Mat Laibowitz SM ’04, PhD ’10 constructs puzzles so addicting people will do the weirdest things to solve them. For one, players in an abandoned warehouse bounced lasers off handheld mirrors in a futuristic version of mini-golf. In another, they scoured books for alchemical symbols to create a potion analyzed through a webcam for its exact temperature and color.
“I like to build experiences enhancing people’s awareness that are also fun,” says Laibowitz. The Media Lab alumnus uses contests across media platforms called “transmedia” games to make this happen, including in his game, Endgame: The Calling Puzzle Contest, based on James Frey and Nils Johnson-Shelton’s 2014 book, Endgame: The Calling, the first book of a multi-platform trilogy.
Endgame’s narrative involves a sci-fi battle between representatives of ancient societies and contributors like Laibowitz use transmedia storytelling, a technique that tells a single story woven through multiple digital arenas, to inform the story. Laibowitz’s puzzle, built by his company, Futuruption, was developed at the same time as the book and cryptographic clues were embedded throughout the text. Players attempted to solve it at a separate website portal.
More than 135,000 participants from 166 different countries attempted to solve the puzzle and win its accompanying prize—$500,000 in gold coins stored at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. After more than a year, a 25-year-old astrophysicist solved the mystery and claimed the jackpot.
“Having a connection to the (Endgame) world felt rewarding, like in Harry Potter,” says Laibowitz. “Passionate people rewarded with multiple levels of story involvement.”
Since his first work running a scavenger hunt called Midnight Madness, where people ran around New York City solving puzzles, Labowitz has sought to make deep connections to imagined and real worlds. He once invited players to decode a mobile app to change the colored lights at the top of an actual New York City skyscraper.
“As long as a user gets thinking, that’s what matters,” Laibowitz says. But what gets people hooked most, he’s found, is combining exploration and real dynamics. “Human interconnection combined with algorithmic rule sets: that’s the secret sauce of unpredictability and control we all find irresistible.”
When it comes to challenges, Laibowitz practices what he preaches. He completed a second Endgame puzzle based on the sequel, Sky Key, and is building another for the soon-to-be-released Rules of the Game, the final book of the Endgame trilogy. He’s also taking flying lessons and applied to NASA’ s Astronaut Training.
“I am actively searching for the next thing,” he says. “It’s mainly soul-searching, deciding if I should go the funding route or continue to work with partners who pay me to create something for their franchise or company.”