Work proceeds. Play proceeds.

Work proceeds, slowly, on the “imaginary games book”. I was aiming for a word count of around 50,000, and I currently have about 43,000.  I have about 75 game writeups in mixed states of completion — more complete than not, but always ready to take a higher polish, and there’s the rub.

Why has it taken me years to write 50,000 words (fewer), the length of a short novel? First, I’m a slow writer. To quote Thomas Mann, “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”

Second, it’s slow subject matter. To say I’ve been writing 75 notional reviews of imaginary games for the past couple of years is to say I’ve been halfway designing 75 games during that time. The term of art is design fiction — in this case, game design fiction.

Third, it’s the slow subject matter multiplied by my slow writing. They’re not merely additive.

The parallel world is called Counter now, not Glob or Lila or Loka.  The little Roman penal colony that started all the trouble on Counter is called Victoriæ, home of the Caïssan Mysteries, and if you don’t know who Caïssa is, I politely suggest you look Her up.

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Outtake from my “game design fiction” book in progress

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The following is an outtake from the book I’m currently writing, The Best of Games.fun: Reviews, State-of-the-Articles, and Other Information to Get You Through Your Gaming Day on Planet Glob.

Glob (pronounced “globe”) is a parallel Earth very like ours, but whose people are more neotenous, and therefore more curious, more neophilic, and more playful than the humans on our planet. They love games, especially new and novel ones. The book is essentially design fiction, specifically game design fiction, with each chapter of 50 being a 1000-word “review” of an original imaginary game. That is, I’m making the games up, not writing about games other people have already devised, such as Calvinball or Quidditch.

Games.fun is the imaginary Global website from which the reviews come, like BoardGameGeek in the real world. (Yes, the Globals love games so much, they have their own top-level domain for them. They have no .biz, though.)

Please understand that what follows is a never-to-be-finished draft. It was one of the earlier fake reviews in my book. I’m jettisoning it for three reasons:

  1. It has proven offensive to some people in workshops, who don’t understand I’m satirizing the DSM, the main psychiatric diagnostic manual in the United States, not people who are mentally ill. No other entry in the book has proven this offensive to anyone else, nor do I wish any to.
  2. My sister Pamela, who is a psychotherapist, has told me that therapists in training really do play a version of this game in grad school.
  3. The National Institute for Mental Health announced a few days ago that they’re ditching the DSM and starting over, just as the DSM-V is about to be published, too. Mocking the DSM is now shooting a dead horse in a barrel.

I hope that my book’s loss in word count is your gain, enabling you to read this would-be excerpt well ahead of the book’s publication and get an idea of what I’m aiming at. It’s not all about psychiatry. There are four-dimensional video game systems, roleplaying games based on thought experiments, game design reality shows, and more.

DSM Charades

Publication Date: February 2008
Authors: uncredited
Publisher: Boxful o’ Nuts
Format: boxed party game

In this party game, one player picks a random disorder out of the official psychiatric handbook Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (currently in its DSM-VIII edition), pretends to have the disorder, and tries to convey it in conversation to teammates, who are supposed to be a panel of psychiatrists who must “diagnose” the player during a timed game round. The patient must vehemently deny she has the illness, but the psychiatric panel gets one final crack at diagnosing the disorder at the end of the round, during which the patient must tell the truth. All else being equal, at the end of the game, the team with the most correct diagnoses wins the game.

A word about safety: whether this is sensationalistic or not, you can decide, but the game comes with a warning in large, nasty letters on the side: WARNING! DO NOT PLAY IN OR NEAR MENTAL HOSPITALS! The back of the box claims that unspecified persons have, while playing the game in the presence of psychiatrists, been mistakenly diagnosed as having the disorder they were only pretending to have, and been institutionalized.

There is reason to believe this might be true. As the game rules explain,

In the 1973 Rosenhan experiment, psychologist David Rosenhan and eight healthy confederates, or “pseudopatients,” made appointments at mental hospitals, claiming to hear voices saying variously, “empty,” “hollow,” or “thud,” but displaying no other symptoms. All of them were admitted and diagnosed with psychoses, mostly schizophrenia. Their average stay in the hospital was 19 days, with the longest being 52 days.

Nevertheless, DSM-C plays mental illness for laughs. In fact, one of the diagnostic categories on the game’s cards is “pseudopatient.” If you draw this card, you will find yourself in the bizarre (simulated) existential position of having to convince your teammates that you are only pretending to have a mental illness you are only pretending to have. Depending on the difficulty of the disorder you are simulating as a pseudopatient (bipolar, paranoid schizophrenic, catatonic, etc.), if you get this across, you may score anywhere from double points to an automatic win.

At a recent game night, my friend Jim was pretending to have a mysterious disorder for the benefit of his “psychiatric board,” his teammates me, my wife Lonnie, and our friend Tim. Lonnie and her sister Lois were regretfully (jeeringly) placed on opposite teams; they are never allowed on the same team during word or party games, because they know each other far too well.

The other side is permitted to ask questions they hope will lead the diagnosis in the wrong direction, except for opposing team members the patient has enlisted as actors in his own charade–obviously, it would be hard to use your own “psychiatrists” as “family members” and so on–so, a nice touch by the game authors, I thought.

Jim had brought Lois into this scenario as his child. He felt her forehead and asked “Honey,” (we all snickered; Jim is past child-rearing age and has never addressed anyone as “honey” in our company), “would you like something to drink?” Lois nodded yes, so Jim went off to our host Anton’s kitchen, where another guest had left a rack of soft drinks. Suddenly, there was a crash, and a couple of players leapt up. “Jim? Are you OK?” I called.

“I’m fine. I’m just getting some soda. Don’t mind me,” he said. More crashes. Breaking glass?

“Jim?” But Jim was already emerging into the living room bearing two glasses. He visibly engaged in an elaborate deliberation worthy of a Bond villain or Vizzini in The Princess Bride, scrutinizing invisible marks on the glasses, before he handed over one drink to his “daughter” Lois. She drank. “There, do you feel any better, honey?”

Lois had already seen Jim’s card and knew what disorder he was supposed to have, so she said, “No, Mom,” (snickers all around), “I feel worse. I feel like my stomach is burning.”

“Well, we’d better get you to the hospital then.” And so Jim did, where he protested at great length that he wasn’t the “sick one,” his daughter was.

The timer went off, but we had seen enough. In short order, the psychiatric board came to the conclusion that Jim was suffering from Münchausen syndrome by proxy, and poisoning his daughter in an attempt to get attention. (Two of us had also just seen The Sixth Sense.) Jim told us we were correct, so our team scored one point, and we kept the card with the diagnosis on it to track our score (otherwise, it would have gone to our opponents).

It may seem simple enough (and it is fun), especially if you’ve had any psychological training, but I’ve been told by friends who are psychiatric residents that at truly high levels of play, the game can become not only riotously funny, but also eerie, even scary. Ah, but they’re violating the warning: DO NOT PLAY IN OR NEAR MENTAL HOSPITALS!

7 July 2013: Note that the planet Glob has been renamed to Loka.