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Ouija: The GTA of My Teens

December 7, 2008

When I was a kid, this was our GTA:


So, it came as a surprise to me to see a pink Ouija boardthis morning when I scanned the sale advert for Toys R’ Us. It’s included in the collection of pink girl games (because that’s evidently the ticket to getting girls to play). My, what a transition it’s made. It looks odd up there in that picture, the smiling girl and the game, a contrast to what my brain has remembered and internalized.

“Mommy! I just summoned dead Uncle Howard! Yeah for me!”

When I grew up, Ouija shared so many of GTA’s present day traits: it was vaguely interesting because it was forbidden, some kid’s parents let them play it, and we knew who those kids were. It was something we weren’t supposed to do. It generated larger than life stories which were shared outside the game and almost became a meta-game in themselves. People wrote articles damning the game. Some said it wasn’t a game at all (I’d agree).

In Ouija’s case, a general “collective conscience” caution existed about the board welcoming contact with the dead. That meant both good dead and bad dead and even evil spirits. While it’s easy to brush this off from some points of view, it wasn’t possible where and when I grew up. Imagine sending the 8-year-old girl (or so) pictured above to channel the undead. Moderately creepy, no?

Making contact with the dead is a part of some cultures more than others, and so I imagine that this game would have greater gravity elsewhere. For my Caribbean husband, Obeah was a part of his culture’s collective conscience. It wasn’t dismissed at all, and I’ve witnessed signs of protection from Obeah all over his island. I’ve even heard people say with complete sincerity that someone had “been workin Obeah pun me.” These individuals were not the American equivalent of rednecks or some people stuck in a 3rd world. They are as much first world as you or me, college educated doctors, lawyers and politicians.

In reflecting on all this over coffee, the one thing that really sticks with me is this: making contact with the dead is a phenomenally odd mechanic/dynamic for a game. I mean alleged real world contact with the dead. Do you know of any other games that do this? How was/is Ouija viewed where you are?

10 Comments leave one →
  1. December 7, 2008 12:44 pm

    While Ouija (spelled with an O in my case 🙂 was certainly around when I was a kid, we always thought it was kinda dumb. It was more the Postal of my youth… a game that was never taken seriously enough by the kids to make any of them care that their parents where freaked out about it.

    The real GTA of my youth was D&D. I wasn’t allowed to buy any D&D stuff. We weren’t allowed to play at school. I don’t know if my parents knew how much I was playing or not, but D&D was definitely not a favored activity. Oddly that didn’t seem to transfer to other pen and paper RPGs since I was allowed to own Star Frontiers and Marvel Super Heroes. Lately I’ve come to realize that the anti-D&D sentiment when I was growing up might have been more pronounced in rural Colorado (aka “Real America”) than in other parts of the country.

  2. December 7, 2008 1:20 pm

    If people played Ouija strictly as a game, I think the experience would be mind-numbingly boring. The only reason people enjoy Ouija is that they think they are talking to spirits, which is precisely the reason why I hate it.

    The Ouija experience is nothing more than an illusion caused by the “ideomotor effect” (see wikipedia), but while the spirits are fake the thoughts of those who play the game are not. When I was younger I was frightened by the sudden appearance of “El Diablo” (The Devil) during a family session of Ouija, even as someone who wasn’t brought up in a religious household. I wish I had known about the ideomotor effect back then.

  3. December 7, 2008 2:32 pm

    My first thought was also D&D. You’ve got necromancy spells and other various raise/commune with the dead in the player’s handbook. Combine that with the whole “this is just teaching kids to practice Satanism” mentality. I think it should qualify.

    As for other “games” that allow speaking with the dead, what about Tarot cards? Used for both fortune-telling and gaming (though not normally at the same time). I remember there even being a Tarot fortune-telling game for the NES back in the day (and I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a virtual Ouija console game as well)… though I don’t think it was ever answered how a console could be programmed to commune with the spirits. What, do they bind the soul of a deceased game developer to each cartridge?

    But yeah, a pink Ouija board is kinda creepy.

  4. Thomas permalink
    December 7, 2008 3:51 pm

    To Adrian Lopez:

    I wish more people would put Ouija in those terms and mention the ideomotor effect, without the quotations.

    Imagine how Ouija would seem if everyone took a skeptical look at it instead of a hysterical one. Now imagine everyone thinking the same about GTA instead focusing on ‘sex in video games’.

  5. December 7, 2008 4:27 pm

    Now corrected to spell it with an “O”. Thanks!

  6. December 7, 2008 6:49 pm


    The quotation marks around “ideomotor effect” were intended to highlight the whole term for those intending to look it up. I’d rather have made it a clickable link, but Brenda’s blog has no preview button so I don’t know if that would work.

  7. December 8, 2008 1:56 pm

    I think I am more disturbed by a pink Ouija board, than by people using one.

  8. STiX permalink
    December 8, 2008 11:43 pm

    Hello, I’m a “people stuck in a 3rd world.” and must say that we have “college educated doctors, lawyers and politicians.” here too…

    I always read your blog because i’m a game designer myself, and i don’t think that it was very nice the vision that you have about in-development countries (3rd world isn’t used since the URSS ceased to exist).

    I live in Brazil and i must say that i don’t live in a jungle, there’s no animals running in the streets, and none of these common sense bullshit that people still think.

    We are not stuck here, we live here and we live fine thanks.

    I really like your articles about game design and i will keep reading them…

    By the way I think that Vampire the Masquerade was the GTA of my time, the players using all that Goth clothing really frightened people =p

    Ouija was not something that was sold in our toy stores. So I can’t say how was the vision of the people about it.

    Ok, that does it, if you ever want to refer to a 3rd world in you writings, please talk about the Thunderians okay?

    Thanks for the great articles and keep writing them =D


  9. December 9, 2008 8:38 am

    I’m so sorry that you misunderstood me. I wrote that to say exactly what you were saying – that people in the Caribbean Islands, South America or elsewhere are no different than anyone here. I’ve lived in Barbados for a number of years where my husband is from and a number of people in my family come from South America. So, I completely agree with your assessment. Sometimes, when I talk about cultural things like Obeah, I have had people dismiss it with a reference to it being third or second world country. So, in writing what I wrote, I was hoping to pre-empt any comments of that nature, not infer that. I regretthe misunderstanding.


  10. STiX permalink
    December 10, 2008 12:19 am

    Hi Brenda,

    That’s allright =)

    Now you made yourself clear enough =D

    Sorry if i was a little upset in my comment =p

    By the way, thanks for answering my comment =p

    You look like to be nice people =)

    Congratulations for the quality of your posts =)

    Sometimes it’s hard to find good material about game design in the internet, and your posts always come with great discussions.

    Like i said, i will keep reading them, and i hope to buy your book too =D

    Merry christimas for you and your family =D

    Leonardo Lima

    PS: Sorry if my english isn’t good enought, i learned it all playing RPGs =)

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