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Beyond mere misery: playing Nicotine Girls

A couple of weeks ago I played a little game called Nicotine Girls, by Paul Czege. I was terrified. The game is modest enough in scope, but the subject matter is incredibly vulnerable: you play low-income young women aged 16-19, in desperate or dismal circumstances, trying to make their dreams come true.

I first found Nicotine Girls a couple of years ago, on Paul’s website. It appealed to me a great deal, but I shied away from actually playing it, especially since the one other gameplaying person I showed it to seemed to think it impossible to play seriously. So it just filed away in the back of my brain, because I was afraid.

I was afraid that I as a thirtysomething white guy would make some horrible sexist and classist blunder in play. I was afraid the game would degenerate into pure misery tourism under the guise of something deep. I was afraid it would take a more glib turn and degenerate into a disrespectful laugh-fest. In short, I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to do justice to the subject of the truly disempowered.

But some other recent play put it back to the front of my mind, and I began to gather the courage to try. At Go Play NW I polayed it with Michael, Ogre and Johnstone. I had a pang of guilt as we started, as I realized that I, as the Gamemaster, was not in as vulnerable a position as my cohorts. They would be putting a lot of emotional investment on the line with these impoverished and desperate characters, while I would be primarily piling on the adversity. It seemed unfair of me to ask of them what I would not do myself. but we began with a frank conversation of the emotionally vulnerable core of the game, and proceeded on a foundation of intimate trust.

The thing with Nicotine Girls, is that your actions are extremely constrained both by the situation–low-income girls trapped in their circumstances–and by the rules framework–you must act out of Hope or Fear, and you can only use Sex, Cry or Money to get what you want. And there’s a hope roll at the end of the game to attain your Dream that’s heavily stacked against the players. It seemed like a dismal setup that could only end in tragedy–Misery Tourism indeed.

But an amazing thing happened: there was a wonderful array of texture and nuance to the fiction we created. There were moments of misery, but also humor, of tragedy, but also hope. The characters were drawn as vividly and realistically as in a movie like Trainspotting or SLC Punk. And three girls’ fates ran across a whole spectrum, from the senselessly tragic to the deservedly dismal to the brutal but hopeful. What the nigh-impossible Dream roll did was ground the story–this ain’t no Disney movie, there isn’t a fairy godmother in sight,  but your life is what you make it.

I was moved. We all were. I was so gratified to put my trust in these guys and have it returned. Together we transcended the shallow or pretentious and moved beyond it to true beauty and unflinching truth.

Peace,

-Joel

3 thoughts on “Beyond mere misery: playing Nicotine Girls”

  1. Well, there you have it. 🙂

    I should stress though, that a lot of the experience depended on having a great group of players who were mature and supportive. But given that, we found Nicotine Girls gave us potent tools to focus the game just so.

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