For our "Design for Discomfort" class, we were tasked with creating a variant on the classic game "Truth or Dare," but modified to provide some kind of message. Tianyi and I created a variant we call "Floating Secret," which works with feelings of vulnerability and empathy.

Concept

A key source of discomfort in the game "Truth or Dare" is the potential for sharing secrets that make you feel vulnerable. (Should you choose "truth," you are required to answer honestly to any question that you might be asked. Teens often use this to uncover secrets they suspect their friends are keeping.) We decided to focus on this particular discomfort that already exists in the classic game, but use it for therapeutic purposes. Most of us have personal secrets that we would not be comfortable sharing, but which we might benefit from having others hear and empathize with. So, we wanted to create a game in which participants share such secrets, and in return are given and opportunity to have their vulnerability acknowledged and empathized with.

However, if people were asked simply to share a very personal secret, they may not wish to do so, and may either choose not to participate, or give a secret that doesn't make them feel all that vulnerable (or maybe even lie). Thus, we decided to reduce the discomfort by having the secrets shared anonymously, within the group of participants - participants will know that a secret belongs to someone in the group, but won't know who. The secrets shared are "floating" in the sense of being unattached to any particular person. We are interested in creating a space for people to empathize with each other's vulnerabilities, while also protecting people from the vulnerability involved in sharing personal secrets.

Instructions for the Game

Necessary Materials

  • Each participant will need their own cell phone, laptop, or other internet-connected device.
  • A projector or other large display (also internet-connected), which the entire group can see at once.

Steps

First, participants verbally consent to the following:

"This game involves the anonymous sharing of personal secrets that make us feel vulnerable. Before we begin, everyone must verbally agree that they will share a personal secret. Others in the classroom will read this secret, but neither they nor the hosts will know to whom among the participants the secret belongs."

Then, participants access an online form. The form informs participants that their submissions will be anonymously shown to the group, and then asks them to share a secret that makes them feel vulnerable.

An example of the form, via Google Forms.

To protect anonymity, participants are asked to fill out the form at their own pace, but to wait and submit the form simultaneously. Otherwise, one could potentially work out whose submission is whose by noticing the order or time at which people finish their submissions.

Once all group members have finished the form, and the group has submitted the forms, the hosts inform the group that we are now to view everyone's secrets, and take a moment to honor and empathize with each one. The hosts then bring up the submitted secrets on the large display. The secrets should be displayed in sequence, one at a time, pausing on each so that the group can read.

When all the secrets have been finished, the group is asked to stand and face each other in a circle, and bow to honor the vulnerability that their fellow participants underwent, and their courage in sharing the secrets that they did.

Structure of Discomfort

When designing meaningful experiences involving discomfort, one ought to follow a particular structure, building up discomfort and then resolving or exorcising it in some way. The first part of the game, in which the participants share a personal secret, is intended to create the discomfort of vulnerability. The second part, in which participants empathize with each other's vulnerabilities without disclosing who they belong to, is intended to resolve this discomfort, by allowing others to empathize with their suffering and vulnerability. In this way, they feel the comfort of being heard and cared for, without the risk of revealing their personal secrets.

Design Considerations

We thought very carefully about how to protect anonymity within the group. Originally we considered mixing up the submitted secrets and letting each group member read one. However, we imagined that while your secret is being read, it may show in your face or demeanor that this secret is yours. Hence, we decided to have the secrets displayed on a screen. With the entire group facing the screen, participants are protected from inadvertently revealing themselves when their secret is shown. Our use of an anonymous online form prevents identification via handwriting or electronic identity. Finally, our choice to have participants submit the form simultaneously prevents identification via timing or order of completion.

Secondly, we wanted to create a space for each secret to be honored and empathized with, so that each participant can feel the empathy and support from the group. Hence, we display each secret one by one with the group silently watching, rather than showing a list of all of them at once. The closing action, in which the group bows to each other, is also meant to honor the secrets they have all shared.

Results

We playtested the game with our class, for a total of twelve participants. While we will not share the secrets here, all responses were very personal and vulnerable. Themes included sexual insecurities, sexual orientation, social insecurities, mental health, trauma, and disturbing thoughts.

