Combining social justice and popular culture, Jessica Metheringham is interested in turning activists into board gamers, and maybe board gamers into activists.
What got you started playing board games?
I used to play games as a child. We played a lot of Cluedo in our house (Clue, if you’re in the US) as well as party games like Articulate or Pictionary. While I was generally ok at the party games, I really loved Cluedo. When I got older my Dad and I would spend a fair amount of time playing card games, usually variants of Rhummy. Or we’d play Battleships, just with paper and pens.
I started buying board games as opposed to card games soon after university. My boyfriend and I would play Carcassonne. And then Pandemic came out, and it was exactly the sort of game I really enjoyed. I think that was the moment when I realised that rather than finding one game I loved and just play it over again (although Carcassone is a great game!) it might be more fun to have a choice of games. Soon after that I remember buying Battlestar Galactica the board game specifically because we could have people round for games nights. My boyfriend did a PowerPoint presentation of all the rules while I pretended not to be embarrassed. While that copy of Battlestar Galactica is long since gone (and that boyfriend too), it was definitely part of what made me realise that board games could be a sociable hobby.
It would have been really easy to let playing games slide after having children, but the local games shop had a great parents group on Wednesday afternoons. A group of us with babies and young children would go and play games together. I think it kept me sane when Child Number One was very small.
What are you working on right now?
I’ve just launched a Kickstarter for Disarm the Base. It’s a cooperative game about peace activists breaking into a military base to disarm warplanes.
The game is directly inspired by the actions of friends of mine, who broke into Warton airbase in the north west of England in 2017 to try to stop planes going to Yemen. They were charged with trespass but were acquitted. I haven’t taken such direct action myself, although I know quite a few people who feel compelled to do similar things. The Kickstarter runs until 13 September, mainly in order to coincide with protests against a big arms fair in London. Part of the protest is an art show (last time they had a Banksy! For real!) and I’m hoping we can get a really good copy of Disarm the Base together in time to be part of that.
I’m also playing about with a card game about politics and stabbing each other in the back, but that’s really got to wait until the new year.
Do you think we can use games to make positive change in our world? How?
We can use anything and everything to make positive change!
There is definitely something about how we live out our values in our everyday lives. That absolutely doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t play war games as a way of letting off steam (I can be a bit vicious at 7 Wonders: Duel). What it does mean is that we should think about the balance of our games and what the overall norms and patterns are. Do we run the risk that we internalise some of these norms and start thinking that all games are about beating someone in a fight? Getting a rounded picture is so important.
Games can act as a way to tell us something about the real world. I feel like I have a better sense of geography after playing Ticket to Ride or Pandemic. I’ve also played quite a few games which taught me something about a specific period of history – and really, who wouldn’t want to know more about the origins of the German postal system as retold by Thurn & Taxis? If we start thinking about what we would like our games to tell us then we end up with games like Spirit Island. It’s like how representation in games matters – we want to see ourselves in games, and we also want to see the issues we care about in games too.
There’s another way in which games can make positive change, and that’s through using the profit for positive work. I recently registered Dissent Games as a company in the UK and deliberately stated that it intended to work on non-party political issues as well as games. It’s set up as a not-for-profit company, which means that any money we make has to stay in the company, but we can choose whether it goes towards campaigning or towards creating more games. In this case, any profit we make is going into disarmament work with Campaign Against Arms Trade. Now I’m just hoping there is a profit.
Having said all that, a game has to be fun! It’s easy to make something clunky and message-heavy, but if it’s not fun then it’s not really a game.
What do you like the most about the design process? The least?
I really enjoy the initial stages – coming up with an idea, seeing how it will hang together. Working out what the central mechanism will be is also fun. With Disarm the Base it’s about the different ways the players could get caught.
The relentless playtesting is less enjoyable. After playing a game approximately a million times (only a slight exaggeration) it stops being as much fun. And if you’ve lost the fun then it’s harder to see how it would actually play in real life, because so much of playing games is about the atmosphere. The whole playtesting cycle is a bit hard to replicate as one person, but letting go enough to ask others to help is a little bit terrifying.
Are you finding the community supportive?
I am! It’s a different lot of people on Twitter than on Instagram….and I’m finding that Instagram isn’t really for me. I’ve been surprised at the fact that so many people at positive about being inclusive – it’s brilliant, and definitely better than UK political twitter people! There’s also no bad feeling about asking for advice, which is really useful for me!
What advice would you give an aspiring designer?
Right now I feel like I am still an aspiring designer! I’m still feeling really new at all this.
What I’ve learned so far is that dealing in physical goods is about having lots of different options. There’s always another place to buy meeples from, just at a different price. The challenge is looking at your spreadsheet and trying to work out which of these ten options really is best.
In politics, which is what I did before, the options themselves change. It’s much more about rhetoric. Can you argue your opponent round? Can you make them believe what you believe, can you persuade them that actually you’re the clear-sighted one here? It’s unbelievably wordy, and can be unbelievably unpredictable. Or at least, unpredictable in the short-term, because although a week is a short time in politics, a year is a really long time. Things may move fast moment to moment, but wait a while and you’ll see the same idea emerge again and again.