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He said, she squirmed: The pickup artist game that is the talk of IndieCade and may help us communicate better

He said, she squirmed: The pickup artist game that is the talk of IndieCade and may help us communicate better
Angela Washko's "The Game: The Game" shows players what it's like to be a woman at a bar. (Angela Washko)

A woman looks for her friends at a bar and accidentally makes eye contact with a man. The man comes over. He stands between the woman and her friends. He professes his love to the woman, but she’s never met him before.

The man is a pickup artist, and his goal is simple: to use conversation to trick the woman into going home with him. He touches her arm and begs for just a moment of her time. Does she laugh? Or run? She tries to leave, but he pleads and tries to hold her hand.

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The scene is from “The Game: The Game,” one of more than four dozen titles selected to be featured this weekend in Santa Monica at IndieCade, an international festival devoted to independent games. Played from the perspective of a female-identifying character as she attempts to make her way to a bar stool, this video game aims to explore the tactics of pickup artists, showing players how to recognize them and navigate around them.

When the president of the United States declares it’s a “very scary time” to be a man, it’s clear that among the many lessons of the #MeToo era he missed is this one: It is impossible for a straight male to know what it’s like to get through even the most ordinary of days as a woman.

So maybe everyone can benefit from playing more games.

“The Game: The Game,” for instance, exposes the manipulative seduction tactics of many men, and reveals how daily life can suddenly make someone feel as if they are trapped forever in a psychological horror film.

But “The Game: The Game,” created by Angela Washko, an artist and professor at Carnegie Mellon University, is not just a condemnation of the so-called “pickup artist” community. It also illustrates how every conversation between the sexes can suddenly devolve into a mess of he said/ she said/ he didn’t listen/ why is he still not listening.

Each year, IndieCade — part celebration of the joys of play, and part exploration of what we can learn from play — takes a broad look at interactivity. An exhibit at this weekend’s event, titled “Gaming Everywhere,” will even show how games have bled into real life, be it in education or healthcare.

In turn, IndieCade’s 2018 festival, taking place through Saturday at Santa Monica College’s Center for Media and Design, makes the argument that games are not only fun, but can teach us a thing or two about how we can better communicate and maybe even see the world from another perspective.

“A Mile in My Shoes” looks like a board game, but through story prompts asks players to develop a character and share personal stories to better understand one’s life. In “The Distance,” two players navigate separate dream-like worlds to piece together puzzles that show how miscommunication happens in long-distance relationships. “Stress Express” is a card game that uses silliness to simulate the competitiveness of the daily grind, and “Nishan Shaman” simply communicates with the past, using the tools of a modern mobile game to reinvent an ancient Chinese folk tale.

In "The Game: The Game," players must navigate a bar filled with pick-up artists.
In "The Game: The Game," players must navigate a bar filled with pick-up artists. (Angela Washko)

“Everybody’s Sad” is a virtual reality game that aims to get players out of their comfort zones, in this case learning how to reject codependent or toxic characters. The “Pictionary”-influenced “Elephant in the Relationship” has players using non-verbal cues to communicate interpersonal drama.

“I have never understood the stereotype of games and playing as any type of disengagement,” says Stephanie Barish, a founder and key architect of the more than decade-old festival. “When I look at work like ‘The Game: The Game,’ it is a statement, and more than that, through the medium of playing it puts us in the place of engaging in our own complicity and the complex tangled web of communication.”

IndieCade, which was founded in 2005, has existed in its current festival format for about a decade, and regularly draws 5,000 or more over the span of its three days (the fest began on Thursday with industry-only talks and panels). It is decidedly not a “gamer” event — don’t expect to see the latest e-sports or action games here. Closer to a juried film festival, IndieCade is instead dedicated to showing the vibrancy of the independent game community, and this year hosts everything from virtual reality titles to escape rooms.

