‘It is As if You Were Playing Chess’ is a work by Pippin Barr, scholar at Concordia University in Montreal. It is a simple and beautiful video game I found in an article on KillScreen. I interviewed the creator and I tried to explore its rich meanings.
“It is As if You Were Playing Chess” simulates a game of chess, but in a radically different way than we are used to. It does not show the player a single piece on the board, nor a board at all for that matter. Instead, it displays a black screen and, through just words, arrows and little white dots/crosses, it gives the player instructions on which actions to take next. Even if you cannot see it, these actions guide you through an actual classic chess game, in which the little dots are the pieces and the arrows are the moves on the board.
The game however does not just simulate chess, but also, more broadly, the experience of playing chess, as perceived by the players and those around him. “Stretch your shoulders”, “look here”, “sigh sharply”. Chess is a long, intense, emotional game. Instructions are displayed to indicate to the player how he would feel if he only saw the board behind the black screen.
Pippin Barr has breathed video games all his life and he sees games as the most effective way for him to express himself. “Games are a way for me to think about ideas that I find interesting or funny (or usually both) for some reason. It’s a particular form for self-expression and investigation that I find very appealing and somehow ‘natural’ to my particular skill set and leanings. In the past, I’d have aid writing was the key tool for thought and exploring ideas, but these days my default mode when I’m trying to grapple with an idea is to think of it in terms of game-like interactions that would allow both myself as developer and players to approach that idea.”
“At some point I wrote down ‘It is as if you were playing a videogame’ in my notebook, just as a turn of phrase I found appealing. I left it alone for a while, but eventually returned to it as a serious idea about game design and interaction: the idea of a game that involves appearing to or pretending to play some other game”. A simple, radical idea, left there for future thought, even if apparently meaningless and out of context. It’s an idea of subtraction, of uselessness, of transformation of the actual experience of playing games. It unconsciously hints to broader set of questions: “Is a game nothing more than its performance? What does it mean to play a game? What is a game in the first place?”.
“For quite a while it was too abstract to deal with, but later I thought it would be a good starting point to begin with a known game, such as chess, as the base game you’re ostensibly playing. ‘It is as if you were playing chess’ has a nice ring to it too.”. He adds: “I really chose it [chess] as a kind of ‘Ur Game’ that everybody knows and kind of ‘gets’ the physical motions and the emotional landscape involved (even if they don’t strictly know how to play)”.
Chess is one of the oldest games we still play widely today. It is a complex and fascinating game that has intrigued many incredible minds in the past centuries. Do you know how to play chess? Would you like to play like a champion? The game abstracts the inner experience of chess, making you relive how a Grandmaster felt during one of his famous games. However, in order to do so, it precludes you from actually playing it, from choosing the next moves and even blocks you from seeing the game. It obliges you to follow the instructions blindly, even on how you have to feel. You are stuck into something which feels as nothing more than a tutorial. You don’t know what you are doing, where you are going, when it is going to end. It feels wrong and weird and that is what the author wants you to experience.
“At the very least I hope that someone playing the game finds it awkward, that it doesn’t fit into their usual constellation of what a game is or should be like, and that they’re able to move beyond a potential reaction of disliking that to wondering why it’s like that and what that could mean.” I found this sentence amusingly in line with our Read Me: “We unseal it [an object], change it and remove its immutability of destination and meaning, leaving you confused at first, with a bitter aftertaste of incompleteness. We force you to […] reinterpret the object, finding new meanings, use, coherence for it”.
If you think about it, playing and watching chess is not that different from this black-screen experience Pippin has created. Spectating an actual chess game (or any game for that matter), all you see is an output, i.e. the moves and the emotions of the players. An entire chess game is ultimately just a series of letters and numbers in a book: e4, e5, Nf3, etc. No one sees the hours of training, the thought process, the talent behind these moves and you may be tempted to trivialize the game into its mere appearances. I think this is very well reflected in this work, so I shared this thought with Pippin. He commented: “I’ve literally never thought about this sort of perspective taking on the idea of chess as a game of skill that requires talent and preparation culminating in something that is, in some trivial sense, just people picking up and putting down pieces of wood and maybe making faces. But it’s true, that’s something that stripping explicit context really can bring to mind, and that’s wonderful”.
