The perils of designing too far down the rabbit hole.
I got into a very nasty argument in a pub whilst playing Pimp: The Backhanding a few years back. For the minute just accept that I owned a copy of that game. The consideration I put into buying it was minimal – it looked like fun. We actually started playing this in a pub in Watford while waiting for the next round of a Vampire: the Eternal Struggle tournament. I realised after the bouncer nearly threw us out of the pub that I should have put a lot more consideration into that purchase.
Quick aside: V:TES is a black vortex of a game. you can only demo it to the most hardcore of gamers. It’s a product which, in truth, should never have been produced but clings on to a fringe element that revel in the dark, complex and obscure. I intend to write more about the ‘social footprint’ of games, something which I’ve looked at before in forum posts elsewhere and is written up on this post. Suffice it to say V:TES appeals only to a sub-set of a sub-set of gamers who are themselves not ‘normal’ folk.
Short version: I was playing a socially questionable game in a public venue with folk who are unusually socially removed.
Something bad happened
We were playing a pick up game of “Pimp” whilst waiting for the next round. There were two women on the table next to ours who got a bit uncomfortable with the game’s ideas. They asked the barman to stop us playing. The barman’s first reaction was simply: ‘It’s a dumb card game’. But he came over and listened to us playing, eventually he turned a bit white. Quickly realising than things were about to go downhill (and given that we didn’t really want him looking at the content of the V:TES cards too much either), we tried to laugh it off and pack-up sharpish.
Unfortunately one of the group…was a fool.
He got a bit shouty, trying to defend our freedoms. Then the women got a bit shouty back trying to defend their freedoms all of which ended with the barman fetching a bouncer. Luckily, the judge of the V:TES tournament, a damned star in retrospect, brought the women drinks and the shouty fool, to his credit, calmed down and apologised after being given a stern talking to outside the pub by the bouncer and a few of the other V:TES players.
There are a couple of ways you can look at the situation. On the one hand it’s a pub and gamers have a right to free speech and it’s harmless, overall: it’s a card game and the players were savvy enough to know where a game ends and real life begins. On the other hand, the women have the right to a quite drink without the table next to them discussing the best way to “smack ho’s” and whom should get hit with a deep-fat fryer.
It was a tipping point for me. It worked out fine in the end and I sold the game a few years later but never played it after that. I started considering what it was I got out of playing games. It’s all very well wanting to evangelise gaming, but you have to meet people half way sometimes – no one is going to appreciate every aspect of an experience in the way you do.
What is acceptable for some people is not as acceptable for others. That’s important if you are designing from a certain perspective, and given that you are reading this, you probably are. Pimp was designed by members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Society at Virginia Tech University as a backlash against Magic: the Gathering. It’s full of in jokes and pictures and references of the people in that group at the time. They had a wiki of their site for a long time but the links are dead now, so you’ll just have to trust me. It’s a game designed for a group of friends to play that got printed (for whatever reason) and released to a wider audience. A lot of games start out that way and these guys sold it to a publisher, so credit due for that, however it’s a lot of work for an in-joke game.
I’m a big proponent of designing games to see what happens – the process is fun, but perhaps a little caution is warranted before submitting it to a publisher. It’s another reason why blind playtesting (and heeding the results) is such a useful tool. Think how people are likely to play your game. Think how others are likely to see your game. Makes sure that the design is as inclusive as you need it to be.