The joy of forfeits

1 July 2013

A young couple sit on a sofa holding hands while she coyly holds a fan up to her face. Coloured wood engraving by Rud. Rössler. Wellcome Images

A young couple sit on a sofa holding hands while she coyly holds a fan up to her face. Coloured wood engraving by Rud. Rössler. Wellcome Images

Sophie Sampson is a thoroughly modern games designer, and for Wrong! she’s designed us a brand new fast-paced game, ‘So Wrong It’s Right’ for our Wrong! event on 5 July. But she’s also been researching Victorian parlour games, brushing the dust off to find out how those long-ago players found the fun in wrongness…

We think we know where we are with the Victorians. Social relations among the middle and upper classes were proper and decorous. Parlour games were gentle alternatives to singing and playing instruments, or sitting around quietly after dinner. Many were intellectual puzzles or memory games – a rather staid form of fun.

However, like modern game designers, the Victorians knew that in the context of a game, being wrong can be far more fun than being right. Inside a game is one of those places where the normal rules of society don’t quite apply. There, failure is not just celebrated, it’s a large part of the joy of playing. Within the confines of a game getting something wrong is fun – as long as it’s clear there’s a route to success available, and you know the game will give you the opportunity to try again. In no other area of life is getting things wrong so accepted. And when you know that nominal failure opens up a whole new set of experiences, the payoff becomes far better than winning. All kinds of metagames come into play.

In the 19th century a round of forfeits was the traditional second half of an evening of parlour games. ‘Evening Amusements, or A New Book of Games and Forfeits’, published 1856, is quite clear about why you play:

Crying the forfeits is generally considered as the most important part of the amusement of a party, and usually concludes the evening’s gambols; the previous part, the game, being merely looked upon in the light of a vehicle for the collection of materials for the anticipated mirth and glee.

For Victorian ladies and gentlemen, crying the forfeits was a raucous, transgressive end to the evening. From the distance of more than a century, we can be humorous about the fact that the metagame people were often playing was getting to kiss the object of their affections with plausible deniability intact. Fully three-quarters of the forfeits in Evening Amusements involve kissing, and young men record how brilliant games evenings are for bypassing the “mammas” – the gatekeepers of their daughters’ charms. Anticipated mirth and glee indeed.

This, of course, leads to much discussion in the literature of the day about how dangerous games are. In 1889 a commentator wrote of a game called Drop Handkerchief: “We can only regret that nineteenth century vulgarity has desecrated a pastime, [that was] imbued through long ages with the spirit of simple gaiety and rustic romance”.

However, it wasn’t just anarchy. What made the transgression acceptable was the framework of ceremony: everyone was ‘just following the rules’. In forfeit time status was reversed and conventions overturned – but not too much. The original game runner (the Chairman) would often give up their authority to a new figure (the Dictator) and their enforcer (the Crier), who would choose and dole out penalties to the ladies and gentlemen of the party, deciding how far to push things. In this way the conceited were taken down a peg or two, starcrossed lovers could be brought together and the shy had a route to come out of their shell.

The strictures of society have changed so much that to the modern mind the idea of running a games evening with kissing forfeits can feel rather distasteful. The ways we let off steam and transgress inside games are rather different now. Victorian men, trained for war and empire-building, might be politely troubled by Uncharted. The joy of breaking society’s rules within the context of game structures remains the same – and giving your friends forfeits is still great fun.

Find out more about Sophie’s work at Fancy trying out some Victorian parlour games for yourself? Join us on Friday 5 July, for classic contests and newly created challenges at The Wrongness Championships, part of Wrong! A carnival of human error.