Within and among the universities of America, drinking games transcend every divide: race, class, age, sex, scene, and clique. Be it beer pong, asshole, or customized rulesets for movies or TV shows, these activities have surpassed the level of “games” and have become, instead, social conventions. To wit, the cultural relevance of, say, flip cup, is so potent that the game is used as a kind of lingua franca to normalize interactions between students of different schools. We play these games not to measure the skill of our opponent, but to probe their willingness to participate and their understanding of the rules. We use them, in other words, to gauge the actions and responses of strangers within a set of parameters with which all participants are familiar.
Such is the State of the American Drinking Game in 2015, but how did we arrive here? I have long harbored a theory to explain how drinking games became so ubiquitous on college campuses. American college students are told, essentially from birth, that the surest path to “success” involves measuring every conscious action they take by two fundamental criteria: 1.) the action should be governed by a set of rules, and 2.) the action should advance the actor toward a goal. The clear purpose of the university system is, after all, to sort and instruct the next generation on how to take authority for accomplishing the multiform goals necessary to keep society running. Drinking games allow students to fulfill these criteria, however superficially, even while they engage in an activity inimical to the social purpose behind the criteria. This is placebo progress.
So, too, with videogames, once maligned as an antisocial menace. It is no coincidence that, as games have increased in social currency, their indicia of advancement, such as layered gameplay loops and achievement systems, have become more complex and prominent. The psychology behind these constructs is clear that providing a sense of accomplishment can temper any latent guilt a player might have about “wasting their time” on a game. I want to be clear that I am not equating videogames with drinking games. But I am saying that each of these forms dealt with the problem of social marginalization in a similar way, by incorporating into their structure elements that reinforce a player’s sensation that they are getting somewhere by playing them. All of which is why the most fascinating videogame I heard about at GDC wasn’t actually at GDC.
In fact, Sam Sheffield, the school teacher who created Don Don Don Don as half of the creative partnership SaBa, along with his partner Barry Whittaker, has had a hard time convincing anyone in America to let him show his game publically at all. “Oh, totally!” Sheffield responds when I ask him if he’s encountered pushback, “nobody wants to show that game.” The pushback question was prompted by the fact that DonDonDonDon (a Japanese phrase meaning “things bashing together”) is a game where players fuel on-screen rockets by blowing into breathalyzers. “The more alcohol on your breath the more intense it gets, but also the sloppier the controls get,” Sheffield told me. The setting of the game is a post-apocalyptic space-scape. Players control cockroaches who have built rockets, and are patrolling different orbits in search of disused satellites and space junk, a task facilitated by rocket fuel. So who has the most fuel? I’ll give you a clue. His name is Brian, his shirt is caked with vomit and he stopped uttering intelligible sentences an hour ago.
So far DonDonDonDon has been shown in Poland and Osaka, Japan, once in a bar and once in a gallery … attached to a bar. (Sheffield was at GDC instead showing a game called Homies, which involves wearing masks to complete minigames.) “This seems like the ultimate bar game,” I said at the time. But after a moment’s reflection, I realized that a bar owner would have to be insane to allow this game on her premises. Almost anyone would. After five minutes of thinking about the game, I found myself instinctively recoiling from it. “It’s so destructive,” I thought. “It feels irresponsible, somehow,” I twinged. “What’s the point of it?” I wondered. After 30 minutes of thinking about DonDonDonDon I decided to make it my life’s mission to get my hands on this masterpiece, this videogame that doesn’t just pair with binge drinking, but absolutely fucking requires it.
Time after time I heard game developers and artists at GDC talk about the benefits of privileging the experiential aspects of a videogame over “traditional” mainstays like a bombastic narrative and technological wizardry. Traditional elements move units, they said, but focus too much on them and we miss out on all of the other spaces that games can occupy in our lives beyond “pastime.” Placebo progress, they said, is not where games are headed. DonDonDonDon subverts the psychological effects of placebo progress by taking two socially polarizing activities and making them each other’s object. It stops me from seeing the game in the way someone like me instinctively views games: as little lessons. It removes my excuses, in other words, and causes me to flinch. Am I drinking to play the game? Or am I playing the game to drink? Either way, it’s hard to square my participation with the criteria outlined above. The experience of playing, on the other hand, couldn’t fail to be singular.