Are there any hobbyist espionage groups?
March 29, 2015 5:47 PM   Subscribe

Are there any organizations that create IRL scenarios where individuals or teams can play spy vs spy in a legal, non-violent but serious way? I'm thinking of long-term, large-scale projects in the real world that require secrecy, surveillance, and cooperation of agents and contacts to uncover information that the other team or target is trying to hide. The information could be completely arbitrary -- finding it is the point. Not war games, with tactical, symbolic violence -- more cold war games
posted by nímwunnan to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (17 answers total) 48 users marked this as a favorite
Ingress should be right up your alley.
posted by MsMolly at 6:04 PM on March 29, 2015 [8 favorites]

Yep. Ingress.
posted by dmd at 6:39 PM on March 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Slightly tangential, but might scratch the same itch for you: Rift Recon has the Art of Escape in San Francisco (though I think they've offered it in other cities in the past), which is a multi-day urban escape and evasion class with a practical exam at the end. You're first trained in ways to evade capture, escape when captured, and use your environment to your advantage, and then set loose in the city to test those skills versus pursuers.
posted by rhiannonstone at 6:40 PM on March 29, 2015 [6 favorites]

Thirding Ingress, especially the Anomalies - large scale, in person group events staged by Niantic.

Just yesterday, 10 other agents and I participated in an anomaly set in Pasadena, CA, despite us all sitting in a coffee house in Milwaukee, WI.
posted by spinifex23 at 7:31 PM on March 29, 2015

Hey, you want to gang up and start an ARG called "Cold War Games?" The name you gave it is catchy as hell.

Ingress leaves me cold, FWIW.
posted by BrunoLatourFanclub at 7:38 PM on March 29, 2015 [3 favorites]

This sort of sounds like a humint version of what the IT security community calls CTF ("capture the flag") -- challenges to compromise specifically-configured systems. Not sure if there's an ARG-y version with the elements you're after, though.
posted by Alterscape at 9:38 PM on March 29, 2015

EVE Online has serious intel and counterintel, but it is pretty boring for most people, and more than a little bit creepy. Imma explain it to you in a wall of text, so you can decide if "serious espionage games" are actually a fun thing you want to do. There are two roles, intel and counterintel, and they are each other's adversaries.

Intel: In EVE, playing the spy generally means joining an enemy gaming group and playing on their team, hanging out with them on voice comms, sometimes even meeting up IRL drinks, etc. You develop friendships over months and years while gaining trust and working your way up in the organization. You help do the boring scut work of running an EVE alliance, volunteering to do the jobs that no one really enjoys. You are helpful, friendly, and enthusiastic. You become their friend and earn their trust while you sabotage their org.

Often a spy's job is just to keep tabs on the health of the enemy org, and report back any strategic plans. But once war breaks out, you're often relaying live data on their fleet movements, who is in charge of each fleet, their numbers, and battle plans. As the war grinds on and especially if people are getting frustrated or demoralized, you can steal corp assets, sabotage infrastructure, and derail plans. One of the simple but incredibly effective tactics one Goon spy used in the CFC vs TEST Fountain War was inserting errors into their defense schedule spreadsheet. So you had TEST members calling in sick to work so they could help defend their home planet from the final attack, and because we tweaked their timer spreadsheet, their fleet would arrive an hour late and their base would already be destroyed. That kind of thing really turns people against each other and especially against their leaders and can easily destroy an org.

Other times, when we had spies at the highest levels in an enemy organization, we've been able to dissolve their entire group in-game, wiping them off the map with a single click. This usually happens from a high-level defector though, not a someone who infiltrated the org as a spy.

Counterintel: The counterintel guys discover and preventing enemy spies from doing all the nasty things listed above. A lot of it involves making it harder for enemy spies to penetrate your org. This means background checks both in-game and out. In-game, you have them give you their read-only game API key so you can dump their in-game logs from the server. This tells you everything they've done in the game for the last few months. Out-of-game, you take their email address and dig up all their social media accounts and see how far back they go. Is this a fake internet persona invented 3 months ago, or a real person that has been living a normal online life? You get their home IP when they connect to your voice comms server, and you trace it back to their home and see if it matches any past spies or well-known enemies. The main Goon counterintel guy is a RL private investigator, so he also has access to those tools and databases to verify that people really are who they say they are.

Once someone joins your alliance, you don't stop watching them. In fact, it gets a lot easier to keep an eye on people because you run your own jabber text chat server, and your own voice comm server. So you keep logs of their activity, when they are active and when they are not. When one of your fleet commanders reports that they were ambushed and the enemy seemed to know their every move, you go back and see who was active at that time, who was listening on that fleet's voice comms. Once you have a few incidents documented, the list of possible spies gets to be pretty short and you can dig deeper. A lot of this is sort of like doxxing, but you don't publish your findings, so the harassment issues don't apply. I can still be pretty creepy though.

