A social deception game designed for the social media age by Anastasiya Vitko, Jung-Won Ha, Shane Berger, and Tyler Su.

Artists’ Statement

Are you feeling down about everything that’s been going on in the world lately? Are you missing your friends or want an excuse to become better acquainted with someone new? Do you want a fun, easy-to-learn game that you all can enjoy together virtually or in-person? If you thought “yes” to any of those questions, then CATFISH is the game for you!

Promotional image designed for the game.

During these unprecedented times of the coronavirus pandemic, everything from staying in touch with friends to keeping a positive outlook has become a lot more difficult to do. That is why our team set out to create CATFISH: a game of deception and influence. CATFISH is more than just a game, however. It’s a social vessel that brings people together and unconditionally uplifts their spirits, regardless of how dire everything around them may seem. Combining together aspects of fellowship and fantasy, this minimalist, interactive game is easy to learn and can be played on any platform, whether that be via Zoom or offline locally.

Additional promo image designed for the game

All in all, we just wanted to give people a fun excuse to get away from their work and connect with others, and we have delivered a game that achieves just that.

Designing formal elements & values

We wanted this game to help groups of friends keep up casual, low-effort contact during these times of social distancing. We prioritized creating a game that made people laugh and had elements of deception and fellowship.

Our team initially had the idea to create a phishing-themed game with a week-long asynchronous component and an end-of-week get-together, in which phishers and fish would try to trick each other by sending trustworthy links to some and phish-y links to others.

Initial concepting and idea exportation

Player Dynamics — Have at least 4 players engage in team competition where they are split into 2 teams, phishers (later: catfish) and fish (later: real people). We always had it so there were more fish/real people than phishers/catfish, about a 2:1 ratio.

Objectives — The game’s primary objective is for the fish and phishers to outwit each other with an underlying race objective. Phishers must deceive the fish into thinking they are also a fish, which can best be done by trying to figure out the secret identity/location of the fish, and eventually eliminate the fish. Meanwhile, the fish must work together to figure out who the real fish and phishers are and ultimately eliminate the phishers. Both teams are racing against the clock and each other to achieve their objective first!

Concept Map: Identity Assignments

Rules and Procedures — Please see our Hosting Guide for complete game rules and procedures

Resources The biggest resource for either team is actions in the form of questions and answers discussed throughout the rounds. Fishes can ask certain pointed questions to other people and filter out who they trust based upon their answers. Meanwhile, phishers can use the Q&As to deduce what the secret location/identity may be.

Conflict The two main conflicts occur amongst opponents during the discussion and voting phases. During the discussion rounds, a player wants to ask and answer questions convincingly without giving away their identity or location. In the voting phase, players, especially the fish, want to vote for players they trust to become influencers without accidentally voting for a phisher.

Concept Map: Round flow

Outcome The teams engage in a zero-sum game dynamic. Fish or phishers win, depending on which team’s players are eliminated first. (If there is a stalemate at the end, the phishers win.)

Types of fun (aesthetics) — The primary aesthetic of our game is fellowship which is supplemented by some aspects of fantasy. Once the fish start to get a sense for who their fellow fish may be, it is in their best interest to work together to try and weed out the phishers. Meanwhile, the phishers know who each other are from the start, so they can privately message each other to figure out what the secret location/identity may be and help each other from being eliminated. The fantasy aesthetic comes into play when the fish ask and answer questions in accordance with their secret identity/location, and the phishers must be good at either playing along or acting clueless of the game’s rules in order to minimize the suspicion drawn towards them.

Playtesting and Iterating

Challenge #0: Converging on an idea

Removing the week-long asynchronous phase: Early on, we realized that our best bet was to double down our focus on the end-of-week get-together, since we received feedback that it would be very hard to keep people engaged with the game throughout the week. Even more critically, we could not come up with a model for the asynchronous phase in which player engagement was fun, useful, and important, without making this engagement critical such that players who were too busy or stressed during a certain week were not too pressured to put in time. It would be much more realistic to get a group together for a game night at the end of the week.

Initial planning. Though many aspects changed, defining our game shape guided our future iterations.

Challenge #1: Anchoring on a Theme…

How might we theme our game to make mechanics intuitive or easy to understand?

As our game evolved, we realized that it no longer fit our original phishing theme, since there were no links of any kind being sent, and the locations were no longer fish-themed. Additionally, our voting system had taken on a social media theme (choosing top influencers). Hence, we shifted to a “catfish” theme, with real people given a secret persona instead of location, and the catfish players pretending to be someone they aren’t. This new theme made it easier for players to pick up the rules instantly.