I think that Pippin has actually very much in mind this ‘reductio ad gesta’ interpretation of chess. In fact, Pippin himself highlights how this videogame brings chess, which is famously complex, down to a ‘Candy Crush’-like experience, an almost mindless game. And to someone watching you, there is little difference between this ‘pretending to play’ and actually playing. “My own conceptualisation of the game revolved more around watching people play games on their mobile devices on the metro, I think – it looks so anonymous and mysterious if you can’t see what the people are doing, and I start to imagine they’re almost not ‘really’ doing anything, but only going through the motions. In some ways perhaps a game like Candy Crush is actually like that, kind of mindless movements of your finger and your emotions? So ‘It is as if you were playing chess’ is a kind of ‘end game’ for this concept – that if what we really want is to just sit there and be occupied, then you could just play a game like this where you don’t have to make decisions at all, but rather just follow instructions that result in the same appearance as if you were really doing something. Perhaps it’s driven vaguely behind my own sense of anxiety at times in public and wanting to appear to be doing something so I can’t be engaged with…”.
Is a chess game then also (or mostly) a show performed for other people? I think it’s a relevant question, despite chess not being a game typically played for an audience (as football or basketball instead are). Chess is possibly the intellectual game par excellence. If you see somebody playing chess, you have an unconscious perception of intelligence. A person could intentionally play chess in public and exploit it to appear ‘smarter’. In this sense, ‘It is As if You Were Playing Chess’ could completely fulfill this intent, saving the effort of actually playing (and knowing how to play) chess in the first place.
The addition of emotional instructions (e.g. ‘frown’) adds even more depth to this ‘chess show’. It hints to a ‘right way to play chess’ in front of your audience, so not just in the moves, but also visually and emotionally. We expect a game of chess to produce a specific range of tension, anger, frustration, joy. We would find it weird to see a player just holding a smile throughout the game, or being surprised at every single move. These instructions are fundamental to a player which looks for mere appearance, who wants to trick his audience, possibly because he does not even know how to play chess.
Pippin disagrees. “The idea behind the emotion instructions isn’t so much about a kind of extroverted performance that you actively do ‘for’ other people (as in my Inside playing), but rather to add a kind of ‘authenticity’ to this very inauthentic version of chess, so that the game becomes almost ‘everything but the chess’, which amuses me.” We will agree to disagree then.
Beyond the themes of “games as mere output” and “games as show”, the work brought to my mind also the topic of fairness, enjoyment and meaning in games. Since few decades, chess is dominated by computer-instructed, memorized openings and moves, becoming de facto an empty, operational game. In this sense, it is actually true that everybody can be a Grandmaster, if they have really good memory, or manage to cheat without being caught. Does chess still have a meaning if all is pre-played and pre-decided by a computer?
“Your interpretation here is very much available in this game – the idea that technology begins to make playing chess ‘pointless’ in some sense, that we can all just allow a chess engine to tell us what we ought to do and then kind of try to take ownership of the suggested move, ‘approving’ it. I actually made a separate game about chess last year, called Best Chess, that was more directly engaged with this question of chess and technology. In that game the human player plays as white, makes their opening move, and then the computer, playing black, begins solving chess before making its own move. That game was very much about this idea of technology being applied to what we think of as human pursuits, and how it can be depressing or absurd. The computer never solves chess, of course, it’s much too large a problem space, but it keeps trying, and there’s something both horrifying and sweet about that effort that (I hope) pushes us to think (perhaps more emotionally than intellectually) about the relationship between technology and play.”
Beyond changing the experience of the player, Pippin saw the game as a challenge for the producer as well. “For ‘It is as if you were playing chess’ the point on my end is to explore the challenge of making a game that’s not necessarily really a game, but rather an interface for appearing to play a game instead. For me that means working out how to represent play to the player, what kinds of elements make sense (such as physical movements, emotional tone, etc.), what the interface itself ought to look like, what kind of underlying representations are necessary and what they mean”.
I asked Pippin if the game has been successful. “Ah, success. I’ve more or less given up on trying to understand what I think of as a successful game”. “The game did receive some interesting critical reception, particularly on Kill Screen and Anait Games (in Spanish). Given that my major objective is to try to explore and communicate ideas with my work, the fact that some people take the time to really get in there and think about it to the extent that writing comes out the other end is wonderful, and also feels like ‘success'”. “More than anything, though, I think I’d define success just in terms of whether I feel like the process of making the game and the final product actually led me to doing thinking of my own, and this project absolutely lived up to that. Frankly, almost everything I make feels like a success on that basic front – they’re ultimately ‘just’ vehicles for my own exploration of ideas about games, design, life, and so on.”
This work shows how great it is to create and share uselessness. It removed few of the fundamental pieces which make up a classic game like chess, rendering it completely useless, almost unplayable, just to see what happens and think about it. It has allowed the creator and the audience to reflect on an object (a videogame in this case) in a way they would have never been able to do. – Carlo