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?

Interactive decision making

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When I was a freshman at Dartmouth one of the classes I was most interested in taking was on game theory, which sounded both fabulously fun (games!) and incredibly interesting (theories!) Luckily I read the reviews of the class before I signed up which unanimously decried the class as not at all fun and not at all interesting.

Game theory encompasses a variety of explanations of relatively simple behavior in mathematically complex ways. For instance, in A Beautiful Mind, John Nash stumbles upon his famous equilibrium concept by checking out ladies at a bar:


Easy, right? Well here’s the mathematical equation for this phenomenon: \forall i,x_i\in S_i, x_i \neq x^*_{i} :  f_i(x^*_{i}, x^*_{-i}) \geq f_i(x_{i},x^*_{-i}).

Dr. Haim Shapiro, game theorist, calls this type of a equation a mathematical x-ray of a situation. Indeed it looks something like the bones of a complex organism. Here, in a TEDtalk, he discusses the Beautiful Mind scene as well as several other examples of strategy:


Well I’m off to meet up with friends for dinner. Now I just have to figure out how to make them pay for my filete a la rossini

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:

Playing detective

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Carmen Sandiego

Thinking back on my childhood, I realize how many of my favorite games and shows were based on detective work. My favorite computer game was Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? (I especially loved the typing sound as I, the gumshoe, was promoted to my next case). One of my favorites shows was Mathnet, a children’s TV segment in a math show called Square One. I also absolutely adored the board game Clue.

Mathnet, a parody of Dragnet, focused on two detectives, Kate Monday and George Frankly, who solved crimes with mathematical and scientific concepts. A few of their cases stand out in my mind, especially that of loot stolen by motorboat that Kate and George find while scuba-diving by calculating the tidal drift between objects. And, of course, the murder mystery episode which totally freaked me out (you don’t usually expect a children’s math program to be scary). They think they’ve gone to a friend’s murder mystery weekend, but accidentally arrive at another house where guests are really disappearing. Thinking everyone is a great actor, they’re not alarmed until they realize they’re the only guests left. Them and the butler.

Which brings me to Clue. Clue was apparently created in 1944 by a British man to play while waiting out air raids, and originally included such potential murder weapons as an axe, bomb, syringe, and shillelagh.

Scarlet, my childhood heroine

I still remember playing Clue with my family when I was no more than five years old. I was allowed, for the first time, to play as my own character instead of being a team with one of the adults. I felt I was doing pretty well checking off boxes I knew to not be the murder weapon or suspect. Suddenly I realized I only had one unchecked box per category: in essence, I had solved the case of who killed Mr. Boddy. I made my guess: Ms. Peacock in the library with the candlestick. And one by one my family said they didn’t have any of these cards. When it came full circle and no one had any evidence to the contrary, one of my aunts gently prodded, “You’re sure you have none of those cards, Jenna?” I looked down at my hand, where I saw Ms. Peacock next to the library card, only partially obstructing my view of the candlestick. Oops. Luckily, Carmen Sandiego and Mathnet would come along later to teach me how to be a real detective.