I Got Paid to Dress Up as a Ninja as Part of a Team-Building Exercise

With a new baby at home and a need for a little extra Christmas money, I jumped when the Go Game producers wrote to me recently about a job in New Orleans. Soon I was dressed as a ninja in the French Quarter.

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Jan 18 2015, 3:00pm

The author at work in the French Quarter

I laid in a hotel bed in New Orleans's French Quarter, the nightstand beside me littered with liquor bottles, pretending to be stoned. I pulled up the covers, donned my sunglasses, and turned on the TV. Soon, a small group of men walked in: uniformed Marines, there to recruit me into the military.

"No," I slurred, as planned. One of them pushed me harder. "No way, man, the military's not for me," I repeated. Despite their weak reasoning, I softened, and soon I'd promised them all I would join the Marines. They shouted victory, high-fived, then dashed out of the hotel room with the password I'd given them. Soon, another group of hulking, crew-cut young men entered, suggesting that I join the Marines.

This was not a surreal dream. It was my job. These Marines were playing the Go Game.

The Go Game is a sort of cellphone-based scavenger hunt designed to build team skills, mostly among office workers. "Bring us your over-competitive salesperson, your skeptical product manager, and stressed out director," says the game's website. "The Go Game will braid you all into a friendship bracelet of professional effectiveness that will be the envy of your professional peers."

The San Francisco–based company travels to conventions countrywide, and since its inception has hosted games for groups in Canada, Asia, Australia, Europe, and Mexico. A convention Mecca, New Orleans is a top market for the Go Game. It's also one of the last places anyone wants to be stuck learning to be a better corporate drone.

"We understand—team building can sometimes feel like a forced activity that makes people roll their eyes and wish they'd skipped out to play golf," the website says. "After ten years and over 10,000 games run, we have refined the art of engaging engineers, marketing teams, lawyers, and everything in between, turning them into Go Game enthusiasts."

With a new baby at home and in need of a little extra Christmas money, I jumped when the Go Game producers wrote to me recently about a job in New Orleans. Not long after, I found myself dressed as a ninja in the French Quarter.

On that day, I met Finnegan Kelly, the Go Game's co-founder at, coincidentally, Finnegan's French Quarter Pub at three in the afternoon. He handed me my cheap, thin ninja costume, and I dressed in the bathroom. Just enough of my face remained visible that anyone who knew me could recognize me immediately—a great possibility in New Orleans, which has the social dynamic of Sesame Street, but with more alcohol. "If it's OK with you," I told Finnegan when I came back out, "I'm going to do a shot of Jim Beam before I head onto the street looking like this."

"Whatever you need to get into character, drunken master."

As I downed the shot I realized, much to my relief, that I'd overlooked the extra piece to the face mask, which would further obscure my identity. Between that and my dark sunglasses, I felt much safer on the streets.

Finally, Finnegan then handed me a plastic lightsaber. My job was to "try to sort of hide" and wait until a group of participants discovered another lightsaber hidden in a newspaper box. At that point I would jump out and engage them in a duel that I was not allowed to win. As Finnegan explained all this, I tried to keep my mind focused on the new, warm jacket I planned to buy my daughter for Christmas. No way was Santa taking credit for that.

Finnegan then sent me down to Royal to stand near the corner grocery store, across from the giant statue of Jesus who lost his giant pinky in Katrina and where French Quarter maven Gypsy Lou Webb once famously sold her paintings. I grabbed a tallboy of Corona from the store en route to my post.

I "tried to sort of hide" by crouching down inside the entrance of a locked door. I set my beer can behind my foot, out of sight, to look more respectable but still, within five minutes, an angry white woman in her 30s stormed out of a nearby business and shouted at me to move along. I sprang up off the ground like an actual ninja and tried to explain to her that my job wouldn't allow me to move any further.

I didn't think I could possibly feel more uncomfortable than I already did, but then I began to notice that most people walked by me looking tense. I smiled to reassure them of my benevolence, but the ninja mask obscured my good intentions. People continued buzzing by me unusually fast while making a clear effort to avoid looking directly into my sunglasses, as if this small, accidental recognition might trigger some crazy response from the ninja. Only then did I realize how much bigotry and hatred real ninjas must face on a daily basis.

Cops walked by, scanning me. I took a step backward to retrieve my beer and sip it in the shadow of the doorway.

"NO!" the woman shouted, running back up to me. Her hands were a blur in front of my face. "NO! NO!"

I stepped toward her unthreateningly and in my calmest voice said, "Hey, listen for a second. I'm sorry, but let me explain: This is part of a corporate team building game for..."

"I am going to have you arrested!" she bellowed, eyeing my beer can. "STAY OUT OF MY DOORWAY!"

I did as told and tried not to shout back when I told her, "I'm sorry, but I can't leave. Like I tried to say, I am working."

About an hour into the job—not one of the teams had come by to fight me—I started to need a break from the banjo-driven music being played by a nearby busking group, and so I dipped out for a second to go use the restroom. Upon return, I rounded the corner to my contentious post to find the first group, six people whom I immediately lunged at and engaged in a lightsaber fight. Surprised, they screamed with delight.

Once they had slain me, they took pictures and left extremely happy. I'd made them happy. The Go Game had made them happy. I felt much better, and confidently leaned beside the forbidden doorway, sipping Corona on city property so as not to enrage that angry woman again.

With just one hour to go, I played the game, "Who is from New Orleans?" It's an easy game with just one rule: Whoever said hello to the masked ninja without flinching at all, they were clearly from here.

I spotted two actor friends of mine, Diana Shortez and Donald Lewis, strolling up Royal wearing elaborate Victorian costumes, waving hello to all the tourists. Clearly they were working a similar gig. But since their costumes were much, much nicer, I couldn't bring myself to flag them down.

Finally, the day's second group rounded the corner. We acted out our roles, and took a lot of photos together. They offered to buy me a drink, and left happy. The third group, though, didn't look to be having fun at all. Crouching in the forbidden doorway, I heard one women gripe, "This fucking game is cutting into our drinking time." I pounced on them, shouting a war cry, before finally dying dramatically on the sidewalk. And suddenly, they too were happy.

The street band finally stopped playing, packed up their old-timey shtick, and we ended up walking a couple silent blocks together, all of them looking sideways at me.

Back at Finnegan's Pub, Finnegan wrote me a check for $70—a $10 tip.

I decided to take Bourbon Street back to my car, and on the way watched a tall, handsome young guy scream at a government street worker, and then proceed to break the noses of several old men who tried to intervene. My mind, though, was on my money, and Christmas, and a big decision: Should I buy my daughter the Annie soundtrack she'd been singing for the last few weeks, or else just skip directly to buying her a clawhammer with which she could beat me to death. Which would be more painful?

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