MeowMeowBeenz: The Game
Black Mirror‘s “Nosedive” is the sort of thing certain people might call “relevant.” A kinda-sorta utopian state with an ugly undercurrent, check. Suspicion of how much trust we invest in social media, check. The assumption that score aggregators will ruin everything about our society, oh yes I am so with you. Never mind that Community‘s “App Development and Condiments” did the same thing (and far more joyously) over two years earlier. No really, don’t worry about it. The more we’re complaining about social media, the happier this duck gets.
And now there’s a board game, published by Asmodee but currently without a listed designer or artist — which is oddly appropriate, given the game’s roots in dystopian fiction. Also appropriate is that, in direct parallel with the social media hellscape “Nosedive” was caterwauling about, the game is total and absolute poo.
Tell me what this sounds like. Players receive a handful of cards with descriptions and star ratings on them. Hand-me-down furnishings, for example, are worth two stars, a contract job “for exposure” is worth one, and a 2,000-square-foot luxury tree house is worth four. Your goal is to accumulate as many “life experiences” as possible, and do so by distributing these cards to your fellow players. Eventually some voting takes place, with the voter unsure who has provided the experiences before them. If your experience gets voted for, your score creeps up. If it receives a thumbs-down, your score diminishes.
Apples to Apples? Bzzt. A total train wreck? Yep.
The problem is tricky to pinpoint because there isn’t a single element of Nosedive that hasn’t been bungled in some way. To start, there’s the board you’re supposed to play on. Every turn, you move your pawn to a new space and take its action, usually to either draw new experiences or place them into the piles that are growing on the table. Once everyone has taken three turns, you pick up these piles according to your social score and, in theory, read them aloud. Except it turns out there isn’t any point to reading them, or really even a reason for their descriptions. These cards are your score pile, not the actual game, and at this point you haven’t even started yet.
Enter the app.
I’m not opposed to app integration, but Nosedive’s idea of technological progress is clumsy enough to spark a textile mill revolt. One at a time — which means slowly, with loads of downtime — players pick up an app-enabled device, examine an array of miserable life experiences, and assign them to everyone else at the table. Then you do it again, except this time you’re awarding a thumbs-up and a thumbs-down that will manipulate the social scores of the people who gave you those experiences. In the meantime, expect everyone to tinker with their phones. Except for the person whose phone is being used to play the game. This can be considered an upside: by ensuring the owner of the game is always the one to surrender their phone, you decrease the likelihood of ever having to play Nosedive again.
You might be wondering, why did you pass out experiences earlier if in a few minutes you’d do it all over again? That’s a good question with two very different answers. The first is that your experiences — your card experiences, not your app experiences — are only scored if your social score is high enough at the end of three full rounds. If your final social score is 3.122, any four- and five-star cards are thrown away, while everything three stars and below gets tallied up. Whoever has the most stars is the winner of social media, while paradoxically being the loser of game night.
The second answer is that Nosedive clearly wants to make you fiddle with an app, because Black Mirror is about technology and “Nosedive” in particular is about the anxiety inherent to social ratings systems where everybody is both critic and condemned. “It’s germane to the topic,” someone probably uttered in a conference room somewhere. Too bad they captured their subject matter so thoroughly.
Or, well, perhaps not. When you get right down to it, Nosedive is more about drudgery than anxiety. Rather than talking about the unseen judgements of the entire world that we carry around in our back pocket, this game quickly becomes one of waiting around. It uses a phone because technology is the target, and provides tangible cards because it’s also a board game; but by dipping its toes into both realms, it stands awkwardly astride without fully inhabiting either. If it’s meant to be bad — which, hey, maybe, though I don’t get that sense in the slightest — then it’s bad in more than message. Oppressive social media is one thing, stilted and dulling gameplay is another.
In short, Nosedive takes a fascinating topic and shapes it into the furthest thing from either prescient social commentary or a functional game. Even a real-life nosedive would at least blow your hair back. This more closely resembles a cross-country bus trip.
A complimentary copy was provided.