Shock:Social Science Fiction


… Because a game of Shock: is built around real-world issues that you care about, your game is going to be a little deeper than just entertainment— it’s going to be a story that’s about something. It’s going to have some intellectual heft to it. It’s going to get you thinking. For this reason, I think that playing Shock: can actually be therapeutic: when you’re feeling confused about some topic in the news, if you can’t decide how you feel about some pressing social issue, if you see a new invention and wonder what it might mean, you can play a Shock: game about it. Role-playing it out might help you and your friends work through your thoughts and explore possible consequences. In Shock, I think we might finally have an RPG that does what the best written SF does — help us learn to cope with the rapid social and technological changes occurring in the modern world.

— reviewer Jono Xia

I started work on Shock:Social Science Fiction in 2005 after completing my first experimentally published game, Under the Bed. I’d wanted a way to play science fiction; not just read or watch it, and not just play with its trappings, but to actually play with the ideas that make the genre so interesting to me.

The game has several pieces, working together, that facilitate that.

A Geology of Politics

Shock: starts by asking players about real sociopolitical issues that they, as players, care about. These are open questions that they care enough about to read about in papers, blog about, and vote on. Each player provides one such issue. They tend to be torn from the headlines so they change over time, but frequently recurring ones are:

  • Terrorism
  • Health care
  • Immigraton law
  • The surveillance state
  • Institutionalized racism, sexism, and ablism
  • Corporatocracy

Those Issues are them crossed with a Shock, i.e. a radical difference between our world and that of the fiction. Popular, recurring ones are:

  • Life in a colony ship bound for a distant star
  • First contact between humans and really weird aliens
  • Time travel
  • Human cloning
  • Interplanetary travel
  • Ecological collapse
  • The technological singularity

The purpose of the Issues are to make sure that players have personally, intimately important creative material. The purpose of the Shock, conversely, is to both give players distance from those issues and to magnify them, making them critically important to the society being there represented.

This makes the game take the form of a science experiment. There’s an independent variable (the Issue, a recognizable piece of our world), and a dependent variable (the Shock, a phenomenon of significant, but qualitatively unknown, effect).

Players then determine a small set of actions that, within the bounds of their society, they can take.

Products of Their Environment

Where the Shock crosses each Issue, we find ourselves with a Protagonist and Antagonist. Each is played by a different player, while everyone who’s not involved in a scene at the moment plays background phenomena, effectively acting as editors on the fiction as it occurs.

Each Protagonist wants something to change (or perhaps, to prevent a change) within their society. “Become God-Emperor of the Known Universe” is as valid a terminus as “Get my daughter onto the last space ark.” The players are constrained only by the context of the universe they’re creating.

Clash of Civilization

Over the course of two to four scenes, Protagonists and Antagonists will clash as the audience manipulates circumstance to keep the narrative of the world coherent. In about two hours, each of their core interests will have resolved and the universe will have completed this phase of change.

Surfing the Shockwave of the Future

In 2010, I adapted what I’d learned over five years of playing Shock: into Shock:Human Contact. It ameliorated the cynicism that pervaded Shock: games, giving players a reason to hope for the future in the form of complex, lasting relationships, societies that evolve over decades, and an interstellar community that gives players a sense of hope and scale of the universe. It carries in it my hopes for humanity as both people and perceivers of the vast and mysterious universe in which we live. It remains the best thing I’ve created.

Human Contact is now out of print, but I fully expect Shock: to reëmerge soon, using techniques of play that will be as cutting-edge now as the current rules were in 2006.