Both roles are kinda icky, but for different reasons. The spy is making close, trusted fake-friends just to social engineer and exploit them. And the spy hunter is cyber-stalking his allies and sometimes treading veerrry close to the limits of the law, and every so often overstepping. For example, those databases of enemy IP addresses? Those often come from hacking the enemy's private web forum and stealing their server logs. Or, if you have a really well placed spy, maybe he has admin access (this is super rare though).

I know of one advanced persistent threat that was written for spying on EVE. A Russian alliance created a plugin that their members needed to use to authenticate to their voice server. This bit of software was discovered to contain a keylogger and file searcher that poked around on their computers looking for chat logs with hostile groups. It was a counterintel tool to discover spies in their organization. It was condemned by pretty much everyone in the game once discovered.

Personally, I wouldn't want to be involved in either of these espionage roles. I don't want to spy, because by its nature it means creating a real friendship with someone just to betray them. It's not like fucking someone over in Diplomacy where everyone knows that's the game you're playing. You are very intentionally trying to gain people's trust over a period of many months, become close to them, and get them to trust you. I couldn't stomach that, I don't think.

The counterintel guy at least can feel some moral rightness in his job since he is searching out enemy spies that have infiltrated his own group. But much of the counterintel data probably comes from illegal hacking. Now I don't know if our counterintel people do any hacking themselves, or if other people do it and it just happens to fall into our inbox (that really does happen). But my sense is that the law is more of a guideline than a hard and fast rule. And then there's the online research, which is doxx-like, although usually without publication so it doesn't have the negative effects on the victim that real doxxing does. Still kinda creepy though if you get really into it. There was at least one case where info was published, revealing an enemy player's dating profile and outing him as gay. Like the keylogger, this was also condemned by just about everyone in the game.

So that's what "recreational espionage" looks like in EVE. Yes, it's a game, but the spy/counterspy stuff crosses so far into the real life of the players that you can't say it's just a game. It's real in a way that Diplomacy skullduggery and backstabbing could never be. And I think any sufficiently real/longterm/high stakes espionage game would likely run into these same distasteful issues.
posted by ryanrs at 10:49 PM on March 29, 2015 [90 favorites]

Addendum - Why EVE has rich espionage gameplay and other games don't.

Fundamentally, the EVE nullsec end-game is about empire building: winning allies, fighting wars, conquering territory, and generating wealth. To do this in EVE requires hundreds to thousands of people to cooperate over a period of years. Empire building in EVE is a hundred-thousand man-hour endeavor. This massive scale has several consequences:

- You cannot build an empire just with people you know in real life. This means you cannot rely on strong external bonds to guarantee in-game loyalty. You must recruit new people you meet in-game. This is how spies get in.

- No one person can manage an empire. There are a thousand players and a million tasks. You must delegate high-level departments to trusted lieutenants with real authority. However this means they can turn against you, either individually, or in gorups.

- The in-game assets of an empire are worth tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Although there is no reliable way to "cash out" these in-game assets for US$, theft is a serious and ever-present risk.

- Most people aren't spies. Fewer than 1%. Otherwise probably nothing would get done. This means that you really are hunting for someone who is easy to hide and hard to find.

- The people playing the game care about the empire. I mean they really, really care a lot. Wins and losses matter. Morale is a serious issue, likely the most important determining factor in many wars. This means spies can do real damage and poison an org with suspicion and distrust. That would not be possible if people weren't extremely invested in the game, often to an unhealthy extent.

So this is the framework that surrounds the EVE spy game. It's important because it is what makes the spy game actually matter. I'm not sure how you could extract the spy stuff and have it exist on its own. It seems to me that it is intimately intermingled with the complexity of EVE empire building, unable to exist by itself.
posted by ryanrs at 11:24 PM on March 29, 2015 [40 favorites]

Response by poster: Very cool to see the other places this interest has popped up. Lemme be clear though -- I'm looking for real world groups. Something that requires you to go outside, track actual people, go places, see non-augmented-reality things, etc. Eating pistachios for hours hunkered down in a car, waiting for someone to leave a building so you can report back to your crew. Video games and augmented reality games do not fit that description. Ingress looks very cool, but I'm hoping to find / start something that can make your everyday life a little more sneaky and exciting because a mission might look like a normal day out, or that guy over there could be an agent or the lady at the cafe might be making a dead drop. I feel like Ingress, being device dependent, wouldn't do that. Or am I wrong?
posted by nímwunnan at 8:35 AM on March 30, 2015 [2 favorites]

Geocaching has a lot of elements of exploration... I have not heard of many/any that have the spy elements. Maybe there is a real market there?
posted by Jacen at 1:35 PM on March 30, 2015

No, Ingress definitely requires you to see non-augmented-reality things. It's not something that just exists on your phone and doesn't tie back to the world around you - quite the opposite in fact. Read a little more about it, because it sounds like it's very similar to what you're looking for.
posted by town of cats at 10:57 PM on March 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

A lot of colleges have groups running games like Assassin and Paranoia; it's possible that there are people playing "colder" versions of it than the standard version; you might want to look in your area.
posted by NoraReed at 4:04 AM on April 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

You say that EVE doesn't fulfill your requirements - I agree - and that ARGs don't count. The fact is that most ARGs use the web, or cellphones, as mediating tools to run the game. This is not necessary at all. I mean, I once played in a live-action game of Vampire: The Masquerade (oh, the shame) which was mediated almost entirely by posters stapled to telephone poles and scary goth ladies at industrial clubs. That's because an ARG, strictly speaking, isn't an augmented reality game, like those ones where you have to have a phone to play the game-world overlaid on the real world, but an alternate reality game in which the game world is an alternate version of this one.

