Posted by squinky on Mar 18, 2022

Earlier this week, Soft Chaos gave a keynote presentation for DiHuCon 2022, a Digital Humanities Conference hosted by folks at the University of Alberta that took place entirely on Discord. The theme we were given was "Kindred Cyberspaces" and was described to us as "an invitation to consider the networks of infrastructure and relationships that constitute and permeate our experience of and within digital environments, to reflect on past expressions of these relations, their current iterations, and dream of alternatives." 

Prompted by this theme, we thought of Strangers on the 'Net, a Discord-based live-action online game that we designed two years ago, where players take on the role of teenagers in 1999 who enjoy roleplaying as characters from their favourite fandom with an ensemble cast (popular examples of which include Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Sailor Moon, and Pokémon). As teenagers, their role is to embrace the drama of gossiping, roleplaying, flirting, fighting, falling in love, confessing their secrets, and exploring their identities. Players are encouraged to confront past beliefs that may not have aged well, and explore their own experience through the lens of taking on these fictional characters.

As queer game designers who found ourselves by being Extremely Online during this particular time period, there was a lot that we really missed about what the internet was like in the late 90s and early 2000s, especially compared to today's internet where so much of our activity is confined to these very centralized (and in many ways exploitative) Big Tech social media platforms. While we're under no illusions that everything was necessarily better back then, a huge part of our motivation for designing Strangers was to communicate what we both loved and hated about our teenage internet experiences to others who may not have shared them, and in doing so, collectively imagine new possibilities for the online world we live in now.

In our keynote, we talked at length about the specific experiences and feelings that went into designing Strangers, and also gave participants a server tour of a previous game that took place in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer universe. Here is a selection of some of our slides, which, as you can probably tell, we had a little bit too much fun putting together:

Relative Anonymity. Your only identity was your IP address and how well you could carry off who you claimed you were... like for example if you, as teenage Jess, claimed that you were all three members of a teenage Danish rock band. Picture of a random Danish rock band with an arrow labelled "Jess, Probably".

In which Jess publicly admits to pretending to be all three members of a Danish rock band as a teen.

It provided Consistency. For people who moved a lot, online spaces provided stability. It provided a (relatively) affordable and accessible way to stay in touch, even with irl friends. A map of five cities all over Canada labelled "Everywhere Allison lived pre-1999", plus a vintage long-distance phone bill from the nineties.

Allison maps out everywhere she lived pre-1999, which is almost twice as many places as I had lived by that time. Also pictured is a vintage long-distance phone bill - remember those?

Explore. Be anyone. Have cybersex with Sephiroth. Exploration is about revealing yourself to yourself by trying on roles and seeing how they feel. This can mean exploring beliefs and politics, including conservative ideas that need to be tested and called out (i.e. the edgy humour of the internet and the "Nazi Comparison" rule). You could access knowledge and experiences that might otherwise be inaccessible to you.

"Be anyone. Have cybersex with Sephiroth." That is all.

The Player Response. We received Fanart! Players rarely pushed the boundaries on the invitation to misbehave. Some enacted deliberate 90s/early 2000s linguistic choices and tropes. Playing close to the vest with personal experiences. A drawing of Sailor Moon characters labelled "Thanks for giving us a place to pretend to be someone we're not. And find out who we really are."

One of our players in a Sailor Moon-themed game made fanart! Sadly, we had to cut out Sailors Uranus and Neptune (the best Sailor Scouts, hands down) due to lack of space.

Three Character Choices. Today, you'll follow one player's journey throughout the game. We have three characters for you to choose from. We're going to tell you a little bit more about each. f4ngs_4da_m3m0r135, 17/m/Montreal, an openly gay teen, plays "Spike" from Buffy. oxfordcomma42, 17/m/Edmonton, a closeted gay teen, plays "Giles" from Buffy. NorthStar_148, 16/f/Ottawa, an open lesbian, plays "Buffy" from Buffy.

These three characters featured in the server tour just so happened to be the characters originally played by us three members of Soft Chaos — can you guess whose is whose?

A slide full of classic Under Construction gifs, because we had to.

Overall, the DiHuCon attendees really seemed to enjoy our talk, which made us feel all the more strongly about how important and meaningful this project has been for us. With that in mind, our next steps for Strangers will involve a digital and physical guide book that will enable anyone to run a game of their own, without us having to be there to facilitate it. Stay tuned for more news on that in the future!

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