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How to play in secret

To play a secret game all you need is the inside of your own mind. The fun comes from playing something undetected while everyone around you is oblivious to their role in your hidden world.

Words by Holly Gramaziophotography by Thomas S G Farnettiaverage reading time 8 minutes

  • Serial
Photograph of a game of texas hold'em poker. Three cards reading eight of spades, ace of spades and eight of clubs have been dealt face up. To the side are four other hands of two cards which are hidden.  A pack of cards waiting to be dealt is visible in the bottom left of the frame.  Chips are present for each player, along with the dealer, big blind and small blind tokens.  The lighting is moody and picks out the upturned cards. The ace has been decorated with the eye of the illuminati.  The backs of the players cards also show the eye of the illuminati in a pyramid.
How to play in secret, Thomas S.G. Farnetti. Source: Wellcome Collection. Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0).

If you’re somewhere with a lot of people around, chances are one of them is playing something secret. If that seems unlikely at first, just look through one of many threads where people share the weird little games they play in their heads.

Some of these mental games are pretty grim. One player reports: “I work in a retail store where I have to watch active-shooter survival videos every three months, so I regularly play if there was an active shooter where would I hide so I could sneak behind and disarm him, or some variation.”

Other games are generous-minded, designed to improve the player’s feelings about the people around them: “When I’m out in public or driving or something, I like to pick a person within my sight and imagine how they’re somebody’s FAVOURITE person, and if that somebody could be where I am in that moment, they’d be overjoyed to see them. I imagine how that person might joke around, or I think about the nice things they might do for their friends or family, and I wonder if there’s someone across the country that wishes more than anything that they could be as near to that stranger as I am now.”

Some just involve judging strangers for fun: “My son and I often play What's their name? as we're driving. Oh yeah, that guy looks like a Bob. She's definitely a Mabel. Ugh! Tad!”

In fact, here’s a game idea:

Secret Game

Pick a stranger near you.

Decide what secret game they play in their head when they’re bored. Do they rank passers-by? Do they imagine they’re jumping over street lamps as they pass, and flex their toes? Are they trying to guess people’s names – maybe even yours?

Once you’ve decided what game they might play, give it a go yourself.

To play a game is to take existing rules and conventions – about how to use a space, about what happens in a conversation, about what you care about and what you’re willing to do  – and replace or supplement them with a new set of rules and aims and conventions.

To play in secret, therefore, you just need to choose a game where your behaviour from the outside can’t be distinguished from the behaviour of someone going about their normal day.

Designing a covert game

If we imagine a continuum from visible public play through to secret play, we can put something like football at the ‘visible’ end. People who walk past football players in a park can see what’s going on, and in the UK most of them will understand at least approximately what the rules are and why everyone’s running around. People sitting nearby might even feel comfortable watching the game as it proceeds.

A little way along the continuum, we get games that are visibly odd, and unintelligible to passers-by; perhaps we can call these private games, sitting in the space between public and secret. Think of Pokémon Go, sending small groups to stand outside libraries and hunch over their phones together, or scavenger hunts that get people lying on their backs and looking under benches to discover a date etched in the metal.

A group of people sitting on a concrete bench in a park, some of them looking intently at mobile phones.

Playing Pokémon Go in the park.

With games like these, passers-by probably realise that something’s going on, but they might not understand what it is. If you’re designing or playing a game in this space, it’s particularly important to be aware of how the actions that players take might be perceived, because bystander misinterpretation is both very possible and potentially dangerous. If two players run frantically through the streets, one after another, might someone helpfully intervene, imagining they’re stopping a pickpocket mid-escape?

In a world where play and games are often thought of as childish or inappropriate, it’s natural to want to avoid the judgement of strangers.

And then, finally, right at the far end of the line, we have secret play: games that depend on the fact that nobody knows they’re going on.

People play secretly for a lot of different reasons. Maybe someone feels playful, but they’re too self-conscious to play visibly – in a world where play and games are often thought of as childish or inappropriate, it’s natural to want to avoid the judgement of strangers. (As part of my work in public play I’ve secretly watched several different hopscotch grids where passing adults don’t visibly acknowledge the grid, and definitely don’t hop, but do carefully step from square to square in a way that a casual observer wouldn’t spot.)

