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.