What they do in Katroo

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The morning of May 20th always meant one thing as a kid: my parents bursting into my room and exclaiming…

I wish we could do what they do in Katroo
They sure know how to say “Happy Birthday to You!”
In Katroo, every year, on the day you were born
They start the day right in the bright early morn
When the Birthday Honk-Honker hikes high up Mr. Zorn
And let’s loose a big blast on the big Birthday Horn.
And the voice of the horn calls out loud as it plays:
“Wake Up! For today is your Day of all Days!”

The tradition lasted even after I moved to college; they still managed to call me on speakerphone early in the morning on my birthday and recite the familiar lines. By then, Dr. Seuss, one of the most beloved and recognizable author-illustrators of children’s books, of course, had even more meaning: we shared an alma mater. Theodore Geisel actually became Dr. Seuss at Dartmouth College: he started writing under the pen name after getting caught drinking (this was Prohibition-era). He was told he couldn’t participate in any extracurricular activities as punishment, and so started signing his articles in the humor magazine “Seuss” so the administration wouldn’t know it was him.

Dartmouth now uses the Seussian connection to the fullest extent. Freshmen are served green eggs and ham during orientation Trips. And, just a few weeks ago, Dartmouth’s med school switched its name to the the Audrey and Theodor Geisel School of Medicine. (A friend who attends the newly christened “Dr. Seuss School of Medicine” came up with some new book titles: “Polyp on Pop,” “The Larynx,” and “Horton Hears a Heart Murmur”).

Every year on my birthday I feel just a little sad that we don’t do what they do in Katroo–no Birthday Honk-Honker, no Mt. Zorn. But, of course, Dr. Seuss includes almost profound truths in his silly tales. As he reminds us, there’s no need to be jealous of the Katroosians:

 Today you are you! That is truer than true!

 There is no one alive who is you-er than you!

 Shout loud, “I am lucky to be what I am!

 Thank goodness I’m not just a clam or a ham 

Or a dusty old jar of sour gooseberry jam! 

I am what I am! That’s a great thing to be!

 If I say so myself, 

HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME!

More of Dr. Seuss’s wise messages


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The joy of games

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Today after our Easter brunch with friends we set out a game, Anomia, that involves calling out examples of whatever person/place/thing is listed on a card. Whoever calls out a correct answer first wins that card. This was only the second time we played the game, but we found that everyone seemed to behave in the same way: to a person, when we couldn’t immediately come up with an answer, we’d point at the card and mumble incomprehensible sounds until a correct word came out of one of our mouths. We wondered at the psychology of this, the pointing, the shouting. In the end, though, it didn’t matter what the psychology was or who won; we wound up laughing until we cried at the ridiculous noises and words we made. And thus the game was successful.

Queen Nefertari contemplates her move in Senet

Games have been an important part of human society for millennia. A three-thousand-year-old set of dice was found in southeastern Iran;  five-thousand-year-old Egyptian hieroglyphs depict a board game called senet, for which the rules have been lost.

So what makes a game? And what makes it necessary to human culture?

Many different philosophers and sociologists have given descriptions of what makes a game, but I like French sociologist Robert Caillois’s definition best. He defines a game as having 6 characteristics. A game is:

  • Fun: the activity is chosen for its light-hearted character;
  • Separate: it is circumscribed in time and place;
  • Uncertain: the outcome of the activity is unforeseeable;
  • Non-productive: participation does not accomplish anything useful;
  • Governed by rules: the activity has rules that are different from everyday life;
  • Fictitious: it is accompanied by the awareness of a different reality.

Are games just escapes, then? If they are nonproductive, fictitious, fun, and separate, they have no bearing on real life (except for on the lives of professional gamers and rabid fans, of course). And, since they are governed by rules, they provide some semblance of control in an otherwise uncontrollable existence. Still, Caillois’s description doesn’t address why games are necessary to existence. I imagine that that answer is anthropologically and psychologically much more complex.

Or maybe it’s not. The kind of hysterical laughter we were all infected with today is hard to come by. My favorite kinds of games are the ones that make me laugh hard or think creatively, i.e., provide joy. And who doesn’t need a little more joy in their lives?

Game of Thrones

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In nineteenth century India, the making of thrones was considered a high art as well as a competitive sport. Throne makers gathered for ten-day festivals; at the end of the festival, spectators voted on the best and worst thrones. The best was given to the Maharaja while the maker of the worst was killed. After all, in the game of thrones, you win or you die.

April Fool’s!

As I was trying to come up with a post about games today, I was distracted by a steady stream of friends getting excited about the Game of Thrones season 2 premiere tonight. Since I don’t have HBO, I had to console myself with YouTube clips. But now I’m even more jealous:

How to be a game maker

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What you’ll need: a board, pawns

Songlist: Video Games by Lana Del Rey, Play On by Carrie Underwood

Further reading: A Game of Thrones by R. R. Martin

Pieces on a Risk game board

Caveat: Bowing to social and cultural pressures, I read The Hunger Games this weekend. And yes, there are Gamemakers in that book that pit 24 teenagers against each other in a battle royale. And yes, when trying to come up with this week’s topic I thought of the bazillions of people who lined up to see said teenagers murder each other on the big screen (in 3D, why not!) So this is definitely a tie-in–I decided against “How to be an assassin”–yet my idea of game making is quite different from the casual sadism of Suzanne Collins’s dystopia.

I made my first board game in second grade in a class called Dominoes and Domiciles. My game was a typical sequential journey where you advanced along a track by rolling dice and picking up cards along the way. The twist was that you could pick one of six tracks, each one affiliated with an endangered animal. I spent hours researching each of my six animals, writing game cards, drawing the elaborate board, and creating tokens to stand in for the animals. After presenting it to the class, I eagerly brought my Endangered Species of the World game home (doesn’t it sound fun?!?) and made my family play it with me. The game started off with enthusiasm, but quickly turned sour when my brother and parents were unable to answer the trivia cards that guaranteed extra rewards (“The size of a bald eagle generally corresponds with what rule?…Bergmann Rule!?! Seriously, Jenna, how was I supposed to know that?”) I, of course, knew all the answers.

Unfortunately, I didn’t learn my lesson. In seventh grade, my best friend and I created a Lewis and Clark board game which was exactly the same concept as my endangered species game (I think you could even be one of six characters with corresponding trivia to answer). My family, however, had learned their lesson, and refused to play when I brought the game home.

So I might not be the best game maker…yet. In fact, it seems fairly difficult to create a game that keeps players coming back. Of course, there are plenty of classics. I’m especially partial to Clue and Risk because they are simple enough for a child to play yet complicated enough to keep an adult entertained.

The new favorite

There is one new game in contention to become a classic in our house, though. For Christmas, my dad bought my mom a game called Marrakech, something like a simplified version of Monopoly. Players set down rugs in the marketplace, and pay taxes if they land on someone else’s rug. A game only last about 20 minutes which makes it much more palatable than starting a game of Monopoly, and, since they rugs are brightly colored, much prettier as well. At the end of the instruction booklet, we found a note about game company, Gigamic: game designers collect royalties for every game of theirs sold, and Gigamic is always open to new suggestions.

So don’t worry, world, as soon as I come up with a better board game concept than asking obscure trivia that only I know the answer to, I am contacting Gigamic straightaway. And then I’ll just watch the Monopoly money roll in.