A few weeks ago, Tobias Wrigstad spoke at ITU and delivered a fascinating (and provocative!) lecture on intentionally uncomfortable role-playing games. The lecture was titled: “This will sting a little: Why worthwhile and meaningful does not imply fun”
It’s most certainly worth viewing! Here’s the recording, brought to you by the good people at ITU’s Interaction and Learning Unit:
Tobias, a programming language theorist by day, moonlights as a gamewright (and co-founder) in the Jeepform tradition of role-play. Jeepform is a uniquely Nordic school of experimental “rules-light” role-play. Jeepers maintain that “the meta play is as important to the game as the actual play” and that “everyday drama is more interesting than epic drama.”
The “games” that Tobias discusses in the lecture are quite… intense. One particularly interesting example is Frederik Berg Østergaard’s Fat Man Down, one of the most “socially abusive” games I know of. In Fat Man Down, the fattest male player in the room (yes, for real) role-plays a series of semi-fictional vignettes in which the other players must torment him about his weight. The stated design goal is to trigger “bleed” – when a player’s “thoughts and feelings are inﬂuenced by those of her character, or vice versa.” Participation is voluntary, of course, but to keep things even more tense, the gamemaster lies to both the fat man and to the other players in several twisted ways. Watch the lecture for some gripping gameplay anecdotes, and for an idea of why someone might voluntarily subject themselves to such a game.
For better or for worse, it’s difficult to think of any computer games that “sting” as much as the more controversial Jeepform games. Compared to an insane game like Fat Man Down, the canon of so-called “critical” computer games just doesn’t feel so “radical” anymore. And after hearing some of Tobias’ stories, it’s not clear to me that truly “radical” game design is even a desirable goal for indie game devs.
Admittedly, we might reasonably question whether the term “game” even applies to Jeepform role-playing scenarios, but I think such a definitional debate misses the point. Game designers stand to learn a lot from experimental role-play, at least where player-player interactions are concerned.
Jeepform games do have a limited reach, to say the least. But Tobias would be the first person to admit that his games are designed for a very particular audience (this also explains why many of his rulesets are not available publicly). In that sense, the very specific preconditions of his games (e.g. that the players go in with the “right attitude”) is precisely what gives them their power.
Don’t worry, though, there also exist some more accessible, overtly enjoyable Jeepform scenarios. One of my favorites, Tobias’ own The Upgrade!, satirizes reality television shows like Temptation Island. Each player is assigned to play a particular cast member, but the relationship between player and character turns out to be many-to-one. Any player can, at any time, interrupt the main narrative to improvise an aside starring any character of their choosing – even one assigned to another player! This chaos inevitably leads to a kind of one-upsmanship where players “spike” each others’ characters’ with juicy and hilarious backstories, personality quirks, destinies, etc. Miguel and I run the game in our Analog Game Design class. It’s a blast!