defend Ezra's honor. "Many people want to show off their school spirit, but they don't have an outlet for it," says Matthew Brimer, a Yale senior and co-founder of GXC. "The game appeals to a broad range of people—students, alumni, different majors and schools. Where else do they all get to interact?"

GoCrossCampus 

The game is structured so anyone with an Ivy e-mail address can sign up and be automatically assigned to their school's team. Players then click a button to "energize" and move their troops once a day, taking into account team strategy. Each side's energy level determines how far it can move and the power it has to attack other territories, based on an algorithm that takes university size into account. With a total enrollment of more than 6,000, the game is touted as the largest competition in Ivy League history—and battles can be fierce. Pacts are made and broken, and spies with personal allegiances may undermine strategy. "There's a rather infamous spy at Cornell who gave her NetID and password to her boyfriend at Yale," says computer science major Alex Botkin '11. The spying forces players to connect outside of official team chat, through instant messaging or Face-book. Grad students can be particularly treacherous. "You may be at Cornell, but if you were an undergrad at another Ivy, your loyalty may be to them instead," says Botkin.

Fans of the game point out that much of its appeal lies in its simplicity. Territories are superimposed on a map of the East Coast, spanning all the states that are home to Ivy schools. Each team starts out on its own campus and is allotted a certain amount of territory. From there, they attempt to conquer as much turf as possible, gaining strength as additional players log on. "You have years of Ivy League rivalry behind this game," says Nick Selz, a Yale sophomore and director of the 2008 championship. "Many people aren't going to paint their faces and go out on the field or can't make it back for alumni events, but I'm staggered watching the game chats that go on for hours."

Penn emerged victorious in the 2008 game; despite Cornell's second-place finish (behind Princeton) in 2007, the Big Red was eliminated early, on the heels of last-place Harvard. Players say that the poor showing was partially due to unfinished business from the previous year. "We knew from the beginning that Yale was coming for us and there wasn't much we could do about it," says operations research major Jason Lustig '11, a team commander. "Historically, we've allied with Dartmouth and Princeton, and we've built relationships with the people on those teams—there's a sense of camaraderie." For many players—alumni in particular—the value of the game has less to do with winning than it does with a desire to stay close to Cornell. "I started playing after graduation when a lot of my friends were still on campus," says Walter King '07, who was so intrigued by the game that he started working for GXC as a software developer. "There aren't many opportunities to get back that Cornell bond, and this is a way to stay connected with the school and with your friends across the country."

The online team-building often spills over into real life in the form of strategy sessions, recruitment events, and more. "The human interest stories are what make it fun," says Brimer, who notes that the game has spawned real-life romances —and got one Cornell student in trouble with campus police for trying to rally the troops outside the dorms in the middle of the night. With students and alumni more tech-savvy than ever, the online quest for Ivy bragging rights seems inevitable. But regardless of the forum, it's clear that some things never change. Says Botkin: "Basically, everyone gangs up against Harvard."

— Liz Sheldon '09

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