Overview:

Elon Musk has finally been dragged over the finish line of buying Twitter. In the wake of his disastrous decision-making since then, two games have arisen to poke some fun at the situation. And they handle their topics very well.

Reading Time: 9 minutes

Twitter continues to go up in flames in the most hilarious and predictable lollercaust in recent history. Meanwhile, the people who inhabit that social media site are getting more and more frustrated. A game designer, Oliver Darkshire, has released a pair of one-page dice games that let those frustrated tweeters release some of their frustration—through humor.

Sure, it’s gallows humor. But maybe sometimes we need a good laugh when things are on fire all around us.

The Twitter exodus continues apace

When Elon Musk finally got dragged over the finish line to buy Twitter, a lot of highfalutin’ Twitterati declared that they were leaving forever. NBC has been maintaining a running list of who’s leaving. So far, they’ve got:

  • Shonda Rhimes (creator of Gray’s Anatomy)
  • Sara Bareilles (singer)
  • Toni Braxton (singer)
  • Mick Foley (retired wrestler and actor)
  • Whoopi Goldberg (talk show host, actor, comedian, Guinan)
  • Gigi Hadid (model)
  • Brian Koppelman (show creator)
  • Erik Larsen (comic book artist known for Spider-Man work)
  • Téa Leoni (actress)
  • Bill Morrison (comic book artist)
  • Ken Olin (executive producer of This is Us)
  • Marina Sirtis (Deanna Troi)
  • Captain Chelsey “Sully” Sullenberger (yes, that one)
  • Alex Winter (Bill from Bill & Ted)

I saw rumors that CBS News was leaving, but their official account is still active as of 7 minutes ago as I write this post. At least, if it’s really their account.

Also, Ryan Reynolds has apparently headed for Tumblr, unless that’s his latest super-ironic joke.

All the little birds are flying away from Twitter

And it’s not just famous people leaving, either. Since Musk’s October 27 purchase, the MIT Technology Review has estimated that almost 900k users may have deactivated their accounts between then and November 1st. They also noticed a huge uptick in account suspensions, which they believe are occurring because people are testing how far Musk’s free-speech sentiments really go. Apparently, he’s not as much of an absolutist as some folks thought.

The Twitter departure tweet has become a common sight on the bird site. There’s even a hashtag now: #leavingtwitter. There, you’ll find all kinds of names you know (like Elvira) and many you don’t.

Out of all the social media sites, Twitter seems custom-designed to be addictive. It’s a fast-acting hit of emotions and feedback. Survey after survey indicates that even its users themselves understand what an incredibly toxic cesspit Twitter is.

An excellent article from Project Energise seeks to quantify exactly what about Twitter makes it so awful, and I think it’s a good summary. Bear in mind that all social media increases users’ levels of anxiety, depression, and self-image issues. Likewise, all social media platforms contain toxic elements like “vanity metrics” (likes, updoots, shares, the exhilaration of “going viral”), trolls, and privacy issues. Still, Twitter is particularly noteworthy for its “very big culture of anonymous abuse.”

The writer of the article, Lily Norton, links to a post from a Duke University student who got incredibly addicted to Twitter, then deleted the app to regain his mental health. I’m sure that’s nowhere near an isolated occurrence.

So tweeters aren’t quitting the idea of Twitter. Instead, they’re seeking a substitute. They want a Twitter-like app and Twitter-like benefits. They just want to get that stuff from a non-Elon-Musk-owned service.

The Twitter expats trying out Mastodon

Many of those unhappy little blue birds fled to a social media service called Mastodon. Mastodon is often considered a “Twitter alternative.” But it’s decentralized, meaning there’s no central group running it. Instead, users set up their own servers, called instances, to talk to each other. A server owner makes their own rules for their server. Those rules might look totally different from another server’s rules.

So in a lot of ways, Mastodon operates much like Discord, except Discord has a central authority figure that can and does suspend Discord servers that violate its terms of service (ToS).

Mastodon servers connect with each other in a protocol they call the Fediverse, but Mastodon’s not the only service that runs along the Fediverse.

And it doesn’t sound like Twitter users are at all familiar with the notion of decentralized servers. Big-name folks like Taylor Lorenz quickly ran afoul of Mastodon culture.

Responses to Taylor Lorenz’ chirpy self-introduction on mastodon.social. These were the mildest replies I saw.

