1: Participant Observation

1: Participant Observation WOE.BEGONE

SUMMARY:

Mike Walters discovers a mysterious online game called WOE.BEGONE. The first challenge isn’t even that hard. It will probably stay that way, right?

TRANSCRIPT:

My first mistake was thinking that I was a journalist– that I was simply observing a phenomenon from a safe distance and that I was not going to get involved. Like a biologist watching the lion taking down the gazelle and letting nature take its course. I don’t know why I thought that I of all people would be able to be party to this without becoming a participant. Hubris, maybe. It wouldn’t be the first time that hubris has been my undoing. I’m not a journalist. I’m not a professional. I’m a shitty podcaster. At best. A hubristic, shitty podcaster. So at least I can do that.

If you’re hearing this, that’s what I’ve decided to do. I’m out here and, strangest of all, I’m in the lead. My name is Mike Walters and I’m going to tell you everything I’ve figured out about WOE.BEGONE.

[Theme plays.]

I’ll cut the shit. If you found this podcast it’s because you were googling “What is WOE.BEGONE” and after all of the dictionary definitions of the word “Woebegone” you probably saw some cryptic nonsense from someone trying to look cool online and you’re hoping that this podcast isn’t just more of that. WOE.BEGONE is mysterious, but I’m not here to just tell you that over and over again. I’m here to tell you what I’ve dug up these past few weeks. And maybe look cool online in the process.

WOE.BEGONE is a competitive game with a secret ruleset. The complete secrecy of the game, its rules, and how many people are playing and who they are in enforced by the group of black-hats that run the whole thing. Anyone attempting to communicate about the game to people who are not already playing the game are immediately met with extreme grief online. The post that I found that led me to WOE.BEGONE has been gone for a month now. I haven’t met the guy that made it but I’m sure that whatever headache the gamerunners set up for him was enough to get him to take it down. He should’ve seen it coming, posting it on one of the major subreddits.

I know the same thing will happen to me, but I’m pretty secure and keep a pretty low profile online, so there isn’t that much that they can do to me. From what I can tell, they haven’t done anything too heinous, just spam and targeted harassment. No one’s ended up dead in a gutter or anything like that, as far as I can tell. Maybe being so far in the lead will grant me some leniency. Unlikely, but possible.

I didn’t want to “play the game” so much as I wanted to be able to see the game being played. And there was no way to do that without at least some auspices of actually playing along, so I read the instructions from the reddit post and “signed up” as it were. I wanted to play just enough that I knew what the rules were, who the players were, and what the end state would look like. I surely didn’t intend to play-to-win.

The first thing you do if you want to play WOE.BEGONE is go to an internationalized URL link. This just means that the URL was registered with characters that don’t exist in the english language, like Chinese for example. I don’t know what language the original URL was in, but it wasn’t ASCII so the link looks like gibberish. It wasn’t dark web/Onion browser stuff, though. All surface web stuff. If you aren’t on a VPN and in Incognito the website kicks you. It’s a black screen with a prompt that just reads “PHONE NUMBER” with a submit form. I’ve heard that if you aren’t using a VOIP burner number, it won’t work, but that is what I was doing anyway. No reason for some internet guys to have my real phone number. I was excited because it was already feeling more like a real game than an ARG where you watch youtube videos and solve a Polybius square or other easy cipher. I put in my number and went to bed.

I woke up to 21 text messages. It was very annoying, actually. There were 20 text messages that were spammed characters up to the character limit. In the center of these spam messages was the first game:

“CALL UP YOUR LAST EX-BOYFRIEND IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT. IF HE ANSWERS HANG UP AND CALL AGAIN UNTIL YOU GET THE VOICEMAIL. TELL HIM ABOUT THE WORST THING HE EVER DID TO YOU. BRING UP EVERY UPSETTING DETAIL. TELL HIM THAT YOU DO NOT FORGIVE HIM. SEND US THE .MP3. -W.BG”

I knew that I was in for some edgy shit because of the way that the game was presented to me, but I really didn’t want to do this. I can’t say that I was surprised, but I did consider whether or not it was worth it to actually do this. I’m not a good actor. There is no way that I could fake this sort of conversation convincingly. It would have to be real. I don’t know how he figured out that I have an ex-boyfriend. Maybe a lucky cold read? Or some black-hat hackery business? I don’t know how they would find anything about me based on what I gave to them. They weren’t asking for a “behind 7 proxies” dark web amount of security, but I still didn’t think I gave them much to go on.

This speculation is me stalling. I made the call and I don’t really want to talk about it, but this is the podcast where I talk about it. I can’t play it for you, though, for reasons that I will have to explain later. To say that it was upsetting would be a ludicrous understatement. I know that I’ll be sharing some deeply personal things about myself in the process of discussing WOE.BEGONE, but I can at least mete it out so that I don’t have a meltdown in the middle of the first episode.

