1000 Blank White Cards

Have you ever played 1000 Blank White Cards?

It’s a card game—a party game—which the players make up themselves.  Everyone gets a few blank cards and writes whatever rules they please on them. The goals, objectives, and substance of the game itself is entirely up to those players. It is absolutely one-hundred-percent player created content.

Over the past few days, as my friends and I unwound from the fever-pitch of an awful academic term*, we played this game several times. We cut a pack of index cards in half, doled them out to 5 or 6 people, and wrote whatever we pleased on them. There isn’t even a skeleton ruleset in this game—each card should contain a title, a cartoon, and a rule, but that structure is mainly just a suggestion. We had a few cards without rules or point values—only pictures. A few were crude copies of cards from other games we own. We only bothered enforcing the rules we liked.

Any stranger who walked in off the street would have found our game impossible and absurd. One player named his cards exclusively after people we knew. I made several cards referencing the game Bang. One card could only be played successfully if the players knew where in the house to find a NERF gun. We had more than one scribbly copy of the Base Set Pikachu Pokemon card. When it entered play, others used their blank cards to draw Energy Cards so that Pikachu could attack—though no one ever managed to pull that off. One card made points irrelevant. Some cards forced players to play while blind, or without using their hands. Other cards punished players for being sober. Others punished them for being drunk. One card forced players to reveal ‘deviant sexual desires.’ One card—my favorite, in fact—forced the players to light it on fire and pass it around in a circle until one player drops it. We had another card which forces the players to recreate the burned card if had been reduced to ashes.

Though the game has a points system, many of our cards never even referenced points, and it is certainly impossible to deliberately win while playing with our deck. Too many crazy pyramids of stacked and nested rules collapse during play. The point of the game, you might say, is to create the cards, not to play with them. If a card is interesting in theory, we love it.

Every game, we play with about 40 cards from our ‘live’ deck. We create about 20 more cards during play, and at the end of the session, we search the deck for cards we didn’t like, and set them aside. We have a card which allows players to ‘resurrect’ cards from this ‘dead deck’ and return them to the ‘live’ one. We have cards which allow players to destroy other cards by cutting them up with scissors or ripping them apart. In this game, ultimate victory consists in never making a card so dull someone wants to retire it. The winners are the ones who make us laugh the most. We preserve their senses of humor in the deck.

We stopped playing because it tired us out. One session was so loud, raucous, and fire-filled that most of the people in our house at the time jumped into the game halfway through, hypnotically fascinated by whatever we were doing. But they didn’t understand our cards. Some of our cards struck them as cruel. Our jokes seemed out of line. When we culled the deck at the end of our game, half the cards we loved were thrown out. The ecosystem of humor and self-congratulation we’d cultivated was upset.

You can’t let other people join your group, we realized. 1000BWC is private. It’s for hateful jokes and unintelligible humor. That final game was so apocalyptically confusing, with so many voices—we had something like twelve people playing—that it no longer made sense. It was too exhausting. We haven’t picked it up since, though the decks are all still there, ready to go.

It’s been a few days since we put the game aside, and in that time, I’ve realized why player created content is so tough. 1000BWC is the Communist revolution of player created content. Because all you need is a pen and a stack of index cards, you can do anything. The game is whatever pleases the players. There aren’t any real rules. There aren’t any real restrictions on resources or playstyle. You can’t be this creative in a computer game, and I doubt we’ll ever be able to. 1000 Blank White Cards is minimalistic. It isn’t anything. You can’t buy it in a store. Really, it’s more like some primitive inversion ritual than a card game. It’s so formless that it seems to deliberately bait frowny proscriptivists with the ‘is it actually a game!!?!’ debate.

If 1000BWC is the wild, extreme end of player-created content, where does Spore lie? Way down on that other end, I bet. Where’s the APB character creator? Where’s Minecraft? What are we actually looking for in player-created content? Are we looking for a chance to be as creative as we could be if we weren’t playing a game at all?

I’ve infected my circle of friends with Minecraft. Yesterday, one of them angrily asked me why he couldn’t put redstone dust on the sides of walls. “I was coming back across the beach and I saw my house sticking up there with its big blank sides,” he told me, “and I thought: hey, you know what would be great there? A big skull face made out of redstone dust. With torches for eyes.” But he can’t do that, because redstone dust is not for vertical surfaces.

