The Engineering Student Council was just finishing up its last item on the Monday night agenda when four men burst into the room.
Leading the charge was Police Chief Brendan Shanahan, SEAS ’06, who turned over a table, dropped into a roll, and came up shooting.
“We just pulled a standard maridaisy, moved into a loop-di-loop, and then went in for the Hail Mary,” said Tom Fazzio, SEAS ’06 and a coordinator of Assassins, who helped mastermind the hit on ESC president Christopher Cheng.
Episodes such as this are not rare at Columbia this time of year, thanks to Assassins, the annual game of 24-hour squirt-gun espionage that in the past week has soaked the campus with a thick coating of paranoia.
After one week of play, only 51 of the original 228 players remain, and the number is dropping by the day.
The players, organized into teams of four, pay $5 each for a squirt gun and the chance to win as much as $400 and the eternal respect of their peers. Each team receives a new assignment every 72 hours, including the head shots and code names of another team targeted for assassination. As for who is hunting them, they find out soon enough.
Assassins is primarily a game of strategy in which friendships are suspended, morals are elastic, and information is gold. Last year’s game dragged on a full six weeks, culminating in the now infamous hit executed in Baltimore over spring break.
“The problem with this game on some level is that people take it really, really seriously,” said Dan Okin, SEAS ’07 and co-commissioner for Assassins.
Anton Ushakov, SEAS ’07, didn’t sleep Sunday night. “I have a quiz tomorrow, homework due tomorrow, and now I’m behind in Assassins,” he said. After losing the position of Lead Assassin over the weekend, he trails the new Lead Assassin by four kills. He knows it’s time to step it up.
As an assassin—in fact as The Assassin (that’s his code name)—Ushakov has gained a reputation for efficiency. He insists he plays on a level above the rest.
“I’ve had people come up to me and say, ‘I’ve had enough, please shoot me,’” he said, adding that he obliged.
Everyone knows the common survival strategies—skipping class, wearing a hood, taking an alternate route home. But the players who really excel push the game to the next level, whether that means teaming up with the police, altering their Facebook profile, or arranging decoy targets.
Some of the best strategies are also the most simple. Ushakov completed three of his six kills while wearing a business suit. “Nobody will shoot a man in a suit, even if they know [he’s] a target,” he said.
After receiving a phone message requesting an interview for the Spectator, Ushakov got an idea. “I called up my target and told him I wanted to interview him for a Spec article,” he said. It turned out to be unnecessary—Ushakov managed to arrange the kill for the next night with the help of police.
Most students seem able to integrate the game into their lives without severely interrupting their routine.
“This is a game,” said Varun Mehta, SEAS ’07. “I cannot let it rule my life.”
These students, of course, pay the ultimate price.
Any player who fails to complete his or her assignment within the 72-hour period appears on a “Disavowed” list, making them susceptible to any assassin or member of the 25-person police force.
While talking strategy with Commissioner Okin in Butler Cafe, Police Chief Shanahan pulled out a photocopy of the Disavowed list and pointed to one student’s grinning head shot. “This kid will be dead in an hour,” he said.
Killing, however, is only half the battle. The true test of cleverness—and poetic aptitude—lies in the kill report each player posts on the Assassins web site after icing a target.
The kill reports read like a police log written by the murderers. Some go for cold simplicity, listing only date and time of termination. Others unleash paragraphs of self-glorification.
“After a failed assassination attempt on Gonzo last night, I was seething with anger and aching for vengeance,” one kill report read. “My thirst for others’ blood can no longer be sated. I breathe, I eat, I sleep, I kill. Not that I had anything against Gonzo. She’s actually quite a nice girl. But you can’t be emotional when you’re an assassin ... Sometimes I forget whether I am man or machine.”
Good-natured pastime or friendship-destroying combat simulation? It all depends on the assassin.
“People who understand the game think it’s fun,” Okin said. “Sure, some people will turn on their friends. But then they’re like, ‘Asshole! Let’s go get a drink.’”