The Crosswalk Game

Personal, Travel

When I travel to a city and have time to walk around, I really love to try to understand the attitude of the city and the people who live there. Of course I can never really learn that from just vacationing or working there for a few days, but I always try to internalize the feeling a bit and get my own interpretation.

I have a few systems to determine how well I’m doing. For example, it’s a good sign when most of the time the store checkout person doesn’t just assume English even though I’ve got American written all over me. Another one is that when I’m in a tourist-heavy area, I’m ignored by the people passing out flyers and trying to get us to go to their events. That trick is mostly down to walking style and confidence matching the locals. It usually takes me 2-3 days to get it down enough that I’m totally ignored by tourist-seekers. I really love that stage, because I can walk around and be ignored by everyone. I can make eye-contact and smile at those people instead of trying to avoid them so I don’t have to say no ten times to get away.

There are all kinds of things to learn about walking in a city and using its local transit preferences to blend in. Like when and where it’s acceptable to jay-walk, how to react to the various bumps and blockings that happen naturally, both to you and by you, etc. Every city has different flavors of these things. One of my favorites though, is getting good at the crosswalk game for a city.

Not familiar with the crosswalk game? Well, I don’t know that it’s a thing most people think about or talk about, but we all know it I think. I’ll try to walk you through it (pun intended), then give an example of it gone wrong. 

What is the Crosswalk Game?

Imagine yourself at a street corner waiting for that beautiful green walking stick-figure to appear. You’re at the front of a moderately sized crowd, 5-10 people maybe. Really try to picture it. Any city corner you want. How many cars are driving by? Are they getting backed up? Is there a crowd of people on the other side? Are there cars parked along the street blocking your view of traffic a little? You’re going somewhere. You’re not in a hurry, but you want to cross this street.

Imagine you’re the first one to step out, just before you think the walking sign will flip to green. Two other people start to step out too because you started. SURPRISE CAR! You all take a little step back and give each other little side-glances but don’t really want to acknowledge your mistake. Two seconds later the light finally switches and you walk quickly to get away from that group by the next corner.

I hate that one.

Same situation again. You step out right before you think it’ll turn green, but nobody steps out with you. There are no cars coming so it is actually safe. You’re half-way through the street when the light finally switches and then everyone else starts coming in unison. You see an older person on the other side of the street slowly shaking their head at you.


Depending on the street, the time of day, the size of the group, the type of people there, this can be not a big deal, nobody notices really, or you’ll get a few eye-rolls for being an impatient american. I hate being the only one crossing on a still-red walking light, I feel silly. Others own it and it’s fine.

One more. Wait, two more, I can’t help myself.

You’re back at the front; cars are zipping by. You get a text of a meme that you like but wish you didn’t because it’s so ridiculous and you can’t decide whether to text “Lol” or just ignore it. The light turns and you’re still considering your life choices as the person behind you starts to jostle around you, annoyed at the kids these days. You’re startled about half-way through being passed, and start going with a quick shuffle. Now the spacing is off a bit too. You can feel the too-close pressure along your arm of the person who had been passing you. You’re annoyed that they’re still so close, but don’t want to look at them because it’s your fault. One of you has to change your speed to separate, but you’re both annoyed with each other so now we have to see who can out-stubborn the other one. You’re bumped apart by someone coming the other way who is also annoyed that these two people weren’t watching where they’re going and making room. It’s over; you both lost. The only positive is that you didn’t have to make a decision about that meme.

Take a break, that one was rough.

You’re at the front. Poised. You just saw the other traffic light flip red and you know you’ll get to go soon. The last car goes by and it’s going to switch in just a split second. You know you can go, but you’d be at your second step or so when the light actually turns green for you. You assess the crowd and determine the consensus is that we will all wait for it to explicitly be green because there are a few kids holding their parents’ hands. Someone else takes the step and the whole crowd follows as if conducted. You recognize, deep within: that was a perfect crossing for the group. Your soul rejoices in the perfection, but the feeling is spoiled a bit by that little bundle of jealousy that you knew it was time but didn’t act.

