When we were kids, my sister and I played with dolls. I had a small team of GI Joes. I’m not sure when I fell out of love with them really. But sometime before they got their own movie, I had clearly decided that playing with soldiers from an American paramilitary organization was not, in fact, good wholesome fun. My sister played with Barbies which was potentially worse. Did you know she – Barbie, not my sister – runs in every presidential US election now? Her last ‘glam-paign’ promised to turn the White House pink. If this was an Onion article, I would’ve laughed. But it’s not – it’s a successful public relations program by a billion-dollar toy company. It’s a well-worn refrain nowadays that we live in a time where satire is complicated.
When I first heard of Capitalites by Samuel Mui Shen Ern, I thought it was satire – a la Crazy Rich Asians, a skewering of Asia’s wealthy. But I was wrong. Capitalites describes itself as “a slice-of-life, coming-of-age tabletop roleplaying game about young adults living in the big city” that explores “real-world themes like ambition, sex, family, and friendships and the sacrifices you make in order to grow up”.
Players choose their Asian young adult archetype from a series of playbooks like The Crazy Rich Kid, The Hot Chick, The Player, The Career Woman, The Sensitive Man, and so on. Each playbook is a collection of prompts and picklists. Some of these picklists are unique. The Hot Chick has one titled “How I Will Disappoint You” with options ranging from “I’m Shy” to “I’m Not a Nice Person”. The Player has a list of sexual conquests for you to choose from. The Hustler has a list of ‘rolemodels’ from Jordan Petersen to Jack Ma. What everyone has in common on their sheets are insecurities, parents, and relationships. Under Insecurities, The Crazy Rich Kid has one option that reads “I have no real personality”. The Career Woman could be insecure about not being good enough or not deserving what she’s achieved.
They also all have a three part mantra that sketches the contours of their personality – how they are at their best, how they are at their worst, and what they’ll always be good at. For example, The Sensitive Man could be “emotionally sensitive” at their best and “a real piece of shit” at their worst – but they’ll always be good at “making people want to be around them”. The result is a fascinating alchemy where the playbooks seem somehow 3-dimensional and toy-like. Like Barbie but also like someone you know – and maybe wish you didn’t.
These characters seem (to me, at least) to be from a very specific slice of society. Society – like cake – can be sliced different ways. If the cake is the class system, Capitalites seems to shear off only the cream on the top. This might not be explicit but it doesn’t seem like a coincidence that the title of the game echoes ‘socialite’. But while every character is inherently a social being (tangled in a web of family, society, friendship, and romance), they are simultaneously staunch individualists. No one in Capitalites is joining a union. Despite the misogyny, the women of Capitalites fight their battles alone, bereft of solidarity (though Sam does tell me that two future playbooks titled the Queer and the religious Hypocrite will go in a different direction).
This is a game about the elites – about the people they make TV shows about. But it’s a game that punctures the glossy bubble that envelopes them and wipes the sheen away to reveal a mundane humanity. The stereotypes behind these playbooks are both desired and despised. In deeply sexist and consumerist society, many of these labels are #goals sought out as a part of growing up. And on the other hand, many of them are forced onto people, leaving them to wrestle with the fallout. This isn’t satire – but there’s an element of revealing the emperor has no clothes. But not to point and laugh – the game empathizes.
When I spoke to Samuel Mui about this, he said a number of interesting things about the game’s relationships to empathy:
“I’ve heard that you tend to hate people on whom you can project the things you hate about yourselves on. Maybe that’s what happening here… and that’s what Capitalites also explores. But yea, none of them are wholly villainous. Just complicated and hurt. Doesn’t justify their actions in real life but it gives us a chance to ask ourselves how they (we) can change for the better.”
Given that players of Capitalites are going to have a complicated reaction to the playbooks, it’s no surprise that the game plays very differently based on who’s holding the toys. Samuel Mui tells me that” Players so far have used the game as a way to find catharsis AND to get payback.” And Mui wants to push the game further and build support for both light-hearted slice-of-life stories of urban life as well as introspective stories of hurt and pain – or as they put it, “FRIENDS and Bojack Horseman.”
If this sounds intriguing, check out the Our Shores kickstarter where Capitalites, along with two other RPGs from South East Asia, is crowdfunding right now!