(I wish I could find some trace online of those San Diego kids who ran that game. It was incredible. It was being played long before the ubiquity of smartphones and ubiquitous high-speed internet, and would certainly have fulfilled your requirements if you could have endured the World of Darkness backstory.)

If you don't plan on starting something using the phrase "Cold War Games" I am so gonna steal that phrase from you. If you do, holy crap can I help?
posted by BrunoLatourFanclub at 8:30 PM on April 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

Ingress looks very cool, but I'm hoping to find / start something that can make your everyday life a little more sneaky and exciting because a mission might look like a normal day out, or that guy over there could be an agent or the lady at the cafe might be making a dead drop. I feel like Ingress, being device dependent, wouldn't do that. Or am I wrong?

Try it out. It's device dependent but it's also being-near-to-a-real-thing dependent. Unless you're writing a bot, you can't play without moving around. You need to be quite close to this statue, that post office, this plaque, that fountain, this mural, that ZipCar sponsored location.

It's not clear at all which person in the busy courtyard is texting, surfing, or killing my portals. Sometimes we can figure it out (usually by saying their agent name near them and watching them perk up - I tend not to do this because I'm a woman and I don't want to be recognized by dudes on the other team). I work near lots of other offices, and there are a few people on the other team who work in neighbouring buildings and we kill each other's stuff all day. But there are thousands of people who use that courtyard, so I have no idea which two are my two. I sure as hell know when they're on vacation though!

My partner came back into work one day after lunch and his coworker whispered to him, "uhhhh.... Were you just meeting with your dealer?" "What?" "That dude in the parking lot?" Well, kinda, except that guy brings my partner capsules full of resonators and bursters, not drugs. :)

There is a fair amount of espionage in ingress. I've read more than one account of female players being tracked home and to work and harassed by the opposing team. We know that a group on the other team here scrapes comms, so they have logs of which portals you've taken or destroyed and when, leading to movement logs that go back quite far. When you mostly go back and forth between work and home, that gets creepy. Sometimes it's innocent (I.e. Let's make a detour to attack someone's home portal) and sometimes it's bad enough that people get scared and stop playing.
posted by heatherann at 6:09 AM on April 4, 2015 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I know some folks who enjoy spycraft-styled games. One example was a "send-the-Package" game. (Huge apologies to they who played it and will read the poor explanation that follows.)

The Gamemaster selects two Captains at the start of the month. They are allowed to draft anyone to assist in one of two missions: Transport a critical Package across town, or catch the other team transporting a critical Package across town. There's a few other basic rules (no cars, public transit okay, etc.)

To "make" someone, you simply get a picture of them with the Package and send it to the Gamemaster and Captains. If someone is "made" or "burned" the Package loses value, and gets smaller. (Usually starts as a duffel, ends as a largish envelope.)

The round ends when: the Package arrives at the destination, the Package loses it's last step of value, the Time of the round ends (I mean, those nuclear drone launch encrypto virus tubules expire in 8 hours, and we've already lost 6!)

I will link this thread to a few of them in the hopes that they provide a better story. But know that the community of people doing this exists.
posted by redsai at 6:10 AM on April 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I was one of the co-creators and handlers for the games Redsai mentioned, though we never ended up using that version, because the DHS is a thing. But! We did run a secret series of events in public locations, with up to two dozen simultaneous participants, most of whom had never met before! It was enormously fun, and if you're interested in real-world tradecraft, you can read the rules we used and see some examples of play (along with a handy glossary) here, at

The core of the game is a secret exchange of messages between two courier agents who have never met before at a specific public location during a narrow time window, while opposing hunter agents attempt to identify the couriers and photograph the exchange while avoiding identification themselves. All agents are given their instructions for what to do in advance via dead drop; when recruited, all they know is the time when the operation is going to happen, where to pick up their instructions, and a time or signal for doing so...

It's a ton of fun, even and especially for the Handlers who run the game (one of our core design goals), self-documenting (another one), has a relatively light scheduling footprint (everyone only needs to be in one area for a few hours), and captures the experience of cold-war era tradecraft. Check it out!
posted by Mark Redacted at 8:31 AM on April 8, 2015 [3 favorites]

I'm late to reply, and this is assassination rather than specifically espionage, but it sounds like Street Wars might be quite like what you are looking for. Here's a writeup by Leigh Alexander.
posted by jzed at 4:49 PM on April 21, 2015

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