The Spy in a Box: Spyfall & Wittgenstein’s Beetle Thought Experiment

Spyfall the game

Let’s talk about Spyfall, otherwise known as my current favorite social game. It’s more interactive than Mafia, more entertaining than Cards Against Humanity, and easier to introduce to new people than any kind of RPG (I’m looking at you, DnD).

Spyfall is an interactive question-and-answer game where players get a location card (nightclub, university, ocean liner, etc.) and one player gets the Spy card instead of a location. Over the course of the next eight minutes or so, all players participate in a round robin of questions where players “in the know” try to give clues that they know the location while the Spy tries to use those clues to determine the location. I once played a round as the Spy where our location was an embassy but I was utterly convinced we were on an ocean liner.

As much as I adore playing this game, I’m even more impressed by how it presents Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Beetle in a Box thought experiment through a social game. I have a fairly basic understanding of the Beetle experiment, as explained by Dr. Steven Wexler. Wittgenstein’s experiment explores the importance of language to perception by imagining that each person had a box and each box holds a beetle. No one can look in someone else’s box, yet through the social conversation around what exists in each person’s box comes the understanding of “beetle.” It’s a fascinating exploration of how people determine reality through social experiences.

This amorphous idea of perceived reality is exactly what Spyfall is all about. Each players has their own card (or “beetle in a box”) and it’s only through conversation that the other players can determine the location (or the meaning of what constitutes a beetle). However, Spyfall adds a variable to Wittgenstein’s experiment: the Spy. The Spy in Spyfall has an empty box – no beetle necessary. How do we determine what constitutes reality when one (or more) members of reality don’t have their own beetle to perceive and can only internalize the social conversation of what a beetle is?

Spyfall currently fields 3-8 players with one Spy in each location deck. I’m really interested to see how Spyfall 2 (eta 2017) will expand the gameplay with new locations, increased player count to 12, and a second Spy! What are the implications for the Beetle in a Box if two participants have an empty box? When perceived reality relies so heavily on social interaction, the Spy’s lack of knowledge turns Wittgenstein’s experiment on its head.


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