That tiny jealousy is why I call it the crosswalk game. There are consequences for mistakes, and satisfaction for good performance. Every single instance of the crosswalk game has a unique set of context that determines what’s good, bad, enviable, or just nothing.

When I’m consciously playing the game, I get the most satisfaction from going with someone else on a first step. I’m always determined to get where I’m going, so want to get walking as soon as I can. But I don’t like being out front of the crowd or the only one crossing. Conundrum. For me then, a perfect performance is stepping out within half a step as someone else. That gives the crowd lots of momentum and everyone moves without me having to be too far in front and self-conscience. Just like avoiding tourist offerings, after a few days I make very few mistakes in the game, and after a few more days I can do it by feeling instead of more consciously.

Each of us probably have different preferences depending on context and mood. Maybe when you’re going somewhere you like to get to the front and push the boundaries a bit, but when you’re just walking around you like to be in the middle and let the crowd take you.

The Game Gone Wrong

Yes, the game can go wrong, and not just like the awkward ones I mentioned or that someone could get hurt stepping out early. So, I was coming out of the subway to go to a soccer match. It was only my second day in town, and my crosswalk game wasn’t great, plus this was an event crowd, which affects how the game works since usually everyone stays together instead of splitting all directions each intersection.

When I stepped out to street level, I was in the front of a crowd coming up the stairs. There was a group a little in front of me to the right. We all hesitated a bit to assess which direction to go then I and this group started in the same direction. I wasn’t that confident in my direction, I’d never been there, but there seemed to be a lot of agreement in the group and there was another group of about 4-5 ahead of us going that way too. You can see where this is going now, but imma keep going because it’s funny to me.

Because I don’t like being in front, I was trailing the group to the right by just a little bit even though our groups had merged. We had maybe 20-25 people, plus another 15 or so half a block behind us. Nobody was really acting confident, but I was following them and so were lots of others.

We got to an intersection and had to wait. I was pressed up next to those I was following as the crowd flattened along the crossing. I watched them a little because I wanted to make sure to not step out before them to make it clear I’m following them. They were discussing among themselves with some hesitancy I think, but they looked up with confidence all the sudden and I thought the light had changed and they were going to step. So I took a half-step to be just behind them.

Wrong. I took the first step.

When you’re tall, sometimes people a bit farther back cue off you as well. So my whole area followed immediately and without hesitation. I was pushed out front for about half the crossing. I made it go slow to let those I was following get back ahead and they looked much more confident now.

I think that was the moment gone wrong. When I stepped out and so many came with me at once I think the cycle of the crowd was completed and everyone was convinced they were following someone who knew for sure where they’re going. There were no phones out for maps, just trust in the system of the crowd.

After about 5 blocks you could feel some hesitation in the crowd and the group behind us had caught up. Eventually a person from the group I was following turned and asked me where the stadium is. It was a funny moment when we were looking into each others eyes and together realized we’d been following each other. A second later when someone with their nose in their phone pointed an unexpected direction and said it was 1.2 km that way, we all knew we’d just walked a whole kilometer in the wrong direction together. And I recognized my first step had caused the hesitancy to disappear those many blocks ago.

Twist! This is where things actually went very good!! (yes, good, not well) Y’all didn’t know you’d be getting a parable, neither did I, but here we are. You know what happened as the recognition of what had happened broke across the crowd of now 30+ people? Pure happiness and enjoyment together as a group that we’d all done the same funny thing. Seriously, it was really kind of a beautiful moment. It was as if we all had this exact thought: “That’s annoying, but come on y’all, that’s super funny, let’s rejoice in our random gathering and walk back cheerfully!” Because that’s what happened. In like 4-5 different languages we all pointed around and joked about how we were just following various groups and so on. Most of us couldn’t understand what the others said, but we all understood the agreement to love the moment we had together. That stuck with us as we all walked back together with much more interaction between groups.

That’s it, that’s the end.

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