Last Thursday, I spent an evening offering moral support to a friend confronted with the dissolve of a well established romantic relationship. Sitting at a bar with several of her other friends, we got in a conversation about the difficulties of dating, and the deeply unsuitable people most of us had, at one time or another, found ourselves out with. I mentioned that another friend of mine has a tendency to do a rant that is just her saying, “I dated a guy who (insert ridiculous characteristic or action).” As an example, I filled in a few of my own blanks. One of the other women sitting around the table suggested this would make for a good game, and so began several rounds of the hastily named “I Dated a Guy Who.” The only rules are that you must fill in the sentence “I dated a ______ who ___________” with a true story from your own personal history when it is your turn. In several rounds, the capsule stories ranged from the hilarious to tragic, and seemed to confirm what I’ve long suspected, which that dating is usually horrible for everyone.
I’ve played and led a fair number of conversation games — such as “Two Truths and a Lie” and “Twenty Questions,” or my favorite, which can most politely be called, “Shag, Marry, Kill” — in settings ranging from college orientation to summer camp to professional trainings to bars. And, the brilliance of conversation games lies in part in just how portable they are. A conversation game, simply put, is a game that requires nothing to play and that at its base makes a game out of conversation. Most people have probably played one or more of these at some point. They crop up as convenient ice breakers for awkward formal settings and as easy conversational fixations near last call at the bar with equal ease. Some serve equally well in either type of setting; others, like “Shag, Marry, Kill” are by design risque enough to save them from institutional purposes.
However, at base, all of these provide a framework for engaging in social interactions in what could otherwise be a stressful or idle social setting. They drive conversational engagement when people might be intimidated by a room full of unfamiliar people, or provide a diversion among friends who have sat for too many hours at the same bar together. In this way, conversation games are an interesting example of the way games infuse daily life and can serve specific social purposes — purposes which can change given on immediate context. Conversation games can provide a way to display wit or personal information in a structured way, but they can also provide a relatively low risk way of answering the question, “What do I say?” The need to answer that particular question is pressing enough that in addition to the number of conversation games developed as a type of folk culture practice, there are numerous commercially available versions, which formalize the games into stacks of cards or booklets of questions, often tailored to specific settings. Table Topics, shown above, makes sets of square cards posing conversational questions for various settings, such as a dinner party or “girls’ night out.” Gregory Stock’s bestselling The Book Of Questions series serves similar purposes through a different form.
Conversation games are, at their surface, quite simple, but the purposes they serve and the impact they can have on social interaction are often profound; they are a type of hybridization of game practices and storytelling practices, and are often a means of interrogating relationships, identities, and values.
Do you have a favorite conversation game? What is it, and how is it played? Let me know in the comments.