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(This post may affect some people who are really good friends. I’m sorry if that’s the case; I still love you all – David H).


I’m standing outside a bar in Nottingham and the people around me have suddenly started inventing new forms of Boop. Boop is a game where you touch someone on the elbow and say boop. The only other rule is “You can’t boop your butcher”. The elbow thing happened because, in the orginal group that started to play it at GDC 2014, booping a relative stranger on the nose was too intimate. Variants have sprang up since that day though, and they continually poke at that boundary.

So the invention of variants is happening in this street outside a bar in Nottingham, and I’m not really ready for it. It’s halfway through a festival that exhausted me before it began; all I want to do when I’m not working is relax, but at this point in running bits of a week long event, switching off takes concerted effort. Someone touches me on the neck, someone else puts their fingers in my hair, and I’m not in a state to process any of it.

Sometimes you’re trying to hold up your end of a conversation while, with partially shredded nerves, you’re also wondering about where you’re going to shove all of the exhibitors for that over-booked gallery tomorrow, how your job scaled up unexpectedly this year, how you’ll balance the damage this week is doing to you with the relationships you have to maintain outside of it. Just as your mind is snapping back and catching up with the person you’re talking to, someone else touches you somewhere and screams a word. The group suddenly becomes a flurry of limbs, people are shouting and the delicate tower of blocks you were mentally balancing in order to be sociable at all comes tumbling down.

Sometimes you try not to react, sometimes you fake a smile. Occasionally you scowl or stare blankly at them, and at its very worst you struggle a little to not let your elbow fly the way you once trained it to. You sigh inwardly and calmly begin restacking blocks.

Most of the time, I’m lucky enough to not need to stack those blocks at all in order to be with people. Not everyone is that lucky though. Introverts, those who’ve been bullied, those who are getting over social phobia, those who suffer from OCD or depression, those for whom touching is a really intense interpersonal thing, those who’ve had traumatic experiences, can suddenly find themselves in the midst of a group spontaneously playing Boop, or variants thereof, all revolving around puncturing each others personal space in socially abnormal ways. The issues don’t really show on the surface, yet that one superficial touch from you ripples downward into them.

People’s boundaries are different, and they can vary over very short timescales too. Unlike most games, Boop has the capacity to exist as a spreading, non-consensual magic circle. It’s made of non-verbal behaviour that people rapidly learn and mimic, bulldozing conversations and personal space, spreading amongst groups made of good friends and relative strangers, a peer pressure seeping through events and bars and weeks and continents. There’s no opt out, other than looking like a killjoy or quietly walking away. Sometimes, you do the latter and the game follows you anyway.

(CC photo of Bausack by Bandu).

Posted on: 1 Comment

One Response

  1. Paul says:

    This is a really important consideration and you’re absolutely right to mention it. I don’t think anyone who opts out is a killjoy at all and I’d hope those playing are responsible enough to understand the limits of this game.

    My philosophy was not to boop anyone until they’d booped me or someone else near me. That way I saw who is playing comfortably and I gave them a chance to define themselves as participants who were also playing publicly, in an open space. I’m not particularly keen to boop a stranger anyway and I well appreciate that many people don’t want to themselves be booped at unexpected times by unexpected people. That’s perfectly normal and rational.

    I didn’t go much beyond booping. The idea of touching things like clavicles didn’t appeal to me, because those are potentially too close to breasts and reaching across a person’s chest is also markedly and blatantly more invasive than tapping their elbow. It’s not for me.

    I appreciate that the game works great as an icebreaker, which it certainly did for me, but not everyone wants or needs the ice broken and this is okay. Actually, it’s more than okay. We all have fun in different ways and people who try to tell us that we should have fun the way *they’re* having fun (and goodness, why aren’t we?!) are the true killjoys. Part of what makes anything fun is participation, that choosing to do it, rather than obligation.

    At 9Worlds, organisers were experimenting with a badge system that shows whether attendees were happy to be spoken to by strangers, wanted to speak first, wanted to be left alone or even actively wanted strangers to approach them. It was a way to make all sorts of people more comfortable in a public space and I gather it went well. It might be easy to have a similar identifier for people interested in playing public games that have a physical or personal component like this.

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