Hack #3: Subjunctive Software Invasion

Google Sheets is part of Google’s G Suite, a set of productivity programs that closely resembles Microsoft Office’s similar software. Much like Excel, Google Sheets is a spreadsheet software that enables users to conduct a vast array of computations and data visualizations. It’s marketed as “Free Online Spreadsheets for Personal Use” that “makes your data pop,” as seen in the screenshot below:

Like other spreadsheets, Google Sheets prioritizes objective calculation and analysis of numbers and other data. It also allows for data visualization with built-in features. It is not, however, as user-friendly as some of the other G Suite products. Google Sheets is a technical software and a lot of the capabilities go unrealized by everyday users because they lack the skillset to code for them. While many students now learn Excel basics for at least one of their college courses, there’s a vast array of tools that aren’t as readily accessible because they require advanced command of the platform. In this way, Google Sheets privileges niche knowledge and the analysis of complicated data sets that can’t/shouldn’t be handled by other, simpler means.

In all of these ways, Google Sheets and Excel are very similar. One way that they differ, however, is Google Sheets’ capability for simultaneous collaboration between different users. I perceived a fault line of Google Sheet’s to be the collaborative element. As Kraus explained, a fault line is “a break—either conceptual or physical—that divides an event or object into two or more parts” (164). Recognizing this fault line gave me the inspiration needed to subjunctively invade the software and to subvert some of its biases.

Invading Google Sheets

To use the collaborative feature to subvert other properties of the platform, I decided to create a multiplayer game that would be played on Google Sheets. In this way, I am turning a serious space into a playful one by exploiting it along one of its fault lines. Rather than come up with an entirely new game, I decided to transform an existing one, Scattergories, by adapting it to the Google Sheets software.

The gameplay of Scattergories is simple. Players each have the same list of categories and are given a letter. In three minutes, they must privately try to come up with something in each category that starts with the given letter. When time is up, points are awarded based on the number of acceptable and unique answers.

I chose to do this with the game Scattergories because it is something that a lot of people are familiar with and may have played before. This familiarity heightens the invasion because it is bridging two well-known but separated worlds with each other. People of all different ages can play the game, but it definitely privileges knowledge and expansive vocabulary. It relies on skill instead of luck (it is an agôn game, so everyone starts on equal footing) and has a defined set of parameters (Caillois, 131). These biases are similar to those of Google Sheets, although these parts make up a radically different constituent whole.

the setup tab

In order to adapt Scattergories to be played on Google Sheets, I created two tabs: one for game setup, and one for actual playing. In the setup tab, shown above, I made a column of different potential categories (using this list). Then I used the following line of code to generate a random list from the first column:

=INDEX($A:$A,RANDBETWEEN(1,COUNTA($A:$A)),1)

Then, I used the following line of code to generate a random letter to use for gameplay:

=CHAR(RANDBETWEEN(65,90))

These are both volatile functions, so they are re-evaluated every time something in the sheet changes, thus necessitating a separate tab for actually playing. The randomly generated list of categories and the letter can be copied and pasted onto the second tab using “command + shift + v” to paste just the values.

The actual gameplay happens in the second tab, after other players have been invited to the sheet and the lists/letter have been generated and pasted in. Each player types their answers into their respective column using white font (so that others can’t see what they’re typing). Then, at the end of three minutes, the font color can be turned to black to reveal the answers for scoring. The “invisible ink” typing is demoed in the video below.

gameplay demo

Conclusion

Using Google Sheets to play a simple game such as Scattergories subverts the serious, analytical, professional underpinnings of the software. Productivity programs are not meant to be used for play, even though the collaborative feature enables this invasion perfectly. By playing a game with friends instead of crunching numbers and generating tables, the form and function of the platform have changed. As explained by Dr. Sample, the form and function are “the simulated game world and the rules therein.” In this example, the simulated world and rules of Excel (objectivity, the pursuit of knowledge) are being undermined by silly, recreational play. Using a software from a productivity suite to do something that has been classified by Caillois as “unproductive” changes the world of the software and the rules that govern it (128).

With regards to Dunne and Raby’s approach to A/B design, I think that this invasion illustrates some of the things on the “B” list. Playing Scattergories on Google Sheets shows how the world could be if we let go of our pretentions and allowed play to invade spheres that traditionally resist it. As pointed out by a classmate, this invasion could provide kids with a gentle introduction to the software. It also makes the players think in a different way than they typically would when using a spreadsheet software. Instead of thinking objectively about statistics and calculations, the game encourages original problem solving in order to win.

Works CitedRoger Caillois, selections from Man, Play, and Games (1958), pages 122-148

Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, “A/B” and “Design as Critique” from Speculative Everything: Design Fiction and Social Dreaming (2013), pages vii and 33-45

Kari Kraus, “Finding Fault Lines: An Approach to Speculative Design”from The Routledge Companion to Media Studies and Digital Humanities (2018), pages 162–173

Mark Sample, Platform Studies as Historical Inquiry, or, Videogames Bleed History from playthepast

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