I love Massively Multiplayer Soba because it is simple and it works. In an academic paper, I might say the game explores tolerance and diversity by facilitating inter-cultural exchanges around regional cuisine. But really, Soba just gets strangers talking about food. We live in a country flayed by partisan divides, with too much time spent thinking about trivial differences. Even in New York where people from all over live side by side, it’s rare for us to take the time to interact with each other. But games give people excuses to be extroverts. And food is a universal passion. With Soba, we give strangers an excuse to discuss commonalities, and the results are just good.
Last Saturday, as part of the Conflux Festival, we hosted a game of Soba. 24 participants came out, some RSVPing days in advance to ensure they had a spot at the diner table. We broke the crowd into groups of 3-5, letting friends stay together but also mixing together strangers. Over the half hour participants arrived, we joined them into teams, and sent them off with a voice recorder, instructions and an x-marked map. Once in Jackson Heights, they followed the map to find our own Suyin waiting, and receive their list of ingredients to translate. Then, the real game began as they plunged into boisterous Roosevelt Ave to make new connections.
There is something very unique that happens when someone is unexpectedly invited into a game. Once inside the magic circle, regardless of what her mindset had been just moments ago, she’s suddenly disarmed and open. One group convinced an almond-eyed woman in a headscarf to imitate a mushroom. Smiling, she raised her arms over her head like a toadstool cap and stood straight as a stalk. Another group had a man describing a time when he made dinner for his crush, only to be stood up and heartbroken. In the middle of errands, or pausing with groceries in hand, strangers reminisced about holiday meals, childhood longings, and the incomparable comfort of mom’s chicken soup. “I don’t know what it was, maybe how she cut up the vegetables or something.”
One of the day’s highlights came from the team with PETlab’s Colleen Macklin. After receiving their Food Cards, Colleen’s group was too distracted by the culinary temptations of Jackson Heights to play the game as directed. Instead, they went and ate enchiladas. But, the team noticed that on one of the game cards was the rule that players could earn 100 points by bringing someone from the community to dinner. They found Salvador in the restaurant, and convinced him to come for a free meal. The instruction to bring back someone from the community was one of the most important rules, but one we were worried no one would be able to accomplish. Everyone was ecstatic to see Salvador come through the door. He was a charming gentleman, relaxed, friendly, talkative, and social.
When the teams arrived with their ingredients, Mary cooked up seemingly endless bowls of soba and seitan. While the players and volunteers stuffed themselves, we listened to the recordings of their interviews and totaled up scores. In the end, first and second place were separated by only 10 points (710 to 700) and the winners all received gift certificates to the Jackson Diner. Everyone ate, drank, and was merry. We couldn’t ask for a more successful launch than that.
We definitely need to thank the Queens Diversity Center for graciously hosting our event in their fabulous space, and we want to thank all our friends who volunteered to help run the game. If all goes as planned we’ll be able to hold Soba another time or two before the cold weather forces everyone inside, and then maybe in the spring we can bring it to another of New York’s spectacularly eclectic neighborhoods. Thanks again to everyone who participated.