What is Gartic Phone, and why do VTubers love it so much?

As we’ve seen numerous times to date, trends tend to ripple throughout the entire VTuber community on a fairly regular basis. One of them plays a game, then suddenly everyone is playing it. Such is the case with Gartic Phone, a game which you’ve probably stumbled across at one point or another if you pay even passing attention to VTubers.

So what is it?

In simple terms, it’s a combination of Pictionary and Telephone, the game we’re probably not allowed to call “Chinese Whispers” any more. Players must write a silly sentence, and then they receive a silly sentence from someone else, which they must draw a picture of. Their picture is then passed to another person, who must write what they think the original sentence was, based on the picture. After that, everything is revealed and everyone has a good old chuckle.

The concept is essentially identical to the improvisatory party game Eat Poop You Cat, a game that proved so popular with the members of tabletop gaming community site BoardGameGeek that it remains in their database despite, according to their guidelines, not really being a “game”.

And, depending on your definitions, one can see how it can be considered not really a “game”. There’s no win state, for example, and no way to lose. It’s not really competitive, neither is it really cooperative; it’s perhaps best described as collaborative. It’s something you do together with others, but where you’re not necessarily trying to get one up on one another, nor are you working together for a common goal. The sole purpose is to entertain and be entertained — and in that respect it succeeds admirably.

Of course, arguments over what constitutes a “game” or not have been raging for years at this point, with some people taking great umbrage any time a visual novel is described as a “game” and others firmly believing there’s an argument to be made that narrative-centric interactive experiences are as much a game as they are virtual art installations. And, of course, none of this matters; all that really matters is whether or not you’re deriving some sort of value from the experience.

And in that regard, Gartic Phone’s value should hopefully be obvious; it’s an inherently social game — so much so that the developers specifically encourage people to get on a voice or video call while playing rather than relying on text chat. Like Eat Poop You Cat, this is a game where the majority of its value comes from being able to see — or at least hear — people’s reactions to the increasingly ridiculous sentences and images that are being produced.

With that in mind, Gartic Phone’s appeal to VTubers will likewise be very clear — it’s a game that is absolutely ideal for collaborative streams, since it’s easy to understand, requires minimal teaching time for newcomers and is a great means of facilitating socialisation. Many VTuber agencies have used it as a way to get “genmates” together with one another — the recent collaborative streams between all of Hololive English are a great example of this. It’s also prime fodder for cross-agency collaborations, or a means for independent VTubers to do something fun together.

It’s also a game that allows people to both express themselves and set clear boundaries; it’s easy enough to “test the water” with your initial sentences and drawings in order to see how people react, and then adjust your subsequent responses accordingly. Given that many VTubers have spoken about how they suffer social anxiety, this sort of structured interaction with others is a great means of overcoming that.

So where did it come from?

Well, it’s the work of a Brazilian studio called Onrizon Social Games, who are a company that claim to “multiply stories through fun experiences”, whatever that means. They’ve put out a number of games over the years, with their first title, Gartic, appearing in 2008.

Gartic is a fairly straightforward online version of Pictionary that can still be played online today; since its original release on the web in 2008, it has spawned several different variations, including mobile and desktop versions — though it’s only in Brazilian. It took until 2017 for Onrizon to finally release an international version of the game, though since then it has been translated into 25 different languages.

Gartic Phone, meanwhile, is actually a clone of a game called Broken Picture Telephone that first released the year before the original Gartic first hit the market. Broken Picture Telephone was, itself, an adaptation of the Eat Poop You Cat format.

The original Broken Picture Telephone is long gone — the official website is now a thinly-veiled advertisement for online casino services, and the Android app appears to have gone the way of the dodo also — but for several years following its original launch, it was immensely popular. Presumably sensing a gap in the market, Onrizon launched Gartic Phone in December of 2020, and it has proven to be a big success ever since.

It’s not entirely clear how Onrizon makes money from products such as Gartic Phone, since all of them are free to play online. Their terms and conditions make reference to advertisements, so this is presumably where the bulk of their revenue comes from — though with the prevalence of adblockers these days one might question if this approach is truly sustainable for them in the long term, particularly with the attention Gartic Phone in particular has been getting.

Still, for now at least, it is what it is — and if you’ve been looking for something to liven up your Friday afternoon social calls on Teams or Zoom, well, there are far worse uses of your time than Gartic Phone!

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Pete Davison
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