"The Distance" explores the difficulties of maintaining a long-distance relationship.
"The Distance" explores the difficulties of maintaining a long-distance relationship. (Xian Lu)

It’s also a place to go get a glimpse of what’s coming; many of the showcased titles are in development and years away from release. The well-received game “Donut County,” for instance, released this year for iOS devices and the PlayStation 4, was shown at IndieCade back in 2015.

As has become the norm for IndieCade, a number of titles handle topical or political subject matter. “Kleptocrat: How to Hide Dirty Money” feels ripped from the headlines, with players encouraged to lie to maintain political corruption. “Ministry of Broadcast” looks like a vintage run-and-jump game, only here the player tries to escape a government body trafficking in confusion and fake news.

But perhaps nothing is more of the moment than “The Game: The Game.” Washko went deep into the worlds of multiple pick-up artists with the hopes of having players better understand their manipulative moves. Some may elicit an eye roll — such as a man presenting the player with a notebook of cheesy pick-up lines, including the one he just said — while others present extravagant displays of attention, ranging from magic tricks to a litany of odd facts and tidbits.

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A look at the choices present to players in "The Game: The Game."
A look at the choices present to players in "The Game: The Game." (Angela Washko)

The overriding sensation is one of claustrophobia. As you attempt to find your friends in a crowded bar, a minefield of lecherous men stand in your way. Manage to shake one off, and another is lined up and ready to mock the last guy — out of apparent understanding, of course.

The characters are modeled after recognizable real-life pick-up artists but the digital distortions add to the creepiness (the title is a reference to the best-selling 2005 book by former music journalist Neil Strauss, “The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists”).When — or if — you manage to find your friends, you discover the pick-up artists have infiltrated that circle too.

The whole thing, coupled with an ominous soundtrack, starts to feel like a survival horror game, only you’re not shooting zombies but simply dodging dudes.

“The feedback that I’ve gotten from straight male players is often that they’ve never felt more trapped, that they’ve never had to question the motives of so many people before, that they started to analyze and critique their own instinctive courtship behaviors.” Washko says, “and it made them think more about the exhausting expectations that are placed on women to constantly perform for men.”

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A title screen of "The Game: The Game."
A title screen of "The Game: The Game." (Angela Washko)

What makes “The Game: The Game” so sinister is just how common its scenarios seem. While the #MeToo movement has exposed many stories of sexual assault, and even brought one alleged incident to a Supreme Court hearing, the everyday conversational scheming the game exposes feels deeply embedded in our society.

“It’s important to remember that these practices often exaggerate or twist existing issues within courtship culture,” Washko says. “The social expectations for men to lead — to be inherently sexually aggressive or unable to control their sexual impulses, to need to ‘win women over in order to get laid,’ to perform hyper-masculinity — these are all elements already embedded historically in American courtship culture.”

“The Game: The Game” is an only-at-IndieCade experience. It is not for sale, nor is it available online. Instead, Washko has chosen to exhibit the work at museums, galleries and conferences.

Indeed, much of what happens at IndieCade can’t be replicated — “The Klaxo Radio Hour,” for instance, is a game housed in a vintage-looking radio and “Ideal Meal” is a large-scale food game in which multiple people must make a giant bowl of ramen.

“All around me I am endlessly compelled by the ways in which games enable us to communicate,” Barish says. “Sometimes profoundly with the person I am sitting next to in the room while we are playing together, sometimes it is an introspective experience as I am carried into worlds and experiences that I could otherwise not go, and sometimes it is contradictory, as I am brought into someone else’s vision and I have to understand and confront that experience.”

She adds, “But some games in particular force us to think about every word we say or action we take.”

“The Game: The Game” does that and more. It reveals a still-untapped potential of interactive entertainment — to illuminate overlooked yet troubling scenarios that regular people have to live with, and to show us what it’s like to see the world through someone else’s eyes.

Indiecade Festival

When: Friday 2 – 11 p.m.; Saturday 10 a.m. – 8 p.m.

Where: Santa Monica College Center for Media and Design, 1660 Stewart St., Santa Monica

Cost: $25 for festival

Info: indiecade.com

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