Week 7: Lessons Learned and Small Talk Cracked

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Much happened this week, including a confusing and not-so-fun for me midterm presentation. BUT, it led to some reflection and reading that helped me crack the nut of small talk that’s been bothering me. So at least I got that out this thesis process!

Office Hours Notes
The week started with back-to-back office hours with experienced game designers, Greg Trefry and Jenny Lim. It was super helpful to sit and soak in the questions they asked. Here’s a quick recap for future reference:

What’s the overall tone and feeling?

  • If it’s a casual, social game, then trying playing it in the desired environment — like a bar.

  • Note the length of a round. For a social game, that might be 10-15 minutes.

  • What kinds of statements are made when someone pulls a power move? (Oh man! That’s a good one!! kinda thing)

  • Are there any natural rhythms that you observe and can tap into?

  • Earnest, obnoxious, or slightly subversive —> is there a theme to the content that gives people information about how they are suppose to behave?

Regarding playtesting:

  • Ask play testers what kinds of games they like to play

  • Try to play with as many different groups as possible, even folks who don’t really want to play

  • It’s okay for me to give out the rules vocally at first (especially while I’m trying to figure out what they are myself)

  • Try out as many mechanics as possible

Think about the narrative skin:

  • All of the visual clues (title, logo design, shapes of playing pieces, etc) that tell users how to behave or how they are in a game, e.g. chess pieces immediately indicate that the two sides are fighting each other

  • Think of the titles: Apples to Apples (comparison is implied) and Exploding Kittens (something crazy is about to happen to some baby cats)

  • Regarding an appropriate title for this game, think about what people say in response to a stupid pun…or dumb things that people sneak into conversation

  • Apples to Apples and Cards Against Humanity are the same game, but they have different “skins” —> choosing one of these will impact the tone and content of the topic questions and words (e.g. family fun vs subversive, super silly vs. more serious)

Play lots of games (or watch people play on Youtube and read up on the rules). These were mentioned:

  • Balderdash

  • Punderdome

  • Buffalo

  • Mary Flannigan

Practical tips regarding my game:

  • Simple is good; sometimes folks start off with overcomplicated rules

  • For casual games like this, maybe 2-3 rules max

  • It’s good to give folks lots of words so they don’t feel stuck with one they know (if they don’t know a word, then make it okay to swap it for a new word card)

  • When describing the game, it helps to compare it to parts of games that people might be familiar with already

  • Remember that game designing is like baking: you take a little from one game and little from other games and you mix it altogether in your own way

Midterm Presentation
With only five minutes of presentation time allotted, my approach was to give the general gist of the game without the specifics. I started with the importance of conversation in our lives and *thinly* linked it to how we might play with the rules of conversation within the frame of a game. There wasn’t enough time to play a round, so I delivered a quick setup, hoping that the audience for a brief moment would consider the challenge of answering the hypothetical (pictured below) with one of listed words in a nonchalant way. I posed possibilities for how this game might be shaped: for the joy of that kind of problem solving, to stimulate quality conversation, to practice listening skills, to learn new vocabulary, or to practice words in a new language. I took a hint from the advice list above and compared the gameplay with aspects of well-known games (like conversation icebreakers and a pinch of Balderdash—at least that’s what keeps coming up for people).

My immediate impression was that outside reviewers were confused and not necessarily convinced of the game’s “fun” potential. They suggested that I model the game turn for turn. They wanted to know how people would get caught and what would keep players from spouting off a flood of random words to hide their word(s) in the mix. There was a call for more structure to the game and strategies to preserve the flow of the conversation…buuut I like the awkwardness of calling someone out in the middle of a good flow. I remembered that we received very similar remarks from some of the outside critics who joined our final playtest in Collective Play last spring.

I was frustrated by the response. My friends and family dig the idea and repeatedly express interest in playing. So I did a lot of thinking, took a walk, read a bunch of essays from The Discourse Reader, and then it all started to click: this game might have different goals depending on the nature of the group playing. More on that in a moment.

