Looking back a few weeks to our unit on Algorithms and Cyberwarfare, I want to talk about Dread, and why, out of all our critical making challenges, I found it the most difficult to design for.
Dread’s metaphor of the tower works well with the topic, Algorithms and Cyberwarfare, which (like surveillance and predictive policing, which both use algorithms) is keen to produce paranoia. And as a DM, I had the urge to lean in to these terror-inducing mechanics. However, I soon ran into difficulty. The skeletal framework for the campaign, which was provided to us as designers, insisted we have the narrative take place online. Introducing this component meant the embodied affect would be remediated through descriptions of Twitter and Facebook feeds. And because I only had 45 minutes of gameplay, I felt like I would have to go with one of two scenarios. Either I could have a very sudden tweet-storm be the entirety of the campaign (which felt unrealistic and would probably not give players enough agency to respond to the situation and see the repercussions of their actions–or inactions), or I could work with a plot that spans an extended duration and fast-forward between events (which risks stamping out the hand-quivering affect).
So my challenge was further complicated. I wanted to expose players to the affect of Dread’s tower mechanic, which meant creating an engaging story that could sustain the careful atmosphere that makes Dread a unique roleplaying experience. But on a meta-level, I was concerned with making sure the game was being used as a pedagogical tool that could increase player agency (even if that means through a post-game debrief with players, if their characters fail) around topics of Algorithms and Cyberwarfare–all while keeping within the constraints provided by the framework that was distributed to designers. I think the crux of the challenge for me was the question of how to maintain player engagement. From what I can tell, the success of a game of Dread depends on the careful tension between desire and loss (i.e., terror), which is why the question of spatiality and temporality is so huge here. How can I make the stakes feel real to the players if the game takes place online? How does one begin designing an affectively engaging story that is told through distributed descriptions of posts on social media platforms?
I decided to go with the second of two formats: breaking the game apart into three “real life” sessions, spaced out over an extended period of time. The players’ characters (activists for the Coalition of Tomorrow) would meet in person in a board room, collaborating with each other to plan a project, when Trump tweets:
A fake tweet used in the game.
After this tweet, the players begin encountering attacks from alt-right trolls, who harass them, even going so far as doxxing one of the characters’ younger sister. I also played with affect by dimming the lights and using sound. For instance, I would slowly increase the volume of a dark ambient cyberpunk(ish) track whenever I felt that a player’s character was going through a very internal trauma. I also put together a queue of phone vibrations (and later twitter chirps, which I borrowed from Patrick who began using them for a similar purpose at another table) that would play whenever a character got an incoming notification on their phone, as well as ambient train noises and rain that I used in an attempt to bring a degree of mimetic texture to the narrative in order to make up for the story taking place online, which can feel a step removed from the stakes of reality. The game ended with Trump supporters gathered outside the Coalition headquarters and a multilinear end game state: either they do nothing and call the police when the supporters start trying to break into the building, or face the supporters and risk getting hurt–the potential reward being dispersing the protest with words and saving a kind Yemeni man who is caught in the crowd from being harassed by the alt-right.
In the end, I think this was a great design challenge, (both for me and my players, who were good sports, said “yes, and…” and contributed to the story in playfully productive and provocative ways.) I know my gratitude is long over-due, but thank you all for being such a great audience! It was a pleasure to DM for you and I hope I made our game worth your time.