I called at 11:30 at night. That’s the middle of the night to me. I’m old, fuck you. John had probably just gone to bed. I hadn’t talked to him in about 2 years. We didn’t have a terrible breakup or anything. It was just a normal amount of awful. But we didn’t have all that much in common. That was sort of the problem. Around ring three, I had an intense urge to back out, but I stayed on the line. I was mortified at the thought that he would pick up and I would have to try this all over again. Thankfully, he didn’t answer and I got his machine. It was the same voicemail message that he had when we were together. My heart was in my throat. I hit record on the phone recording app. The voicemail beeped and I started talking.

About a year into our relationship, my lifelong best friend died unexpectedly. The news of this happening trickled out slowly and tortuously over the course of the day while friends and family were contacting other to figure out what was going on. John was on his way to a hockey game with some friends when I first got wind that something had happened, but nothing was confirmed yet. I hate hockey but John loved it so he would often go to games with his friends and I would sit at some and screw around on the internet. I called and told him what I thought was going on. He was comforting and concerned but said that he was almost at the arena and would be home in a few hours. Stunned, I said “okay.” I didn’t even put up a fight. I spent those few hours panicking, texting and calling friends, refreshing social media feeds, doomscrolling, trying to figure out what was going on. Alone.

I had received confirmation of the bad news by the time John had come home a few hours later. I was in a state. We got into the worst fight that I can imagine getting into. I’ve never been that worked up before or since. It did stop short of being a fistfight, though. It got heated. My body literally felt red hot. We relitigated old arguments that had been peacefully put to bed months ago. I described these relitigations on the voicemail message that itself was a relitigation of this horrible day. I screamed until I was hoarse. John did, too. I was so resentful of him for not coming home. I don’t think he had time or context to process how serious the circumstances were when I called him on the way to the hockey match. I felt terrible for him now, but I didn’t think I was allowed to tell him that. It spilled out of me like a cup that had been fully inverted, all water moving in unison to make a forceful slap onto the ground. It had clearly been pent up inside of me still, in a small corner that I only thought to look at in the lowest parts of my life.

And then I told him that I didn’t forgive him.

[Long beat here.]

After I hung up, I crouched in front of my closet and just sat there. It’s where I had ended up pacing to while I was spilling my guts out to John. I just didn’t know what else to do but sit there. My brain felt like there was a separator between it and the rest of my body. I think I probably “depersonalized” but I don’t really have the life experience to say for sure. Some of this freakout was captured by my phone call recording app, which I forgot to turn off immediately after the call.

I hated myself. For bringing all of this back into John’s world in the middle of the night. For wanting to know about WOE.BEGONE enough to do that to myself and to John. For not having let go of these negative emotions about something that happened a long time ago. For every other ugly, resentful story inside of me that was just like that one. I ended up laying on the carpet and crying for awhile. This all felt like a horrible mistake. [Breath.]

But, fuck it. I picked up my phone and texted the audio file to the WOE.BEGONE gamerunners. I had done it, so I might as well claim the prize that I was doing it for, whatever that was going to be. Maybe nothing. Maybe blackmail? I don’t think it’s all a big blackmail scam and I don’t see how “Mike Walters is really sad about his friend dying” is good blackmail material in the first place. They didn’t text back. I wasn’t really expecting to. I assumed that I would hear from them whenever it was time for me to play the next part of the game. I took a melatonin and went to bed.

I woke up the next day actually feeling relatively refreshed. Even though I didn’t get to talk to John, I did get to emotionally reckon with something that had been bothering me for a long time. It felt good to be on the other side of that. I got up earlier than usual and had a little more pep in my step while I was making breakfast for myself, alone in my apartment.

It wasn’t until I was in the middle of frying some eggs in bacon fat that the effect of the WOE.BEGONE game actually hit me. [Beat.]

None of that stuff happened. [Beat.]

None of it. My friend who “died” is alive and living in Vancouver. He had to move for work. John and I never had that fight. We broke up at the same time we had before, but this fight was not a factor in it at all because it never happened. That anxious day of panicking and figuring out what happened, never happened. None of it. The recording that I sent to WOE.BEGONE was gone. That voicemail never happened. I never called John. I never left the voicemail. I never recorded the voicemail. And I never texted that recording to WOE.BEGONE. To be clear: all of this had once happened and now none of that stuff had ever happened, if that makes sense. It changed. The world is different than it was before I sent that text message.

All of these claims require an astronomical amount of proof to overcome anyone who is rightly skeptical. And, as you can guess, it is definitionally impossible to prove that what I am saying is true. It is easy to fabricate and improbable to have actually happened. But I know that it happened. I called my best friend and we talked, same as it ever was. I choked up and he awkwardly brushed past it because he is as conflict-avoidant as I am, same as it ever was.

I don’t know how it happened. I’m hoping that as I inch closer to winning WOE.BEGONE that answer will be more clear. I don’t know what really happened: am I in a simulation? An alternate universe? A time travel story? I honestly do not know and all of it sounds impossible. I can assure you that not every life alteration that will happen to me over the course of WOE.BEGONE will be a good one. This is just the first of many games that I have played leading me to where I am now.

And I’m terrified that if I lose, that everything from that voicemail will return to my lived experiences.

This has been WOE.BEGONE. Next time: a new game, a mysterious contact, and a rekindled past. Thanks for playing.

[End theme plays.]