Other Twitter expats have gotten very confused about what the Fediverse itself even is. When the Twitter-verified Palmer Report got banned from one Mastodon instance, its owner complained (on Twitter):

At least you didn’t get banned from Mastodon by some server troll, only to learn that no one involved with Mastodon has the ability to override that troll 😆

November 10 tweet from @PalmerReport

These expats face an insurmountable problem with Mastodon: There’s no central authority figure. If they get banned from an instance, only its owner can reverse that ban. Instances containing content they absolutely hate can operate without any care for what they think. And wow, there are a lot of Fediverse instances containing alt-right and offensive content.

Outraged ex-tweeters can’t shut down offensive instances by reporting that content to anyone. There’s no “anyone” to whom they can appeal. If using Twitter means tacit approval for the kinds of speech Elon Musk allows, then what does using Mastodon mean?

It’s got to be very frustrating right now to be a Twitter user seeking a new home.

They do not want a Mastodon

Enter game designer Oliver Darkshire. On November 11, he dropped a one-page dice game called I Do Not Want a Mastodon. Seriously. It’s one page long. And it’s about how a gift mastodon is destroying the player’s life:

From Oliver Darkshire’s tweet on November 11, 2022.

Here’s how the game describes its scenario:

due to the unwanted (and ill-judged) generosity of a late relative’s will and testament, you are now the owner of a large, bad tempered proboscidean. no, you did not necessarily want a mastodon, but life gave you one anyway. and now it’s in your house. touching all your things.

To play, you roll a six-sided die. The die roll determines what happens to you that day or night. Slowly, the results add to your three scores: Confusion, Damages, and Thinking. When one of those scores reaches 10, the game ends with you settling on one of three states:

  • Confusion reaches 10: you finally lose your temper for good, attack the mastodon, and die in that very brief fight
  • Damages reach 10: the mastodon destroys everything you own, then leaves you for greener pastures
  • Thinking reaches 10: you run away from your home with whatever money you have left; you’ve lost everything, but you’re alive and can restart your life

Notably, nothing you do can whittle back your scores. Every die roll only adds to one of them. The game only grants you a chance to have “a feverish moment of dire clarity.” Any time you gain Confusion, you can roll three six-siders. If all three come up with the same number, then “you finally decipher what the Mastodon was trying to tell you,” make friends with it, and live forever in harmony with it. (Also, you become a vegan.)

How I Do Not Want a Mastodon speaks to frustration through games

Knowing what I do about the differences between Twitter and Mastodon, this game tickles my funny bone like not much else could right now. Even Oliver Darkshire’s reason for making the game sounds like a perfect description of how Twitter users must feel at realizing they must leave Twitter:

you are given a mastodon you do not want by well meaning people who do not understand that you do not want a mastodon

Oliver Darkshire, 11/11 tweet

The descriptions of what the mastodon does are likewise hilarious and completely on the nose:

Your mastodon centralizes all over the carpet.

The mastodon federates violently through a window, which now needs replacing.

The mastodon bashes a hole in your roof, and now claims to have a much better view of other mastodons.

During the night, your mastodon holds not one, not two, but a third party. There is a platform. And servers.

It just speaks to the sheer frustration and confusion that Twitter users must be feeling as they learn the ropes of this new platform. It’s just enough like Twitter that it probably seems familiar and safe, but it’s different enough that it’s got to be pulling them up short all the time.

Last Days of Rome might be even more on the nose with Twitter criticism

On November 18, Darkshire released a similar one-page game called Last Days of Rome. It runs along similar lines: the Emperor is trying to burn the Roman Empire to the ground, including you and your home. Die rolls determine how quickly your three scores reach 10, at which point the game ends with you in one of three states.

Now your scores are Flames, Desolation, and Relocation. Instead of potentially achieving “a feverish moment of dire clarity,” at any time in this game you can declare, “We should totally just kill Caesar.” Then, you roll three six-siders. Regardless of the results, you initiate an assassination attempt; the dice just determine if you were successful or not. As Darkshire puts it: “You die either way, but if you pull it off then it will be immensely satisfying.”

The descriptions of what happens to increase your scores are “immensely satisfying,” too. Here are my faves:

It’s execution night at the palace. Participants are selected based on performance reviews.

The emperor screams like a baby. Why does the world not bend to his whims?

Work continues on a house made of pure gold. It keeps melting.

