The flip side of playing fun games

That dreaded moment

Christmas Day. I’m sitting around a long table with a tray of panettone in the middle, sipping on yet another caffè.

“Matteo! Shall we play your game?” shouts mamma from the other end of the table. “Ahmm, yesss…” I say with a smile that tries to cover the fear.

It’s not just that I’m about to show my entire family a thing I made, feeling like a little kid about to present a bunch of grown-ups with his crayon drawing.

This is a game that revolves around people talking about personal memories, which I’m not quite comfortable doing with my family. I guess you can relate.

AND it was inspired by nonna Rina, mamma’s own mamma, who left us just a few months before. It’s our first Christmas without her.

But I’m determined to leave that pile of concerns aside, and focus on how it was mamma who asked us to play. “Look, she’s proud of us!” says my inner child.

The game is Fading Memories, or rather Memorie Sfumate

Papàmamma and my dear friend Giulia helped me iron out all the nuances that could otherwise get lost in translation. It was a lot of fun to reskin this game in what felt like its native language, ahead of the Xmas break. But now they could actually play it, and I was quite nervous.

As the sun disappeared behind the snow-capped peaks, we started opening up, card after card. Each story we shared was vetted, embellished and corrected by nonna Dora (97).

“No, you sat with me in the back of the car, as we drove to Rina’s village, and you wouldn’t stop chatting until we arrived. It was a pleasure listening to you, even if what you said didn’t make much sense.” Thanks nonna.

There were plenty of warm and light-hearted moments, sweet memories perhaps we wouldn’t have shared, if it weren’t for the cards prompting each one of us to break the silence and share something meaningful. “Hey, we’re not just gossiping and chit-chatting today!”

Many people who played Fading Memories with their own family and friends also told me how lovely it was to unearth old memories over this game.

But that’s not the whole picture.

Flipping the tough cards

There were also moments when the cards triggered a memory we didn’t feel comfortable sharing. The words on those cards are all about family, and paraphrasing Emily Fletcher your family installed all the buttons that trigger you. For you it may be DAD, or EAT, or any other seemingly innocuous word.

And what do you do when everyone is waiting for you to tell them something cheerful, but all that comes up is painful? What do you do with that knot in your throat? What do you do when the game is not quite fun?

I believe games don’t always have to be fun, in the mainstream sense of divertimento, aka distraction. Just like other art forms tackle all types of themes, why should games only facilitate fun? This is not to say I make games to kill the joy of playing. Far from that, I try to create social interfaces that let people explore the full range of human emotions.

Fading Memories was born out of grief, and the realisation that we are our memories, and once we’re gone our stories may go with us, unless we share them.

Not all memories are happy memories though. And it’s ok to feel like you don’t want to share them. That’s baked into the Fading Memories rules: on your turn, if the words on the cards prompt a memory you feel uncomfortable with sharing, just say “pass” and your turn is over. No questions asked. No penalty.

But what if after passing the turn you didn’t want to let those words pass?

Maybe those triggering words are a sign. Pointing to something inside you that wants to be seen, heard and accepted. Something you could let out when you’re not playing this game with other people.

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When I was 12 I told my parents I wanted to learn how to play the piano...

Morning Memories pages

January is the perfect time for hibernation, at least in the slice of the Northern Hemisphere where I have spent my life so far. It’s the time to be fallow, to rest and recover. Yet we seem to have forgotten it, drowned in to-do lists and new year resolutions.

Last month I had the privilege of not having to show up to work every morning. After freaking out for a few days, I decided to try and hack Fading Memories with a practice called morning pages. I don’t know what the conventional understanding of it is, and I didn’t google it for you :) I think it’s about “writing for X minutes, or up to Y pages, first thing in the morning”.

I bet a big question may have popped into your head.

Write about what?

It can be tricky to face a blank page and “just” write whatever comes to your mind, however convinced you are of its healing potential. That’s when the Fading Memories cards can work as prompts.

Fading Memories solitaire. Flip two (or more) cards and instead of telling other players what comes up, write it down in your journal. This is a small trick to get started, to jump past the “what should I write about” obstacle.

But once I settled on a memory, I would still get bogged down with how to write about it, which angle to frame it, how to turn disjointed past events into a memorable story. I was trying to edit memories, reinterpret them, make them more palatable to my current taste and worldview. And then my source would shut up.

So here’s the real trick

I realised those memories don’t belong to me, as in my current self. There is a kid inside who’s trying to tell me his memories. My role is to interview him. Let him talk, while I write everything down, sometimes asking questions like “what did they say?” or “how did it feel?” and “when was that?”

Seeing myself as the interviewer has been incredibly helpful. Old memories began to flow out of my head and into the pages, every morning.

I’m trying to refrain from interpreting what comes out as I’m writing. I’m also aware that to a certain extent this is impossible because it is ultimately the current me who is deciding what to write and how, but the interviewer trick makes me conscious of that, and helps me stick to what I remember. Digging and documenting rather than making stuff up.

And I’ve been learning a lot about myself, how that little kid is still running the show in many situations, especially those in which he feels uncomfortable. I imagine sitting down next to him, while we both look ahead and dangle our legs in front of a vast empty space. Then when he’s finished, I say thank you, reassure him we’re safe, and things will turn out alright.

Your turn now?

Do you sense that inside you there’s a child, or a teenager, or many little people of various ages, who want to be heard?

Why not have a chat with them and jot down what they tell you?

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