“You’re too creative for Minecraft, I suppose,” I told him. I’ve been playing Minecraft for something like eight or nine months now. I bought it the week I finished with Dwarf Fortress. I remember picking it up back before there were even any trees. These days, I no longer imagine further than the game seems to let me. I’ve been wishing that I could reclaim some of that imagination and think up something splendid. That I could bring to it the fine, invention-drunk attitude that comes with 1000BWC. But I can’t. It’s an actual, imagined, conceived-of game, and 1000BWC isn’t—not until you make it.

Besides, our final game kind of sucked. There was a bit too much raucous creativity there, and it broke the feel. It’s very easy to break the feel when you make the feel yourself.

——-

*So awful that it would mangle your brain, Lovecraft-style, if I explained it to you

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7 Comments

  1. This sounds quite a bit like improv theatre for games! I’m definitely going to have to give it a try next semester.

    Like 1000BWC, improv offers more or less limitless freedom to the players, and is thus susceptible to many of the same pitfalls. Newcomers tend to get so wrapped up in this unchecked creativity that they lose sight of the scene, which almost always ends up bringing the whole thing down in flames. And because there are only so many ways to burn out, the complete freedom of pure improv generally leads to the same few boring spots.

    Experienced theatre-folk get around these problems by using a loose set of rules designed to foster collaboration. Some freedom is inevitably lost by adding these rules, but scenes tend to travel to much more interesting places after they’ve been introduced.
    I wonder if a game like 1000BWC might benefit from a similar set of guidelines?

    There’s a whole slew of improv rules that I could see working in the context of 1000BWC, but “finding the game” seems like it could be especially useful. Finding the game consists of identifying the concepts and interactions that make a scene tick. Grounding the scene in a central idea like this allows the players to quickly add in new bits and pieces without losing sight of what makes the whole thing funny/entertaining. Finding the game in 1000BWC is probably more about pacing and mechanics than characters and relationships, but it still seems like it could be pretty helpful!

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  2. Ok Laura, my brain is temporarily engaged, so I’m going to see if I can pick up where you left off:

    Analog (i.e. real-world) games can run a full spectrum of structure, from rigidly defined professional sports to games like 1000BWC and Calvinball, with varying results. But digital games don’t have that freedom. They can’t avoid rules because they ARE rules; that’s the only language a computer speaks. The moment you start coding, you are beginning to restrict the players’ freedom–in exchange for fun–and the only choice is where to stop. Something like Minecraft has only the most basic rules to define its world, while linear experiences like Half-Life sacrifice just about all player freedom in order to achieve a perfectly tuned Fun Experience.

    So can a videogame actually find that level of organic fun that you and your friends had in 1000BWC? I…have no idea. Maybe someone else can help me out here? I think my brain turned itself off again.

    Hee hee…coconuts…

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  3. Welcome back Laura, the internet kept your seat warm for you.

    When I was in hospital back in March, I read some books, which is just amazing because I rarely find the time to do so these days. I read Racing The Beam by Nick Montfort & Ian Bogost and one of the ideas it advances is that constraints => creativity.

    If that’s true – as prettiestboy suggests – there’s obviously going to be so a sweet spot between the extremes of totalitarian game state and anarchy.

    With the anarchy of 1000BWC it sounds like what your group created was a game that only made sense if you were part of its inception. It was a personal experience that could not be shared easily.

    Saying this, of course, in 1000BWC, it’s clear you are making your own game, constructing rules as you go along. With Minecraft and Spore, well-defined unbreakable rules are in place and you are building In Minecraft, but there are only so many personal goals you can set, most of them involving building something. (Spake he who is still shy of the Minecraft experience)

    What would qualify as a game that encourages you to “make a game” in the digital arena? We often lift an individual experience from a game (a la my recent post on FUEL) but I don’t think that’s the same as the chaotic game creativity represented by 1000BWC.

    Reply
  4. Holy shit, this is the greatest thing i have ever seen. Ever!!! I plan on purchasing large amounts of index cards and playing asap.

    Reply
  5. YOU’RE BACK! If I had an index card, I’d draw a confetti one (square root of current points x50).

    This sounds like excellent fun. I think we’re always going to run up against games limiting our creativity, and it’ll always bite deeper in games that try to offer more versus less. It’d be nice if you could scan in a card with the dialogue option the designers left out, but I guess that’s a path for games like Sleep is Death to explore.

    P.S. CONFETTI!

    Reply
  6. I love the pineapple card that says COCONUT on it. Happiness, it seems, renders many things moot.

    1KBWC sounds like a crack-your-friends-up marathon via one-panel cartooning. Perhaps when computers become smart enough to have a sense of humor they can play such things with us…

    Reply

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