Simple Games, Complex Personal Narratives.


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Ben Barker

8th August 2011

When a simple rule or a single sentence is enough to explain a game, it can often lead to its dynamics being richer and more fluid. I played one recently where the sentence went like this:

A person hides and all other players seek, then when a seeker finds the hider he joins them in that space until everyone has found it and done the same. Its called sardines and I had never heard of it.

My experience of it was heightened by playing in an old wooden mansion on the French coast in the pitch black of midnight with a sound track of the sea drowning out the informative shuffles of numerous investigations. The idea of being the last seeker in that black house with its multi-roomed basement, sprawling balconies, and creaking staircase leading to a separate annex was simply not an option. In other words, something was at stake.

The games appeal comes in what you might call its personal story arc. Each seeker is in a wrestle between needing the safety of the group to ensure they aren’t left alone at the end (a genuine fear) and the personal victory of finding the target. Within this there is so much room for loyalty and betrayal, honesty and selfishness, all morally acceptable because the game doesn’t say you can’t. In a sense the rules of the game are far more complicated than that one sentence, they are the rules of human morality, reconfigured on the fly in a heightened state of tension.

One moment stood out for me and encapsulated the experience.

We had been seeking for 30 minutes with no success. Then as paths crossed around the house, word started to spread that one seeker hadn’t been seen recently. A friend has become an enemy.

People began to group at the bottom of the staircase to the annex, it’s pitch black, frustration is beginning to show. No one really wants to go back to the dark basement or the shadow splattered garage. Whilst strategy is discussed I subtly rummage in the space under stairs. It’s deep and I feel a hoover, then a rolled up carpet, behind that is a mop, then something bouncy and hairy, under that there’s a forehead, eyes. I trace back over the still head, the shape of a female face, the hair in a bun.

Everything’s changed, I’m one of them. I’m suddenly an enemy among friends, my hand on the key. I have a moment to decide before others think to check the dark triangle under the stairs. Do I want to bring the group of seekers with me, effectively ending the game, or do I want to misdirect, suggest searching elsewhere, say that I know where they’re hidden, then hang back and dive into this cavernous alcove and become part of the select few. I scan the grey silhouettes of the seekers around me. I’ve searched side by side with a couple of them since the beginning. People are starting to fidget, my mind whirrs, decision time:

‘Guys, I’ve got an idea where they are.’