People complain – this is unacceptable. Then they go about their business.

Lions are released onto the streets in an attempt to calm the population.

The Emperor decrees that the burnings will continue until morale improves.

Really, the best thing that could happen in this game is reaching 10 points in Relocation. In this end state, “you come to your senses” and leave Rome.

Using Last Days of Rome as a proxy for criticizing Elon Musk’s melting-down of Twitter

This time around, Darkshire’s game isn’t criticizing the site that has received so many fleeing tweeters. No, this time he takes solid aim at criticizing how Elon Musk seems determined to absolutely destroy Twitter itself without a single care for the most dedicated users of the site.

He’s one of the biggest and most capricious agents of sheer chaos in the world right now, and often his motivations seem completely indecipherable.

But there’s really not a way for an average Twitter user to reach Elon Musk himself with criticism. Sometimes, he engages with normal people on Twitter, yes. But he doesn’t appear to take much of what they say on board. That’s likely why Time headlined a 2019 article about him describing him as “the Lord of Twitter,” and the users of Twitter as “the peasants.”

If Musk has ever even noticed what plebs think of him or his Twitter takeover, it probably only amuses him. But at least now people can play a game that echoes their frustrations—and grants them a way to laugh at it all.

Games as a proxy for engaging with current events

For years now, gamers have noticed current events showing up in their games’ plots.

Sometimes, this happens in disastrous ways. In 2018, White Wolf released a module for its Vampire: The Masquerade tabletop roleplaying game. As its setting, it drew upon stories of the all-too-real anti-LGBT violence happening in Chechnya (officially, the Chechen Republic). It attributed that violence to vampires. Many people felt White Wolf acted in shockingly poor taste here. Indeed, this module so outraged the gaming community that it effectively ended White Wolf’s entire existence as a business entity.

At other times, though, some gamers respond much better to games that touch on current events. In 2017, Ubisoft released a trailer for its upcoming game Far Cry 5. Usually, Far Cry games are set in landscapes that are unfamiliar to most American gamers, like the Himalayas, various African biomes, and Pacific-style island nations. This time, however, the newest game in the series was set in the beautiful, remote mountains of Montana.

Then gamers learned that its villains would be Christian cultists.

Half of the internet exulted. The other half exploded in rage. You can probably guess what each half’s respective political opinions looked like. Inverse, a gaming site, seems to take great pleasure in describing the angry half:

Those who liked the concept [of Far Cry 5] praised Ubisoft for reversing its notorious history of sending white protagonists to shoot up “exotic” areas in developing nations. Those who hate the art? Well, they’re the folks you’d expect to hate it, those who decry attempts at “political correctness” and call others too soft, that is, until satire turns on them.

Inverse, May 2017

A few months later, a writer for another site, Polygon, criticized the game as “a morally dubious mess” because it seemed to shy away from addressing white Christian nationalists’ endemic racism.

Even bearing in mind the risks if done poorly, many games touch upon current events and concerns. Some years back, an education-minded writer, Jeremiah McCall, offered dozens of games specifically designed to teach students about events happening at the time. Their topics ranged from ecology and climate change to wind farming and microfinances to Darfur starvation and Rwandan violence.

By now, game developers have learned—more or less—how to incorporate current events into their games without being offensive or looking like they’re profiting from real people’s suffering. There’s a serious amount of moral calculus going on behind the scenes of these types of games that their players likely won’t even notice.

Doing the Twitter exodus right in a game

In the case of Oliver Darkshire’s two games, he handles the Twitter/Elon Musk saga in what I regard as tone-perfect ways.

First of all, the games are free. Anyone can download them and play them without paying a cent to anyone (though he does have a Patreon, for those interested in his other games). Thus, he’s not making any profit from anyone’s emotional distress.

Second, the games don’t specifically name Elon Musk or Twitter. Though they clearly refer to both, they allow players some mental distance. For me at least, each game’s many rolled outcomes focus me on its three rapidly-growing scores. It keeps the mind busy on something that’s more tangential.

Third and perhaps most importantly, the two games help me focus on the endgame for both Twitter and Elon Musk. Through these games, Twitter users can say to themselves:

No, I don’t want Elon Musk mucking about with my Twitter. I did not order a Mastodon or an Elon Musk. But they are both sure right here in my life. In the end, though, what’s happening will not benefit them any more than it has benefited me.

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...