Trust Me, it’s a Forward! Karen D’mello directed table-top game show evaluates our vulnerabilities to propaganda and fake news

Ahead of its next run at Goethe-Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan Bangalore on May 25, director Karen D’mello cues us in on Trust Me, it’s a Forward!, designed by KathaSiyah and Studio Oleomingus

7 min readMay 18, 2024
TMF, directed by Karen D’mello, is a role-playing game about trust in the age of mis/disinformation

By Reema Gowalla

Not every piece of theatre needs to be enacted on the stage. Same way, not every art form should be divorced from politics. Called Trust Me, it’s a Forward! (TMF), Bengaluru-based theatremaker Karen D’mello’s curious table-top game is a performative piece, with particular focus on trust in the age of propaganda and mis/disinformation. It probes the ‘changing nature of trust in a time when the information we receive through social media has the power to influence our opinions’. Designed by KathaSiyah, in collaboration with Studio Oleomingus and supported by Goethe-Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan, TMF is all set for a new round of shows in Bengaluru on May 25.

The interactive, role-playing game introduces participants to a bustling fantastical world deep under a turbulent ocean, where factions of society are faced with crises, choices and impossible decisions. TMF ‘turns the disembodied nature of digital messages into a game, which simulates behaviour that results from our interactions with information manufactured by large data systems that wield the power and resources to bend facts and public opinion’.

As a creator, Karen is quite keen on artistic ventures that enable nuanced sensory experiences, set in an analogue environment and driven by a socio-politically relevant theme. In 2021–22, she helmed a postal artistic exchange project, called See-Saw, which looked into identity and prejudice beyond sight. Her latest directorial, TMF, also encourages ‘participatory creative interventions’ and critical thinking while evaluating the influx of information in social media. People in the age group of 17 to 70 years have shown interest in this role-playing game, with those in their 20s and 30s mostly participating in it.

In a freewheeling conversation with TheatreRoom recently, Karen spoke about the making of TMF, the game’s engaging manoeuvres and the urgency of throwing light on propaganda and fake news in today’s India, with reference to artificial intelligence (AI). Excerpts:

Participatory creative interventions are crucial to the game

Q. What prompted you to direct a performative role-playing game on trust amid information influx?

A. Although my background is theatre, I also am very interested in participatory creative interventions. More than just observing, we encourage the audience to participate in the creative interventions that we design. The idea of TMF began with WhatsApp family groups. Just being like, how do I engage with this phenomena in my own life — something that is in front of me and is so important, but I just dismiss it. It started with me thinking at that level. But then, of course, it expanded to what are the information systems we’re dealing with, especially given the dominance of social media, what does it mean to all of us as individuals? Of course, there is work going on at different levels. Be it grassroots workers, fact-checkers or the media, people are working on misinformation and disinformation at many levels. But how do we filter that in our everyday life? Is there a space to engage with it for all of us who may not necessarily be researching or engaging with it in that manner? Is there a space we can create for us to come together as people who may or may not be involved with it beyond social media, to be able to talk about this and think about the role of such information in our lives.

The TMF project began after we received a grant. The idea was to create something on trust for Goethe-Institut’s cultural symposium. This led to us thinking about trust in the digital age. How does all the information overload play with trust? For instance, my mother keeps messaging me checking about any piece of information she receives online — asking: ‘Is this fake?’ ‘Is this real?’ ‘Can I trust this?’ ‘Can I send the money?’ ‘Can I not?’ ‘Can I click on this?’ This shows what the digital space has done to us in terms of how we engage with information and the role of trust in it. Then, of course, there is the larger context in our country itself — what is happening with propaganda, especially with text to image AI.

While creating the project, we also wanted to ensure that it does not make people feel that they are doing something wrong, but rather make them understand that we all are the product of a collective time, in which information is moving around a certain way and we don’t even know how and when we are engaging with it.

TMF is designed to be played in an analogue setup

Q. How would you decode TMF? And in your projects (See-Saw included), you seem to lay importance on making them tactile and analogue in nature. Why?

A. The two things I definitely wanted to do with TMF was: first, to remove it out of the digital world and bring it into an analogue space. This was done in anticipation that it will provide a different way of looking at the same thing; to find out if it offers a new perspective when you change the medium. Second, to use distance and set the game in a fantastical world, where you have to play characters, and whether or not you align to that character personally shouldn’t matter for the game. All these and, of course, have fun and enjoy the process while at it.

TMF is a tabletop, role-playing adventure game, where one comes as an audience and takes on characters. That said, although it’s a game, because of our background as theatremakers, it’s presented as a game show. One doesn’t have to perform as such, but we do incorporate aspects of theatremaking into this. The game master, for instance, is a little bit more like an actor or a performer. We need a minimum of nine participants to play the game, while the maximum number can go up to 15.

The game is designed in collaboration with Studio Oleomingus [Dhruv Jani and Sushant Chakraborty’s independent game and arts studio, based in Chala, Gujarat]. The format of the game is not necessarily new. However, when I say creative interventions, I mean there is a larger connection to other things that people do. I didn’t want to be restricted to only one form as a theatremaker. I wanted to explore creative ways to think about mis/disinformation, information overload as well as the information data system. One might think that there already are papers written about it. People are keeping a tab on it at different levels. So, what is my role as a creative maker to have an intervention on this topic? It’s an intervention that allows you to use more of your senses, to participate with all of it, to have some fun, as well as to collectivise. I think that’s something very important, and that’s what I draw from theatre so much — to come together.

And yes, it’s all tactile, an aspect that becomes very integral to the whole experience. You’re holding things and playing with them. It may sound a little superficial and pseudo, but I think there is something more meaningful about being able to engage with things by holding them in your hand. Not that computers or the internet are bad, but we are just trying to take a step back and use these moments to reflect and hope that new ideas will emerge. Another thing that we wanted to understand through this game is the role of experience. That is, if one experiences something and then discusses it, what does it make you do? Does it bring up other connections?

Adults from different age groups can attend the game show

Q. The show is happening amid general elections, when propaganda and disinformation seem to be getting ahead of the news cycle. What do you think about the urgency of such an art project in today’s India?

A. This project draws from a trend that we’ve already been witnessing since 2014 — what digital revolution has done to elections and propaganda in India. And it’s not just in our country, similar stuff has also happened in the US during the presidency of Donald Trump. Be it the IT cell or the bots, the digital revolution has brought along all of these. But were we prepared to absorb all of this information together? Probably, not. I think even some of us, who may have started understanding how to discern, have failed at times, especially when it comes to text to image AI. You can’t even tell anymore if something is fake or real. We don’t even have that nuance of digital literacy yet, and that is being used against us in different ways. So yeah, we need to talk about this more and more, in order to develop our understanding of it and be able to think critically.

The game is usually followed by a discussion, because we think it’s important to connect the experience and learnings back to our worlds. During the previous shows, participants have spoken about the propaganda around sensitive political matters in India and worldwide. This time around, we have shows just days before the poll results are announced. So, I’m interested to see what it would mean in that context.

The upcoming shows of Trust Me, it’s a Forward! are scheduled to take place at Goethe-Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan Bangalore on May 25 (11am and 4pm). For tickets, RSVP here.

A glimpse of the table-top game show