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A game about pretending to play chess is all about performance

It really is as if you were playing chess, except Pippin Barr’s newest game It is as if you were playing chess doesn’t include a chess board. There are no pawns, Kings, or Queens. No pieces at all, really—just instructions. Move this dot here. Look here. Now here. Tilt your head and cringe. Move again. It is as if you were playing chess makes a game of pretending to play a game. “To the observer, it should look as though the player is genuinely playing some kind of game,” Pippin Barr writes. “In this case, the idea is for them to look as though they are playing a game of chess, making appropriate motions, facial expressions, eye movements, and so on.”

You weren’t a chess master before you started It is as if you were playing chess—and honestly, you still aren’t. But the people around you might think you are! Chess actually underlies the whole game, even if you can’t see it. You’re not playing chess as much as you are performing it. All moves made in It is as if you were playing chess are not only legal moves, but they make sense, too. “The game contains the moves (for white) of three classic chess matches, such that when you make the abstract moves there’s a sense in which you’re ‘really playing chess,’” Barr writes. “But also not, since nowhere in the game are the moves for black.”

“That kind of authenticity is, I think, oddly powerful”

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It is as if you were playing chess is full of “pointlessness,” yet is still grounded within the confines of a “real” chess match. “I like the idea that even in a deeply meaningless-looking interface there can still be seriousness below the surface,” Barr continues. It’s a reference back to another one of his games, Best Chess (2015). There, a player makes a move—and waits for the computer to make its own. The computer is processing the best possible move to make, evaluating every situation in the game. That takes a long time. Best Chess could just be feigning its thought process, showing random numbers to look like the computer is processing information. But that is just a facade in itself—Best Chess isn’t just pretending to solve chess. It actually does. That’s why It is as if you were playing chess doesn’t just simulate chess moves; it draws those moves from actual chess games, thereby creating a consonance with the abstract values of on-screen moves.

“That kind of authenticity is, I think, oddly powerful,” Barr writes. “Do I have a point? I’m not 100% sure I do, but I do like the internal authenticity and ‘responsibility’ in games, games that don’t just pretend something is happen[ing], but ‘do the work’ beneath the surface, even if it’s invisible.”

Pippin Barr’s It is as if you were playing chess is part of a larger project called It is as if you were playing a videogame. It’s the first piece of the project. Play it here, or head over to Pippin Barr’s website and Twitter for more information.

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