Inner Worlds VIII: Jean-Louis Roubira, the creator of Dixit
On imagination, creativity, and psychological survival
Dixit is a game of associations where players take turns to play cards with dreamlike designs. You have to describe your card with a word, a sentence, a sound, or whatever you find the most suitable. If either everyone or no one realizes which card you’re talking about, you lose. If you want to win, your thoughts need to be twisted enough to mislead some, but not so vague as to be impenetrable to all.
I am yet to meet someone who has played Dixit and didn’t enjoy it. The cards make it accessible to everyone. The pictures are always abstract but never illegible. You can look at any one of them and make a million of connections to words, movies, books, memes, politics, memories, anything. In my previous job we once played Dixit using only associations related to work and it was one of the funniest games I remember.
Dixit is, in essence, pure imagination. For that reason I wanted to talk to Dixit’s designer. I was surprised to learn that the Internet doesn’t know much about him. Even though his brainchild is one of board game all-time classics, Jean-Louis Roubira has no Wikipedia page, no profiles in industry media, and close to no online presence. His involvement in game design also doesn’t seem to go beyond Dixit. Why is this Frenchman laying so low?
The mystery was solved when I found out that he is primarily a child therapists. As Jean-Louis admits, he keeps coming up with new ideas for games, but doesn’t have enough time to bring them to life. Dixit has only seen the light of day because of applicability to therapy: enough educational centers expressed interest in the game to make publishing it commercially viable.
After I got in touch with Jean-Louis through Libellud, the company that published Dixit, he told me that for him, imagination is a question of psychological survival. It struck me how closely I can relate to these words. Especially in the difficult times we’ve found ourselves recently.
Wojtek Borowicz: Dixit, your best-known work, is built upon imagination and abstraction. How did you come up with this idea?
Jean-Louis Roubira: We used to play a game when I was a student back in the 80’s. Someone would look up a word no one knows in a dictionary and come up with a realistic-sounding definition. Others had to figure out the actual meaning of the word. I wanted to create a game like that, where players are creators and authors themselves, but don’t have to read or write. I found my inspiration in many sources: poetry and wordplay, fairy tales and mythology, surrealist paintings and Tim Burton’s movies.
I remember reading somewhere that Dixit started as a therapeutic project. Is that true?
Not exactly. I started work on Dixit in 2002, it was supposed to be a game for everybody. I’m a child psychiatrist and around 2005 I brought the game to the educational center I work at to help teenagers think and speak better. After some initial success, many similar centers asked to purchase the game. A friend of mine, Régis Bonnessée, started Libellud and published Dixit in 2008. The first run was 1,000 games for professional centers and 4,000 for the general public.
Dixit was a huge success. Why is it so popular despite being so strange and abstract?
Players often enjoy gazing at the pictures on Dixit cards because they remind them of something personal, feelings or memories. The cards carry a lot of symbols, they are like pieces of dreams, or small windows opening on imagination. It creates a peaceful atmosphere that allows people to communicate easily. And that is the greatest pleasure you can offer players.
How often do you play Dixit yourself? What do you do to keep coming up with new ideas and connections?
I play less often now, but I have played thousands of games of Dixit. I know each picture, but that’s where I find pleasure: to always challenge creativity with finding new ideas and connections. It becomes more difficult with time and a lot depends on players at the table, whether I know them or not. I also like to play in teams of two, it’s stimulating.
Do you work on keeping your imagination fresh, like athletes work out to stay in shape?
It is a question of the state of mind. Creativity is like breathing, you have to empty your lungs first and breath in after. I have to forget everything, empty, and then feed my imagination with feelings, people, science, history, every kind of expression of art, culture, and so on. My main motivation is curiosity and the desire to understand how the world works.
I compose music, write poetry, spin tales. I come up with new ideas for games almost every day, but the most difficult thing is to carry them out, from a concept to a prototype. Finding mechanics that work is very difficult and it takes a long time, patience, and hours of testing. I don’t often have time for all that.
What was your most surprising moment when playing Dixit?
When I went to Gen Con in Indianapolis and every player was from a different country: American, Chinese, Spanish… it was amazing!
A game so abstract must be quite a ride in an altered state of mind. Did you ever play or saw people play drunk or high?
I never saw people playing like that. But some players could rave by playing! Maybe the game itself is a way to be in another state of mind.
My favorite part of Dixit is when you ask someone where did a connection they made come from and they start explaining the thought process. Did you realize how tangled people’s imaginations can be before you designed the game?
I did. I am psychiatrist so… you can always be surprised by what people have in their minds.
Can anyone be a world-builder and storyteller?
I don’t think so, but everyone can be a creator in some sphere. Arts, cooking, gardening, making furniture… the most important thing is to find out what do you like, what do you really enjoy. It’s not easy because our education helps us find a job to survive, to adapt us to living in a very difficult world, but not to find out what we are made for.
When I watch people play Dixit, I sometimes see them discover their own creativity for the first time. They realize they are able to create something, even very simple like a personal word, and it is a revelation to them. They did not know that before. Maybe it is one of the reasons why Dixit is so popular. Maybe it is a game that reveals to people they are creators themselves.
What does world-building mean to you, as a game designer?
A good game has to drive players into a pleasant atmosphere, but the game mechanics are as important for that as world-building. A game cannot work if one of these two parts is missing. You cannot make people dream if your world is not well structured and organized.
Why do we crave fictional worlds? Why do we create them, maintain them, visit them?
Today’s reality is hard to live in. It scares people. It is difficult to exist as a blooming person in our violent world, so fictional worlds provide pleasant spaces to exist in an imaginary way, to feel free, powerful, fearless. For me, it was a question of psychological survival to imagine fictional worlds when I was a child. It allowed me to build my personality, who I am today.
Liked that? Read other conversations about imagined universes at Inner Worlds.