This past semester, I took a class in Player Studies, where one of the assignments was to study one particular player and then design a game specifically for them. When I was given this assignment, I thought it would be especially fun to use another game designer as my test subject. I chose to work with the renowned Pippin Barr, not only because I’ve admired his work for a long time, but also because he happens to work in the same game lab as me and was therefore easily accessible.
What I found when playing games with Pippin was that there was a difference between the games that he designs versus the games he enjoys playing. Pippin’s design style is short, to the point, and “jokey”, with a low-fi aesthetic; he is perhaps best known for adapting the works of contemporary artist Marina Abramović into games, which really says it all. The games he enjoys playing, on the other hand, range from masocore (e.g. Terry Cavanagh‘s work) to lushly-rendered exploratory “walking simulator” games (e.g. everything by The Chinese Room). Another game we ended up playing together was chess, which we both played when we were younger, then stopped — though Pippin did take it up again recently, via play-by-mail with a long-distance friend. While we were playing, and as he was about to win, he uttered the following phrase:
“I’m not very good at winning games… actually, I guess I’m not very good at games at all.”
This both intrigued and inspired me. What is it about winning games that would make someone uncomfortable? Moreover, how can I, as a designer, enhance this discomfort? In contrast to the idea of a masocore game that is so difficult that constantly losing is part of the fun, what if the game were ridiculously easy, and the accolades you got for winning then felt completely and utterly meaningless? Moreover, what if the way to play and win the game was to be a complete, utter sociopath?
The result was that I made a game called CHESS FOR MEN.
CHESS FOR MEN is a blatantly hypermasculine version of chess wherein the player character’s pieces are replaced with a lone white man with a gun whose only means of control is to shoot. The computer-controlled chess pieces are, of course, completely defenceless — they can slowly back away from the man with a gun, but cannot fight back or escape entirely. This, essentially, creates an asymmetric, unfair chess game with all of its cerebral, strategic aspects completely removed, replacing it instead with a game mechanic that Pippin has explicitly said that he finds offputting and boring. And indeed, there is no way to lose this game; you can only win. Indeed, you can’t even exit out of the “You Win” screen unless you reload the browser window.
To highlight the game’s alpha-maleness, I invoked a faux-AAA aesthetic in the graphics and sounds. Art assets are taken from public domain photos and filtered into an almost-monochromatic brown. The background music is a glitchy slowed-down heavy metal sample with the bass enhanced. Controls are the first-person shooter standard of WASD to move and clicking to fire.1 As you play the game, the screen fills up with blood splatters that eventually become so pronounced that they obscure the UI. It’s deliberately ugly on purpose.
To those versed in intersectional feminism, being privileged in society, whether through whiteness, maleness, class, physical ability, or any other attribute, is the ultimate “easy mode” in life, an idea popularized by John Scalzi in his blog post, “Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is”. While Pippin is a feminist ally, the fact that he is in fact a straight white man makes him a beneficiary of privilege in this sense. This sense of undeserved victory in the real world is thus highlighted by the undeserved victory in the fiction of the game.
Another aspect of chess I have removed is the social experience of playing with another person, which is something that Pippin highly values. You cannot play CHESS FOR MEN with a friend, though you can allow them to spectate, or watch them play. In this sense, the social experience is changed to that of sharing a joke, rather than challenging one another to a battle of wits.
Which brings me to the fact that this game is, in fact, a joke. It’s meant to be funny and teasing. The question is, did it work as a joke? After all, when I sat Pippin in front of the game and showed him the title screen, he didn’t laugh right away like I hoped he would, instead looking a bit puzzled as he processed what, exactly, was going on.
Once Pippin moved past the title screen, though, and saw the gun pointed at the chess pieces accompanied by the heavy metal music loop, he knew exactly what was happening. He responded by adamantly refusing to shoot the chess pieces, expressing pity for them. He observed that the pieces would move away from the gun, and tried pushing them off the screen, but they wouldn’t move off of the chess board. He tried to fire the gun away from the pieces in an attempt to startle them, but it didn’t have any effect. Finally, when it became clear that there wouldn’t be an alternative way to end the game, Pippin relented and did what the game “wanted” him to do, and shot the chess pieces. Once the unskippable “YOU WIN” screen appeared, I wryly remarked, “As you see, I went for the adversarial design option,” to which he replied “I figured.”
As it turns out, my design decision was rather timely in that it has a similar rhetoric to Pippin’s recent “Let’s Play: Shooting” series. This, of course, was completely by accident, as I had designed the game before I found out about this project.
So, there you have it. The manliest chess game ever made, and now you can enjoy it also!
- Initially, I had experimented with having the mouse control player movement, but the effect made me somewhat nauseated, which was absolutely not what I wanted to convey with this particular game design. Whether I use this control scheme in a certain other game in which I deliberately want to convey a sense of disorientation… well, that’s another matter entirely.