Maybe someone likes to play games that are just too mean-spirited to play aloud:

You’re Getting Married in the Morning

Sit somewhere where you can see passers-by walk past a window. Count adult passers-by as you sit.

At some point, you must choose a passer-by to marry.

You must make the choice while they’re still in sight. Once you’ve chosen, you can’t change your mind. If you get to passer-by 100 and haven’t chosen, then number 100 is your spouse for eternity.

Or maybe someone’s in a context where play is flat-out forbidden – most often at school or at work. I think it’s worth looking at games in the workplace in a bit more detail, since they make up such a high proportion of secret games.

More and more workplaces are encouraging employees to play games as part of the working day – team-building exercises; ‘gamification’ (or whatever term has briefly superseded it); the supposedly motivational games that workers in some Amazon warehouses are invited to take part in, fighting notional aliens by collecting parcels quickly. Unfortunately, most of these games are bad.

By ‘bad’, I don’t necessarily mean badly designed – some of them are very well designed – but badly conceived, objectionable by their very nature. They are ‘motivational’. They are ‘fun’. They involve an employer wanting to control not just what an employee does and how they do it but also how they feel about doing it. Often they are mandatory, or so strongly encouraged that they might as well be mandatory, which itself undermines the very basis of play and its voluntary acceptance of a new set of rules.

So people who want to genuinely play at work usually have to do it secretly. Sometimes that means adding a simple ruleset over the top of normal work activities:

Alphabetical Orders

In a small meeting or conversation, or while you talk to customers, slowly work your way through the alphabet. The first thing you say must start with A (“Actually, I think…”); then B (“But the difficult bit is…”), and then see how far you can go. Don’t worry if it makes you speak more slowly: you’ll just seem like you’re really giving your contributions to the discussion a lot of thought, like you’re genuinely invested in the process. 

A screenshot of a video game, showing the torso and arms of a young woman lying down, looking at her laptop.

Sweetxheart by Catt Small.

At other times it means sneaking off to the toilets for a few rounds of a mobile game, or playing a browser game in a spare tab: a quick but conspicuous game like Catt Small’s fifteen-minute story game Sweetxheart, that needs to be tabbed away from urgently; a long-running but less obvious game like aniwey’s engrossing Candybox, or something in between like David King’s five-minute island-builder Tiny Islands. (There are also games specifically designed to look like spreadsheets or Word documents, but that resemblance is usually the most interesting thing about them.)

Of course, regardless of whether you’re playing in secret because you’re at work, or because you feel self-conscious, or because the game’s mean and gossipy, you might well have one additional motivation: the joy of getting away with it. For some game players, subversion and secrecy are their own ends, or at the very least, elements that can be used as part of a game design:

Urban Zombie Drill

(A game by Kevan Davis.)

Walk through a city maintaining a distance of at least six feet from everyone you meet, and avoid attracting attention. If you get too close to someone, or if somebody looks at you for crossing the street to avoid them, then the horde is alerted and you lose the game.

Either pick a destination and try to reach it alive, or make your unguided way through the city and see how long you last.

The lose condition here – of someone looking at you weird – uses the awareness of other non-players as part of the gameplay. The sneaking isn’t just part of the pleasure. It’s part of the mechanics of the game. You can’t play it unsecretly: once it’s not secret, it’s over. The feeling of transgression, of playing while nobody around you knows what you’re doing, the extra delight of managing to sneak something by everyone else. This triumph of secrecy is a form of play in itself, an extra frisson adding to whatever your motivation for secret play might be.

About the contributors

Head and shoulders photograph of a woman with long hair, blown around by the wind, with a grey pebble beach and the sea in the background.

Holly Gramazio


Holly is a game designer, curator and writer based in London. She works both independently and as half of Matheson Marcault. Her recent projects include the collaborative drawing game Art Deck and the script for the video game Dicey Dungeons. She founded Now Play This, a festival of experimental game design based at Somerset House in London, and is interested in games that get people creating or looking at their environments in new ways.

Photographic black and white head and shoulders portrait of Thomas SG Farnetti.

Thomas S G Farnetti


Thomas is a London-based photographer working for Wellcome. He thrives when collaborating on projects and visual stories. He hails from Italy via the North East of England.