Last summer, we heard about a Kickstarter campaign for a new antiwar, direct action board game by a British Friend named Jessica Metheringham. Intrigued by the concept, I started following her progress, which she documented online under the name of Dissent Games. By September, the campaign was fully funded by 240 backers who had pledged £9,182 (about $11,800) to help bring the project to life, well above the original goal of £5,000. Metheringham’s blog updates were frequent, personal, and transparent—a behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to make a board game from scratch.
She leaned on her followers to crowdsource solutions to problems and gather advice from experienced gamers, reporting back on every step of the process: from small details like choosing a color scheme and catching typos to bigger logistical factors like navigating shipping costs and selecting an overseas factory for production. On that last decision, she posted about the challenges of finding an ethical and affordable option to produce the board and box components—a dilemma informed by her previous work on political engagement for Quakers in Britain, where she had lobbyed for stricter supply chain legislation in the UK’s Modern Slavery Act 2015. (After identifying a possibility of forced labor at one option, she ended up using a more expensive yet more transparent manufacturer in Hong Kong.) In December, a final copy of the game arrived at the Friends Journal office (with nearly plastic-free packaging thanks to Metheringham’s environmental commitment); the following month, after playing Disarm the Base with a few colleagues, I talked with its Quaker creator over a video chat.
The first page of the instruction booklet says that the game is loosely based on a number of real conflicts and some real activists. Can you share more about that?
When I worked for Quakers in Britain, one of my colleagues, Samuel Walton, and his friend Daniel Woodhouse broke into BAE Systems’ Warton Aerodome in the northeast of England on January 29, 2017. They were planning to disarm a war plane but got caught. At that point, the base was being used to send weapons to the Yemen conflict, and they chose that base because 21 years previously a group of women known as the Ploughshares Four had broken in on the same date and actually got to one of the planes and disarmed it. In both cases, there was a long trial, and it got in the news. Sam and Dan were acquitted, and I thought it was such a great story. It’s not something I would’ve done myself, but I thought, hang on, how can I take this and use it as a creative inspiration but also try to challenge the norms?
So that was your inspiration, but why make it into a board game?
I really like games. I play a fair number of board games, and I kept seeing a lot of the same old themes coming up. Some of them are really straightforward: You’re going to farm some things; there’s some resource management going on. And there are quite a lot that are very fighty, very much a conflict-driven situation. But certainly here in the UK, there’s been a real resurgence in board games—perhaps in the last five years or so. Many more cooperative games are coming out, which really fascinated me. I really like playing co-op games because you’re playing against the board, against the luck of the draw, essentially. So I thought this would make a really good cooperative game. But I didn’t know many that had this kind of protest theme. There were a few but not a huge number.
It seems the cooperative aspect would resonate with many Quakers. Playing the game with others, I noticed we had to communicate a lot and make decisions together—much like the Quaker process of reaching consensus. Was that something you were thinking about while creating the game?
It was definitely part of it. I believe cooperative games have a lot to teach us about teamwork. There’s a lot of working it out together, talking it through, thinking it through, making sure that you’ve got the right approach rather than one person just saying, “Well, I’m going to go off and do this.” So while I wouldn’t say I was intentional about it, it definitely comes from that place: from my part in that world and my desire to have a group of people really considering their actions rather than just charging in.
Another Quaker aspect is the goal of nonviolent direct action, which is made more powerful by placing it in the context of real-life violence in the world (war planes that are ready to bomb civilians tomorrow morning). How did you envision players dealing with the reality of doing this radical nonviolent action to stop violence?
My approach was along the same lines of nonviolence not being about the absence of conflict, but being more about acknowledging the darkness of the world. And no, we’re not going to be all nice and fluffy and shut it out. We’re going to say, “Okay, what can we practically do?” But not necessarily behaving in a vigilante way. It was quite important to me that the players in the game can’t do anything to the guards. They can’t even shut them in rooms; they certainly can’t react against the guards. The game also uses bolt cutters, crowbars, and disarm codes rather than explosives, because they cause less damage. This is a story about disarming weapons. Bolt cutters are clean and tidy, snipping through wires to safely neutralize the plane. There is no risk that another person is harmed—and in a game where your motivation is to stop the planes from bombing people, this is an important consideration! So I wanted to ask, “What can we do that’s practical, that’s effective, but which doesn’t increase the cycle of violence?”
You also point out that in the real world, activists are usually caught before succeeding in their goal, but that the resulting media attention is a chance to raise public awareness about an issue. Why was it important for you to include that?
Well, firstly, I didn’t want people to think that they should just go out and do this. You’ve got to think really carefully about it. And yes, I do want people to dissent, but to dissent mindfully. This is a game, not a set of instructions. It’s a stylized thing that might just shift or challenge somebody’s perspective just a tiny bit. My personal theory of change is all about the small steps. I also think it shows the magic of role-play. There are a lot of games out there where, for example, you get to role-play being a soldier. And I get that a lot of people are interested in doing that because it’s not something they do in their everyday life. But there are lots of other things that people don’t do in their everyday life, and it might be quite nice if they could role-play doing some of those other things.
So what’s next for Dissent Games?
Well, first, I’d like to say that I left my job about a year ago mainly because I have two very small children. So I’ve been raising them and doing this work. I’ve been very privileged to have a bit of a window in my life where I can do this. And that window is still open, so I am wondering, yes, what’s next? There are quite a lot of things I’d like to do: kind of a spectrum from actual boxed games to doing workshop exercises. Right now, I’m working on two possible games, both about voting.
Updated April 1: A lot has changed since we last corresponded in February. How has the spread of the coronavirus affected you and your work?
Two things: Firstly, I was looking at creating a new game based on voting systems and democracy. Unfortunately, that game was intended for groups of three to eight people, and so it has been very difficult to playtest! Due to the pandemic, I may be putting the development of that game on hold for a while. The second thing is that I have less time to spend thinking about new games. As I have two small children (a three-year-old and a one-year-old) and childcare is shut in the UK, it’s meant that I get much less time to work. Lockdown is hard for small children, especially when the weather is just getting better. And as an introvert, I’m definitely looking forward to having a bit more time alone!
Another thing I’ll add is that I’ve heard from a couple of Friends who say that they have been playing Disarm the Base in lockdown. One person who has been playing the solo version a lot says he was starting to think of it liken a computer game, but analogue! This rather amused me. The solo version is probably going to be useful for some people, particularly those who are stuck in isolation by themselves.