Instructor: Kathryn Hymes
Players: Spencer Abbe, Michele Royal, Todd Nicholas, Jennifer Martin, Karen Twelves, and Sean Nittner
A game about being understood.
Sign is a difficult game to describe. The play begins with some verbal instructions and everyone is allowed to play. The facilitator explains the background of the game, a Nicaraguan school in the 70s where deaf children were brought to learn lip reading – a project which failed completely but instead because the birthplace of Nicaraguan sign language, which the children developed among themselves when the though the teachers weren’t watching.
In Sign, you play these children and you go through three classroom sessions divided by recess sessions and finally have an “exam” where you must describe your fellow students and how they make you feel. Once the basic outline is given the game becomes completely silent and all communication either comes from the written instruction given by the facilitator or through our own emerging signs. Notably, during two of the classroom periods, each player is tasked to define a sign for one work, so after the first such session the group knows six words, after the second, they know twelve.
One more tool that we had was a marker which we could mark either our hands or note cards with a tally mark when we either did not understand someone or feel like we weren’t being understood. I had a lot of tally marks!
Sign explicitly does not try to reproduce the modern deaf experience or replicate any existing sigh languages. It is, like the title describes, a game about being understood.
The Play is the Thing
Sign is hard. Each of us received a character sheet and though they all had names on them, those names were never used. Our first “assignment” was to sign our name and then everyone else in the class would sign it as well. These were the first words we made.
The characters are complex. They have really rich backgrounds and lots of things that they want that are difficult to communicate. For instance my character liked to read children’s fantasy books to her nephew and wanted to become a young adult author. Karen’s character had a very sick mother and her grandmother took care of her.
Though hard the recess sessions are also fun. We made a fort, we built a castle out of cups, we figured out that most of us were poor, but not all of us were!
The words that had the most use and poignant for us were those that could describe many things: make, hope, and friend. The words that were very specific like sick were useful for those things we could build out of other words, but they had limited contact. The word deaf wasn’t used at all except that we all realized our teacher wasn’t deaf.
Playing the game did feel like being a child. I loved the short sessions of class and recess and the attempts (successful or not) to understand each other.
The marker was an extremely useful tool. I kind of wish I could have that when I’m talking to my mother. I really don’t like having ink on myself so Kate was great about giving us an alternative (I had an index card) to use instead. Thanks Kate!
Though the game is challenging it was never scary. Kate did a great job of preparing us for the game before we started playing and we all got to ask every questions we had. She also make sure that safety was first. If we needed to speak (which didn’t come up) we could pause the game at any time or leave the room to talk to her. I felt really supported the whole time.
As our teacher Kate had some pretty mad glower game. She was good at letting us know we were in trouble or that she disapproved. We even made up a sign for her, which I thought to mean Ms. Bossypants. We made it behind her back. She also wasn’t very good at getting the signs correct. She’d be lazy with them or use the wrong hand or just get them mixed up. Karen’s character really didn’t like that and it was great watching Karen correct her. This was all part of the character of course, Kate didn’t forget our signs but by pretending to she reinforced how important they were.
What could be improved
That is really hard to say. This game is brilliant and I’m so glad I got to play in it. From the prospective of these reports I wish I remembered all the words we made up signs for but since many were never written down, there are some that I only know the sign for (such as our names) and can’t reproduce here. I hope I remember them for a long time.