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Hey Robot is a party game that tests how smart Alexa is

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Photo: Everybody House Games

Sometimes, it can feel impossible to get what you want from a smart assistant. That problem is the premise of a new board game called Hey Robot, which tasks players with getting Alexa or another digital assistant to say a specific word before their opponents can.

The gameplay works much like Taboo: players are given a selection of words, and they have to figure out what they can ask a smart assistant that will get it to recite the word without saying any form of the word in their question.

“The game works because the devices don’t work that great,” says Frank Lantz, one of the game’s creators. “It’s very funny. You think, ‘Oh this is going to be easy. How hard can this be?’ But that’s the thing. It actually can be very challenging, and it plays with how janky these things are.”

Lantz is the director of NYU’s Game Center, and he’s known for games including Drop7 and Universal Paperclips. The idea for Hey Robot came from Lantz and his wife Hilary trying to have fun with Alexa during dinner. They started with a number guessing game that they named Alexa Tennis, then eventually moved on to the word guessing mechanic.

“Instantly, we were hooked,” Lantz says. “We stayed up all night trying to get different words.”

Frank and Hilary, along with their son and daughter-in-law, created and are publishing the game through their company Everybody House Games. A Kickstarter campaign to fund the project launched today, with a funding goal of $10,000. Copies of the game sell for $30 and are expected to ship in March.

Hey Robot’s simple premise belies a fascinating commentary on our interactions with technology. The game exists because of emerging tech that’s becoming increasingly ubiquitous, but it also exists because of a common understanding that this tech is, in reality, kind of bad — often hilariously so.

The game will also evolve as these assistants do. Lantz says he’s seen answers change just over the six months or so that they’ve been testing the game. If the assistants eventually get good enough to reliably understand what we’re really looking for, the entire challenge of the game breaks down. That could happen within a few years, Lantz admits.

“I doubt it, though. It’s such a genuinely hard problem,” he says. “I think these things will continue to have this funny, silly quality for at least the foreseeable future.”