At IndieCade I had a chance to play Elizabeth Shoemaker Sampat’s Deadbolt.

It’s a game about the truth: specifically, saying something true about yourself or about someone else in the circle. It’s not a role-playing game, because you are not telling a story or performing a character. The whole point is to speak from your own experience. The rules are simple: you have three rounds, and each round you say something truthful to someone else in the circle, based on prompts you’ve drawn from an envelope. The prompts control both what you say and to whom you say it. (There’s a more detailed description of the rules over here, together with pictures of the artifacts of play, which is helpful because I don’t have any pictures and probably wouldn’t have thought to take any.) If your listener is moved by what you have said, they can give you a token to represent this.

If this sounds trivial or easy, it’s not, and that’s because the prompts ask for things like “describe something you deeply regret doing”. If you’re going to play in good faith, you have to be willing to answer that kind of question honestly.

At the same time, the rules are written with a good deal of sensitivity. You have to answer the questions; you’re not told how much detail you have to go into, or what words you have to use, or how long you have to speak. You don’t even have to say what the question is that you’re answering. Sometimes people answered with a paragraph of explanation, and sometimes with a single phrase.

It’s not a game that brutalizes boundaries or forces confessions you’re not up for. On the contrary, it’s an opportunity (or at least, I found it to be one). The rules create a space in which it is permissible to speak about things that might normally be kept silent. I’m often conscious that telling someone something personal not only makes me vulnerable — that’s my risk to take — but also can be demanding on them, can seem like a bid for sympathy or reassurance; can even be an act of manipulation in the wrong context. But in Deadbolt your fellow players have consented to this and indicated their willingness to hear what you have to say.

Despite the description I just gave, the dominant sound of Deadbolt was silence. Someone would draw a prompt about what to say, and another prompt about whom to speak to. Then they’d sit there. Thinking; gathering courage. Sometimes they teared up. Then they would speak. This drove home to me something I’ve often observed in intense conversations in life, that sometimes getting to a hard truth is about being willing to wait, as a listener; willing to shut up not only when the other person is speaking, but when they’re getting ready to speak, when they’re still gathering their thoughts and finding courage. One of the rules of Deadbolt is that no one else can speak during your round, and that’s really important, because it creates the silence that comes before the truth.

I was a tiny bit apprehensive about playing something like this in a circle that included some people I didn’t know. Even tabletop storygames create vulnerability in a way that makes it hugely important to trust the rest of the group. But the rules of Deadbolt are sufficiently constrained that they make this easier. Also, the people I was playing with were awesome.

It was intense. I’m really glad I got a chance to play.

19 thoughts on “Deadbolt”

  1. Iiiinteresting. There are precedents for storygame-as-therapy – a whole bunch of Monopoly-like games from the 80s or thereabouts which aim to gamify group therapy or, yet more cringe-inducingly, Christian witness. And Penny For My Thoughts, obvs. But the existence of one that is a) explicitly about yourself and b) is not astonishingly weaksauce is pretty cool.

  2. Is this just something she orchestrates personally, or is it packaged for purchase? Perhaps it’s still being worked out…

    1. She runs it personally. I am not sure there is any intention to sell it. I can understand why she might not feel that was a good idea, but we didn’t have a conversation about this.

      1. I actually really love experiences like this, and would like to experience it. Hope she does release it.

  3. I’ve known several people that found playing role-playing games therapeutic even though they were run with no such intention. The experience of speaking and acting in a character other than your own can be very powerful.

    I’ve also taken part in drama therapy run by professional therapists which can take things to a much higher level.

    IMO games that have a therapeutic intent sensitive leadership because people can be taken to places they’re not yet ready to deal with. The designer might well be wise not to relases this game.

  4. This sounds more like group therapy, and less a fun tabletop game you want to crack out of the bookshelf after dinner with friends. I could see it being a really good ice-breaker in the right setting, say, for actual support groups that are intending to go on to talk about personal things. But like you observed, I don’t know how truthful I want to be about “things I deeply regret” with people I don’t know very well. Of course you get to pick what you’re talking about…but long bouts of silence and potential “tearing up” doesn’t quite sound like a fun evening.

    1. It’s definitely something other than fun. I wouldn’t precisely call it group therapy either, but it is a game that is being used for a purpose other than the usual purpose of games.

      1. I often look for experiences where I come away learning something about myself or the world. This is why I greatly prefer a game like Shock over something like Fiasco. If our local story group is any indication, though, I’m in the minority on this. Deadbolt sounds intriguing because it seems I would come away with a deeper understanding or a new revelation about myself. I have those all the time, and yet there always seems to be more, and the better we know ourselves the easier it is to move through the world.

      2. Jacqueline, is that “Shock: Social Science Fiction” you’re talking about? If so, I need to play it — it has been sitting unplayed on my shelf for years.

      3. Jacqueline: I think that most people at SSG enjoy the more serious games, but for most it’s not something they want to do every session.

        Victor: it is indeed that. You need to visit Seattle, man, I swear.

      4. That would be very nice, yes. It seems to be a 600 euro trip, though, so perhaps not for just a game of Shock. :-)

  5. This sounds like a beautiful session of a beautiful not-quite-game. Do you have any thoughts about what kind of group it would succeed with? E.g., you played it with at least some strangers — was that helpful, or did it make things more difficult?

    The final line of game’s description on its website is “We will not abandon you.” That sounds good. But if you know the cultural background against which this is said, you know it the name of a style of play where people help each other explore difficult issues. Its opposite is not “We will abandon you.” Its opposite is “Nobody gets hurt.”

    Who could pass up an opportunity to get hurt among people who will not abandon you?

    1. I think it would be hard to play if you didn’t know *any* of the other players — some of the questions ask you things that would be harder to respond to without at least some knowledge about others. However, I also found it very rewarding to play this game with some people I didn’t know, because it meant gaining a sense of connection that had not existed at all before.

      I suspect the hardest (for me) would be to play with people I did know but with whom I had some kind of painful history. That’s not to say it couldn’t still be a good and powerful experience; it would just be the most demanding configuration.

      I did think of you several times when I was playing. It seemed like the kind of thing that you would be interested in.

  6. I wish I would have played this.
    Mostly because I play a precursor version of it every time I walk into a 12 step related environment — where part of the point is to turn less-than-glamorous personal experiences into oral memoirs. In front of a group of strangers. And, while each and every member of the that particular group may “abandon” you, the group will not. Tomorrow, people will be there turning their experiences into stories and listening as you do the same. Trusting strangers is weirdly easy, in part because there is no individual reciprocity involved, unless you decide to initiate it.

    I am glad there is a game like this, because a sense of play is exactly what is missing in the 12 step world, where dogma and stricture have edged out improvisation and create-your-own-recovery. And because it is extremely useful to trust yourself with your own worst moments and to develop the flexible compassion to respond, with grace, as other people tell stories about their lives. Perhaps the effects of listening initiate players into a playable pedagogy of response-ability — which may be the most radical mode of game play I have come across to date.

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