When I tell people that I make games, their first question is “Cool, where do I download them?” and then I say “Well, I don’t do videogames these days. I make boardgames…” and so they ask “Why?”
Because technology is powerful but it can be disempowering and alienating.
Boardgames instead bring people together, in real life. At its core, a boardgame is a bunch of rules and roles that allow you to step out of your daily algorithms and play, explore, express yourself and learn together with other human beings.
Boardgames are the original social media.
Last year I started a game design residency at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, excited to dig out boardgames to hack from their vast collections. I quickly realised that almost none of them are at the V&A grand palace of South Kensington.
💭 How curious, where are all the games?
As I was studying those vintage games, one in particular caught my attention. It was a game that I played a lot as a kid.
It’s considered an educational game because it teaches you “recognition of matching form and colours, to develop quick thinking”.
But under the hood, the moral of the game, the behaviours it rewards are quite problematic, and revealing of the underlying values of our culture. Memory pits you against other players, and encourages you to hoard cards by exploiting their mistakes, while not taking risks and not sharing information.
I knew I wanted to hack Memory into a cooperative game but didn’t know quite how yet.
Then around that time my nonna Rina died.
She had struggled with dementia in her final years. We watched her memories dissolve, re-order and tangle themselves with one another. Trump yelling on TV would become “that awful guy from the next village”. It was sometimes painful, sometimes funny, often very strange.
After the funeral I found myself scrolling through pictures of her, and landed on this one of nonna and I playing Memory together, just a few years ago.
💭 Ah, I have to make a game about this!
I grabbed some blank cards and scribbled on them common family words like MUM, DAD and BROTHER and verbs that evoke childhood activities like PLAY, LEARN and TALK. Then I cut up a few sheets of tracing paper and covered them with the same words, but framed as questions.
My hack of Memory is about memory loss.
But we’re not competing with each other like in the original game. In this one all players work together to prevent memories from fading. How? By telling stories.
This is how it works. Each time you flip two cards, you say “I remember…” and share a memory which revolves around the words on those cards.
I called it Fading Memories because as soon as you share your story, it starts fading under layers of memory loss cards.
This was my way to process this experience, of watching nonna lose her ability to tell us the stories of her life, which used to bring her so much joy. Even when we were blatantly bored!
Once I had a rough prototype, it was time to invite friends of friends of friends, and even unsuspecting visitors, into the V&A Residency Studio to playtest the game. Sharing snippets from their past over bowls of strawberries, crackers and humous. Sketching dramatic scenes on my DIY chalkboard table.
That’s when the magic happens. Fading Memories connects people and gives us permission to open up. Turn after turn, everybody gets a fair chance to be heard, and is working together to build and maintain the collective memory.
Imagine, would you talk to someone you literally just met about your childhood? Yet I’ve watched people do just that while playing Fading Memories.
Next, we needed artwork! I’ve been working with Aimee (my partner in life and crime) to develop the visual language for Fading Memories.
Our challenge: how do you represent common words like mum or dad, which have super specific meanings for every person? Aimee produced abstract splashes of vibrant colours to evoke the emotional layer of our memories, without prescribing any particular image.
Below is a time-lapse video from one of our painting sessions. While I pretend not to know how to handle a brush, Aimee is doing the real work.
We played around with many fancy fonts and they all looked slick, but also soulless and impersonal. So I reluctantly tried my own handwriting, and it just worked. Well, it didn’t just work, as the time-lapse video below shows. It took a few hours to develop a style I wasn’t repulsed by.
I still find it hard to put myself in the work.
We need more cooperative games
Fading Memories is more than a deck of cards. For me, it’s one piece in a bigger puzzle.
I want people to discover that there’s more to games than bankrupting your fellow players, or wiping out alien armies. We live in an age of extreme individualism, tech addiction and epidemic loneliness, in which the incarnation of Mister Monopoly is the US president.
But we can make and play games that encourage collaboration, help us tackle tough questions and learn something new about each other.