Prototype #2: Our simple rule guide prototyped on Notion made it easy for players to pick up the rules quickly. A moderator assigned roles accordingly.

Challenge #2: Game Rebalancing…

How might we develop dynamics that make the game fair for both sides? In particular, at the beginning the game was stacked against the team trying to blend in (phishers/catfish).

Playtest #1 “Real” people are given a secret location and catfishes share a secret rule that could be used to identify one another. Though “real” people felt a strong sense of fellowship, this mechanic made it difficult for catfishes to similarly work together and feel fellowship with one another. Our goal became to develop dynamics that could resolve these issues, and make the game fun for “real” people and catfishes alike.

Playtest #2Catfishes are given the names of other catfishes. Interestingly, this made it possible for catfishes to vote strategically, help one another, and figure out what the secret identity is. It was still far too difficult for catfishes to blend in, and they were identified quickly.

Playtest #3List of possible identities provided to both teams. This made it easier for catfishes to eliminate and test possible identities and forced “real” people to be more careful of their hints. We play-tested this version outside of class at a grad student mixer, and found small improvements to the game balance. Interestingly, both “real” players and catfishes felt that they were always so close to being figured out by the other side, meaning both felt some level of challenge.

Playtest #4Dividing “real” people into an in-crowd and an out-crowd. The out-crowd has a different, but related, role than the in-crowd. Adding this role created additional confusion and provided cover for the catfishes. It provided an excuse to not answer questions in a way that was too specific to one’s role, and a frazzled person who gave a weird answer could just say “I think I’m part of the out-crowd!”

Initial fish/phisher & location set up → Eventual in-crowd, out-crowd, and catfish setup.

Challenge #3: Creating engaging discussion

How might we make the discussion phase engaging, playful, and fair for all players?

Playtest #1Completely open-ended popcorn-style discussion. In play-testing this felt awkward, and a bit too rigid. Sometimes players had trouble coming up with questions, and oftentimes the questions were so pointed that the secret identity quickly became obvious.

Playtest #2 Adding a moderator, who provided questions about the secret identity. This solved the awkwardness problem, but we realized that the game was easily breakable if the moderator called on the Catfish to answer first because the questions were still too pointed.

Playtest #3Moderator provided context discussion prompts (i.e. “what did you think about the presidential debate?”). This was our golden ticket. The players really had to embrace their identities and think about how such a character would view the world around them. This resulted in much more humorous and elaborate responses, and the discussion felt more natural because people were allowed to jump in whenever they wanted.

Contextual Questions were our ticket to playful and engaging discussion

Visual Identity

Our visual identity was inspired by our goal: a light-hearted and playful game that unconditionally uplifts your spirits, even when you can’t be together with your friends in-person. This translated into a bright color palette, decorative fonts, and skeuomorphic design elements that felt analogous to busting out a physical ‘game board’ and cards with your friends.

Smart use of emojis to match our theme and communicate the simplicity and playfulness of our game.

Targeted at young adults, our visual identity made use of familiar emojis and visuals that feel easy and fun. Our use of emojis and a monospace font also matches our theme of social/digital media deception through influencers and catfishes. We went through several iterations until settling on this final identity:

Our final “style tile” used to guide our visual mockups

Next Steps

Much of the work sits with the moderator. To make this game actually playable and enjoyable for all, the next step would be to build-out an interface for role assignments, voting, and elimination.

Assigning roles

Our proposed UI went through a handful of iterations before we started building out our web app with the MEAN + stack!

Including identity list to make it easier for catfish to fib
In the process of building a web app Node, Express, and


CATFISH creates fun (fellowship and fantasy) through the challenging balance of competition, collaboration, and contextual roleplaying. In the end, seeding confusion and outrageous/hilarious responses through carefully fine-tuned game mechanics, identities, and a relevant theme made for the most fun for our target audience.

Try it yourself

Find a folder of everything you need to play our prototype of CATFISH right here, including a hosting & rule guide. Check back soon for updates on this project and a web app to come!




The focus of CS 247G is an introduction to theory and practice of the design of games. We make games (digital, paper, or otherwise), do rapid iteration, and run user research studies appropriate to game design with the goal of improving and refining our design instincts.

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Tyler T. Su

Tyler T. Su

Design + Engineering @ Stanford | Incoming Product Designer @ Roblox

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