When I first came out of the closet, I couldn’t shut up about it on social media. I would follow the bulk of my gay friend’s friends, tweet about how much I loved being gay, and was generally completely obnoxious about my coming out. I would emulate the mannerisms of gay Twitter just from contact with them. This was a side of myself that I never explored before, so you can imagine my eagerness at the prospect of finally being able to be free to delve into this part of myself. Then, one day, one of my straight in-person acquaintances and I were talking, and I found myself opening up to him about my first makeout session with a guy from the previous day. Now he didn’t respond badly outwardly, but I could feel him recoil from the story as he quickly changed the subject. It was one of a few moments where I lost people in conversations because I was in the wrong mode. I hadn’t learned about compartmentalizing pieces of myself yet, or about code switching depending on who I was talking to. I can’t help but think back to these moments when I play Signs of the Sojourner, a game about the ways in which we misunderstand each other because of the sides of ourselves we show other people.
A deck building game about conversations abstracted to a simple shape-matching mechanic, Signs of the Sojourner is all about how we align ourselves to be understood by others. Every card has a shape at the left and right sides which you’re expected to align with matching symbols on your cards. The person you’re talking to plays a card, then you play a card, and so on until either the row of cards is filled or you mismatch shapes. Every person you talk to primarily plays cards of two shapes, though that’s by no means the only shapes they could potentially have. Each of the shapes represent some way in which you communicate with people – circle represents empathy, while triangle represents logical responses.
You start with a deck of ten cards, all of which have circles and triangles on them because that’s the core of who you are growing up in the town of Bartow. Because while everyone has two dominant methods of communication, so do locations that you visit in the world of Signs of the Sojourner. The people who live in these locations inherit their way of communicating from where they live thanks to the individualized culture in these places, much like real life. This means that people who are less attached to these places and spent time in different cultures will sometimes have different symbols than the dominant ones of the town in question. This is also reflected in your interactions across the map you’re exploring – for every conversation, successful or no, you must add a card from the person you talked to into your deck and take something out of it. In this way, your exposure to different methods of expression changes you until your final deck is unrecognizable from your original one.
Much has been made about how Signs of the Sojourner simulates people of differing languages trying to communicate and understand each other, but this isn’t quite right. After all, you’re speaking the same language when you talk to all these people throughout the game. Rather, the first time you meet someone with a loud, brash way of communicating and you can’t match in kind, you realize that it’s more about the different pieces that make up who we are, and which pieces of ourselves we show to each other in order to make us feel understood. Because each of these card game conversations aren’t against an adversary. The person we’re interacting with is trying to match shapes as much as we are. But when we don’t match up, it closes a window on understanding each other. Someone who is too loud and brash to people who don’t understand that kind of personality will likely get intimidated, for instance.
As you start to pick up other shapes – other methods of communication – and add them to your deck, you begin to understand a wider variety of cultures and personality types. But even as you’re adding to who you are, you’re also subtracting from who you were. Your deck represents you and how you change as a person. Eventually, you’re going to only use certain cards for certain types of people to the point where entire subsets of cards aren’t used at all in certain situations. Soon you’ll see yourself as a fragmented being, and you don’t have a choice in the matter because you have to add a card and subtract a card after every conversation. People change you whether you like it or not.
This fragmentation soon shows you how compartmentalization works in real life. If you find yourself in a situation like the one I described, where a straight male acquaintance might not want to hear about your gay exploits, you can just switch to a different wavelength that the other person will relate to more, but we can extrapolate this concept further. Entire mannerisms, terms, and intonations are wrapped up in how we’re perceived that can result in bafflement at best and offense at worst. This is why people – especially marginalized people – learn how to compartmentalize themselves, placing aspects of themselves in certain boxes that only certain people can see. I can still communicate with my straight male acquaintance and others like him because I still remember what it’s like to reside in that box. Growing up in a conservative, heterocentric area taught me how men “ought” to act around each other, and I can switch to that kind of personality as simply as flipping a light switch. But when I’m around other gay men, I feel freer to share that side of myself, and indeed, it’s necessary in order to relate to them on this level. And even then, when you’re a relatively newly out gay man, relating to men who have been out longer is harder, requiring more cards of a certain type. But even once you get them, the divisions between the disparate pieces of yourself that emerge when code switching become that much more obvious.
It’s not that we’re forever doomed to be fragmented people, though. Eventually in Signs of the Sojourner, you get cards that have two symbols on one side, which means that either symbol can match with that side. The last trip across the map suddenly becomes much easier as you become more adept at integrating the disparate pieces of yourself into someone who can be a social chameleon, someone who is comfortable in their own skin, and can inject little pieces of every part of themselves in every successful interaction. This represents someone coming into their own, accepting all these pieces and knowing exactly how to fully live their truth. We never stop growing – we never stop getting cards replaced in our decks – but we eventually learn what pieces are important to getting our whole selves understood no matter what the situation.
Once we come to this realization, the differences between us suddenly don’t matter as much. We still compartmentalize, because the differences still matter for communication, but the overlap between our different selves becomes much more pronounced until the boundaries are blurred, resulting in people both seeing and understanding more of the whole self than was possible before. At the end of the day, we all just want to be understood. But it’s better when people understand more of the whole of who you are than just the part they find most agreeable. It’s a lesson I’ve had to learn again and again in my journey of being out of the closet.