In Waypoint Radio episode 200, Austin Walker talked about his experience with a game called Inhuman Conditions, a new table-top role-playing game which seems to be inspired by the Voight-Kampff test from the movie Blade Runner. The pitch was simple but intriguing: one player plays the role of an Investigator, while the other player is the Suspect, and the Investigator has 5 minutes to figure out if the Suspect is a Human, a Patient Robot, or an Aggressive Robot. Excited by the prospect of a quick, low-preparation role-playing-game, I downloaded the print-and-play PDFs, printed and cut-out the cards, read the rules, and pitched the game to a group of friends. They were interested. This was my chance to see if playing the game was half as good as hearing about it.
As I was preparing for our test-run, I noticed that the rules suggested that the Investigator wear “a badge, a trench coat, etc. – as a symbol of their authority.” I thought that was a clever touch – a simple prop or two to help remind the player(s) of their role(s). I looked up a local costume shop and headed out to see if I could find what I needed. I need not have worried – I found plenty of “symbols of authority”: the store was full of “police” uniforms, badges, vests, sunglasses, and hats. I found a “Special Police” badge, a pair of mirrored Aviator sunglasses, and a “Gangster Fedora” (as the label described it), but as I was heading for the check-out, the “gun” section caught my eye.
At this point, it’s worth mentioning that I’m currently living in Germany, a country which has a very different relationship to guns than the United States. But despite most Germans’ uneasy attitude towards guns, this costume shop was loaded with foam, plastic, and even metal replica and toy guns. At first, I felt self-conscious even thinking about buying a toy gun, as there is hardly a more common stereotype in Germany about Americans than the one about them loving guns. But then I remembered that one kind of Suspect, the Aggressive Robot, not only wants to seem human, but also wants to “kill” the Investigator. Why not also give the Suspect a prop or two for their role?
After some searching, I settled on a revolver. It was made of metal, had a working trigger, and the cylinder popped out so you could load actual “caps,” little rings with pods of gunpowder on them that “pop” loudly when hit with the revolver’s hammer. Though I didn’t buy any caps, just hearing the metallic “click” of the hammer when I pulled the trigger, holding the gun in my hand, feeling its weight, spinning the cylinder – it all felt good.
Writing about it now, I’m painfully aware of how that feeling of power intersects with larger political and moral questions about guns and violence, but in the moment, I was more concerned with buying props that would emphasize each player’s role, and I could think of no better prop for the Aggressive Robot than this metal replica revolver. I spent the extra 10 Euros, paid for my props, and went home.
On game night, I took my time revealing all the props I had brought with me, saving the gun for last – it was a big hit. I set up the cards and props, played a few clips from the Blade Runner movies for context, and explained how the game worked. One important suggestion in the rules is that new players should be allowed to choose their Suspect Role from 3 randomly drawn cards, giving them a bit of freedom to choose the role they want to play. After everyone was clear on how the game worked, I started the first round as Investigator and just barely managed to identify an Aggressive Robot before they killed me. As we played a few more rounds, we began to notice that a lot of Suspects were Aggressive Robots. Later, I remembered that I, too, wanted to be an Aggressive Robot, but only drew Human and Patient Robot Role Cards. As I watched Suspect after Suspect make a play for the gun, I realized that my little toy gun had altered the game much more than I had expected.
After seven or eight rounds, we wrapped up our time with Inhuman Conditions, took a break, and moved on to another game. As far as I could tell, everyone had a fantastic time with the game, and it seemed like the props had worked as intended: they reminded players of their roles and heightened the drama of play. But as I thought about our play session in the following days, something bothered me that I couldn’t quite articulate. My thoughts always returned to the toy gun. Without making requests, suggestions, or demands, I had exercised an enormous amount of influence on my fellow players’ – friends’ – behavior, just by putting a toy gun in the room. Granted, the stakes weren’t high: I had changed how they played a game, not how they acted in real life. But now I couldn’t help but think about how real guns had had the same effect in much more serious contexts.
I really enjoyed my time with Inhuman Conditions, but playing it also forced me to confront how material objects can influence our behavior. In a certain sense, it’s strange it took me this long to learn that lesson – my academic background is in philosophy, literature, and media studies, and over the years I’ve read a lot about how we shape media and how they shape us. But perhaps because of that background, I’ve always been a bit suspicious of approaches to media that give technology and material things a great deal of agency – after all, if “media determine our situation,” as Friedrich Kittler famously wrote, then how or why should we, for example, hold the owners of techno-capitalist platforms like Facebook accountable for the problems their technologies have created? But my experience with Inhuman Conditions finally taught me what I failed, or refused, to learn from Kittler: material things exercise influence on us, whether we like it or not. And insofar as design can be applied to playful and serious contexts, there is a great deal of power and responsibility involved in choosing whether or not to put the (toy) gun on the table.
Derek Price produces and co-hosts the Scholars At Play podcast, and is also a PhD candidate in German Studies and Media Studies at Vanderbilt University. His dissertation project "Playing Economy: Leisure and Labor in German Gaming Cultures" addresses the convergence of labor, leisure, work, and play in and around German video games and board games.