Feedback and Possible Improvements

Participants noted, and we observed, several problems with the game as originally designed. They generally fall into two overarching themes.

Building Greater Trust

Participants commented that they didn't feel a great deal of trust in the process. We could have made it more clear that even the hosts (us) would not be able to identify form submissions - some participants assumed that Google Forms would allow us to do so (it does, but as an optional feature that we did not enable). Our setup of the technology did not go smoothly, which further decreased confidence. I also believe that we should have planned and followed a script for what each of us would say, as this would project more confidence.

Participants also described anxiety over being the most vulnerable among the group. Because they did not know how vulnerable others might choose to be, they feared being the only one to share a deeply personal secret. However, all participants shared a significant and vulnerable secret in the end. So we believe this particular anxiety to be an unavoidable part of the discomfort that we are intentionally creating. Nonetheless, we could have done more to relieve this anxiety by building trust and group support.

To do so, we would probably re-structure the game with a build-up of secret-sharing. Secrets would be shared in three rounds of increasing vulnerability, all in the same anonymous fashion and with the same display procedure. First, participants would be asked to share something benign, such as "what is something you like that others tend not to?" or "what is a fun fact about yourself?" Next, participants would be asked to share something personal but positive, such as "what was an event that created positive change in your life?" Finally, participants would be asked to share a secret that makes them feel vulnerable, as in our original design.

The three rounds of sharing in this way would serve many functions. By walking through the anonymous submission procedure on lighter topics, we would build trust in the system to protect anonymity. Since they share facts about themselves in the first two rounds, albeit fun and positive ones, the group would begin to establish a bond, a bond that would hopefully strengthen the sense of support from others when the vulnerable secret is read. Finally, by progressing from light-hearted fun, through personal joy, and finally to personal suffering, the activity would give a gradual buildup of discomfort, rather than starting suddenly with vulnerable personal sharing.

Resolving Discomfort and Intense Emotions

Most participants reported that they did not feel as if their discomfort had been resolved, or that they did not get anything back in return for the vulnerability they gave. Moreover, from our observation, the most intense part of the playtesting was when the secrets were being displayed. The tension in the room was palpable - not negative tension of conflict or anxiety, but the emotional tension of seeing people's wounds laid bare. In short, our intended structure - discomfort while submitting a secret, comfort when getting empathy from the group - failed. This is clearly visible in the documentation video above, in which the viewing of secrets and the bow at the end is very uncomfortable and awkward. Additionally, some participants described that viewing others' secrets brought up particular things they wanted to say in solidarity or empathy, and that the lack of space to do so was uncomfortable.

A possible improvement here could be to provide another round of anonymous submissions, this one for people to share any responses they had to others' secrets. This would provide a space for those expressions of empathy or solidarity that participants felt unable to share. While participants are asked to share only one secret, the response round would allow multiple submissions from each participant. Responses would then be displayed in the same fashion. Hopefully, by giving the support of the group a space for expression, and by extending the space of sharing for a longer time, this last round would allow the tension and discomfort of the viewing of secrets to resolve into a sense of empathy and support.

However, we are not quite satisfied with this procedure as a way to fully resolve the discomfort and close the magic circle. It was clear that the group bow at the end did not resonate or feel like a proper resolution. (Setting may have played a significant role here - we were standing in a flourescent-lit classroom, and with a conference table between all of us throughout the process. A more intimate setting, possibly with warm, low, lighting, may improve the overall experience in many ways.) Even then, the game seems to call for some way of closing the process that is more impactful than a simple bow, but we are not sure what. When discussing this problem, we raised the possibility of closing with a group hug, but that raises issues of consent to physical contact, adding another layer of risk to the game.

Notes on Group Size

The social dynamics of game require a medium-sized group. Our class of twelve participants seemed to work well in terms of protecting anonymity while retaining group intimacy. We tried to playtest at the end of class the previous week, but because at least half the class had left already, the remaining participants bowed out - the group size was so small that most felt that their secret would be easily identified. At the other end of the spectrum, we imagine (although we have not tested) that a group that is too much larger could easily lose the sense of group intimacy and support - not to mention the time spent in displaying responses one by one.