In the essay, “On Face-Work: An Analysis of Ritual Elements in Social Interaction,” sociologist Erving Goffman frames conversation as a exchange that follows '“ground rules of social interaction.” Conversation requires a commitment by all participants to achieve consensus, of which a crucial aspect is working to maintain your self-esteem and credibility (saving face) as well as that of your recipient(s):

"Much of the activity occurring during an encounter can be understood as an effort on everyone’s part to get through the occasion and all the unanticipated and unintentional events that cast participants in an undesirable light, without disrupting the relationships of the participants (p. 309)”

My game directly pushes against this project of maintaining a sense of order in the interaction. By accepting an agenda to hide words in the conversation, players must consider their opponents’ comments with caution and suspicion without an outward display of those feelings. 

Digging deeper, Penelope Brown and Stephen C. Levinson, in their essay, “Politeness: Some Universals in Language Usage,” outline face-threatening acts and among those that “indicate (potentially) that the speaker does not care about the addressee’s feelings [and] wants” are “contradictions or disagreements [and] challenges (p.314).” I’d argue that this is what occurs when you call someone out for sneaking a word: you’re outright accusing another player of deception. But if you know the other players well enough, such that you trust them and you have some history of playing and suspending disbelief together, then this game poses a direct but inane contradiction to those secure feelings. And that’s the fun: in your sly conversational style, you’re still just pretending. And in this situation, maybe the title of the game, Gotcha!, makes perfect sense.

However, if you’re playing with strangers or new acquaintances, then you’ve yet to establish a history of shared experiences and closeness. Even within the frame of play, maybe it’s too uncomfortable and threatening to be constantly suspicious and on guard right away with someone new.

I had a hint of this myself when I played the game with a new friend at last week’s Playtest Thursday. We had already spent some time together; I playtested her game first. But even though she was sweet and generous to give me her time, I was a bit nervous. We didn’t get that far because the current digital version was too buggy, but now I realize how crucial those uncomfortable moments were for me to experience.

To connect it back to Collective Play, I spent 11 weeks with my fellow students playing all sorts of games and being vulnerable in unexpected ways. We were used to pretending with one another because we did it every week. Not so the case for the outside guests who visited our class.

So perhaps the midterm reviewers could not imagine themselves playing this game with folks in the room because they did not know them very well? I might be confused about the game and ask for more structure, too!

Now I understand why small talk is so important: it offers a way to get to know new people and build a sense of mutual understanding, connection, and maybe also, trust. We can all agree that weather is a shared experience and is probably the numero uno topic that comes to mind on the subject of small talk. Nikolas Coupland and Virpi Ylanne, in “Relational Frames in Weather Talk,” note that “it is striking how speakers design their comments about the weather to elicit evaluative consensus” and in fact:

“Sharing in weather talk…as illustrated in the three extracts [in this essay], can go well beyond consensual evaluation, toward intimacy. Through talking evaluatively about the weather, speaker can introduce details about their personal lives and feelings and explore those of their addressees (p. 354).”

Ohhh, well yeah. Of course! Now that the process has been described, it’s so obvious. Because the weather is a universal, shared experience, and it’s neutral, there’s a greater possibility that we can arrive at consensus relatively easy and along the way, reveal information about how it’s affecting us personally that also gives clues to our personality and worldview. If we choose to, of course, otherwise small talk “offers us mini-scripts to pass through [liminal spaces] in a non-threatening and socially acceptable way (p. 290).” (OMG, did I really spend seven weeks of the semester to get here?!)

So for strangers, the premise to play this game might be too threatening if the waters between them have not yet been tested. Maybe the Gotcha! title makes that process even more daunting…?. I suppose the next question is: is there a mode for this game that works for the “stranger audience?” One that allows people to build up some familiarity via low stakes means? Is it more attractive and advantageous for them to collaborate and work together instead of against each other? What would that look like?

Finally, I identified yet a third group of players with a separate set of conditions. In the context of our university, this would be our international students, for many of whom English is not their native language. In my conversations with some of them, this game has been received well as an opportunity to practice new words, especially with others who have the same agenda.

I’m hard pressed to see these three groups mix together to play this game.

And so what’s next? If' I’m to test again at the Game Center for a “stranger audience,” then I need to rethink my approach, the rules, the title… and perhaps develop this in parallel for the “friends crowd”…? Hmmm…