Sign - A game About Being Understood

Sign - A game About Being Understood

Over the Christmas break I hosted a few days at the church for youth to come and play some games. For me, the highlight was yesterday afternoon when 6 youth gathered upstairs to explore what it is like to be deaf and unable to communicate by playing a Role-Playing Game (RPG) together. We played a game call Sign, designed by Thorny Games.  

Here is a quote from their website about the game:

Nicaragua in the 1970s had no form of sign language. If you were deaf, you had simple gestures with a trusted few, likely nothing more than a form of pantomime you negotiated with your family to meet basic needs. In 1977, something happened. Fifty deaf children from across the country were brought together to an experimental school in Managua. Without a shared language to express themselves, the children did the only thing they could -- they created one. In Sign, we follow a small piece of their journey.   

Each of the students assumed the character of a young Nicaraguan child in this school. I wish I could tell you their names, but I only know their names by the way they told me, a unique hand sign they created that they felt interpret their name best. Over the course of the game there were 3 classroom sessions and 3 recess sessions. The classroom sessions were structured while the recess sessions were free form.  

The first class the students got to know each other by introducing themselves. One by one, each student created a hand symbol unique to them; we all repeated that symbol back to them. Each of the three classes started this way. After class, we moved to recess where the students were free to get up, walk around and interact with the environment. Each student had a backstory, a truth about who they were, and 2 relationship goals that they were supposed to accomplish over the course of the game. Goals like “have someone play a game with me” or “have 2 people follow me somewhere.” The first recess was pretty lack lustre because the only signs we knew were each other’s names so we relied on pantomime to communicate, it was rough, broken, and rudimentary.  

Next, each student was asked to choose a word that was written on a slip of paper, words like parent, sibling, lonely, and others. After introductions, the students had to teach the rest of the class a sign for that word. They all had some motivation for the word they chose. Based on who they were and their goals, they knew where they had compromised their ability to communicate so they all chose words that they needed to know how communicate in order to accomplish their goals. After this class, we went to recess where all the students now had new words that they could use in their communication, to be heard and understood.  

The last class was like the second class except that each student could write their own word to interpret and teach to the class, then another recess. The game ended with a final session where each student had to describe who each student was and how they made them feel, all in sign. As the game master (GM) I could witness all the progression made of the 90 minutes or so of gameplay.

I enjoyed the game a lot more than I though I would. It was hard at first trying to create part of a new language with my hands, but through a lot of trial and error and laughing we finally managed to understand what it was we were trying to get across and communicate. -Daniel

This final activity of describing one another was neat to witness. Just an hour earlier, trying to remember each other’s names was a difficult task and trying to ask and answer the most basic questions was a difficult chore. It was hard to feel like you were understood. Everyone was making serious compromises in their communication efforts. As we sat in the circle, the hands were flying and laughter was evident. Each student could describe who each other person was with surprising accuracy, as well as able to describe their own emotions.  

After the game, we had a small debrief session to talk about what was difficult, what was easy, and what our experiences were like. The consensus was the ability to quickly improve communications through such a short time as well as the drastic change in the quality of communication from the beginning of the game to the end of the game. 

If you want to learn more about this game, click here