If you’ve ever accidentally sent an embarrassing text to the wrong person, you know the horrible, sinking feeling that settles in your chest when you realize that your ill-considered words or provocative photos have gone astray — and there’s no taking them back.
That sense of horror is the animating force behind Social Sabotage, BuzzFeed’s new “awkward party game.” The concept is simple: players receive cards that tell them where to share a message or video (your Facebook New Feed, your mom, your ex) and what to share (the picture in your camera roll, a text that says “I love the smell of my own farts”). All you have to do is pick your poison from the available options, and hit send.
It’s a game that feels halfway between Cards Against Humanity and Truth or Dare, a modern twist on the prank call that is designed to “implode your beautifully curated digital life.” It’s also a great way to promote online harassment, a phenomenon that needs absolutely no encouragement.
While many of the options are silly or innocuous, others veer uncomfortably toward the sexual. Options listed in the promotional materials for the game include numerous messages one might not want to receive from, say, an ex: “Wanna be the +1 for my cuddle party,” “I’ll be your puppy if you tell me I’m a good dog,” “Send me a photo of your pretty ears,” and of course, “[eggplant emoji]?”
A representative of BuzzFeed told The Verge that the cards were vetted and that their intent is to embarrass players, not their recipients. The written rules encourage participants to “play with common sense. The idea of the game is for players to make themselves look and sound silly, not to humiliate anybody—especially the friends and family of the players. Think before you post.”
It’s a nice sentiment, though a difficult one to take seriously in the context of a game where the entire premise is forcing other people to view provocative and potentially creepy messages without their consent.
if you design a system that promotes, enables, or fails to curtail abusive behavior, then abusive behavior will follow
There’s a meaningful distinction between a hilarious autocorrect fail or a misdirected sext and deliberately sending messages designed to provoke shock, especially ones that orbit the subject of sex. Like Truth or Dare, Social Sabotage creates a social space where it feels acceptable to do things we would ordinarily be too ashamed or insecure to do, like kiss a friend or reveal a secret. Unlike Truth or Dare, it recruits unwitting or unwilling participants to take part.
There’s a certain thrill in violating taboos and operating outside of normal social boundaries, and games like this give us permission to cross those boundaries without guilt. We’re not to blame, after all; the game made us do it. If you’re looking for a reason to act inappropriately or offensively, Social Sabotage offers a ready-made excuse for anyone offended by your unwanted eggplant emoji. It’s all just a game, just a joke. It’s a convenient fig leaf for harassers and bullies of all stripes to hide behind, one that is only interested in the enjoyment and consent of exactly one person.
The critical failure of Social Sabotage stems from the same failure that plagues so many tech companies and their harassment-riddled products. It fails to sufficiently address the questions that every designer, engineer, or creator should ask about their work: what is the worst thing someone could do with this, and how can I prevent it? If the answers are “something really bad” and “I can’t,” respectively, then maybe — just maybe — the world is better off without it.
“Think before you post” is a strong rule for any online interaction, but it does little to counteract the fundamental purpose of the game: violating comfort zones not just of the player but anyone the game touches, whether they like it or not. Encouraging people to do this with embarrassing and sometimes sexual content in online spaces that are already rife with abuse is an idea that should sound bad to everyone in the year 2017, and particularly to anyone who claims to be savvy about social media.
Of course, Social Sabotage doesn’t force people to harass — being a creepy jerk is always a choice — but as virtually every social media platform has demonstrated with excruciating clarity, if you design a system that promotes, enables, or fails to curtail abusive behavior, then abusive behavior will follow. And when it does, the people who created that system will bear responsibility for it — their intentions be damned.