Sunday, February 3, 2013

Charades and its Descendants

Nick explores the relaionship between Charades and other party games in the same family, discusses what makes them fun, and speculates about expanding this genre in the future.

Take a look at this list of games:


It should be obvious that these games are clearly closely related. If you're generous, they make up a tight little sub genre. Arguably, they're variations on such a consistent theme that they barely deserve to be called distinct games. In each, your job is to give a partner (or partners) clues to help them to identify a secret answer, word, or phrase. In each this challenge is complicated by an obstacle to your communication. In Charades, you may not speak. In Pictionary, you can only draw. In Taboo, you have to avoid the "taboo" words that would make it easy.

And these games are enduringly popular. Charades goes back to at least the 1700's, but its derivatives are still popular at cocktail parties and family gatherings. And of course, these games have spawned television game shows (Body LanguagePyramidPasswordWin, Lose or Draw) and digital games (Draw SomethingGoogle Image LabelerWord Charades). What's the appeal of these games? Each essentially turns a mundane task (communicating a simple phrase) into a playful one by imposing an obstacle to that straightforward communication. The Encyclopedia of Play in Modern Culture explains, "The tension in the game of Charades comes from trying to help the audience guess the meaning of the charade, but not to guess to quickly. There is no dramatic tension, and hence no fun, if the charade is solved without a comic detour."

Charades and its derivatives are actually self generating puzzles: designers provide answers and rules on the construction of the puzzle, and players generate the hints that make up the meat of the challenge for each other. Notably, these games are not about deduction. Tension in games like Clue and Battleship comes from working to slowly gather the information needed to narrow in on an answer. Charade-like games shift this tension to the person giving clues. If the "guessers" are failing, the creative thinking needs to come from trying to operate outside of the restrictions on clues, not from guessers trying to consider the data presented to them; These aren't "guessing games" they're "signaling games."

Some games add variety by mashing up several of these sub genres. In Celebrities (variously referred to as Time's Up!, Bucket of Nouns, or Charades 2.0) players recycle terms, going through a round of verbal description, one-word clues, and mime. Cranium asks you to draw, mime, talk, and sculpt to help your teammates identify answers (it also includes word puzzles and trivia, underscoring some unity of theme with those more traditional puzzles).

The challenge for party game designers is to find ways to create fresh material in this well-trodden genre. Some amazing games have come from an innovative twist on these classic. In Backseat Drawing, the clue giver has to describe how to draw the answer instead of describing it ("Draw a rectangle! No Wider! Put a dot in the middle!") In Guesstures signalers get to chose a set of four terms to try and "charade" within the maddeningly short timer, earning more points if they choose more challenging phrases. Cluzzle gives you more points if it takes people longer to figure out what you're trying to signal with your modeling clay sculpture, as long as someone gets it eventuallyReverse Charades has a whole team of signalers and one guesser. Further development in this field will demand something beyond a simple inversion of dynamics present in these games. We need new obstacles, new kinds of clues, and more. Puzzles are an endless field of development for the game designer and there is no reason that this field couldn't be just as broad.


Unknown said...

My favorite example of one of these games in pop-culture comes from "The Dinner Party" episode of The Office: starts at 8:30

Michael Scott: Alright here we go. This is gonna be fun. Ready? Alright, first name is Tom.
Jan: No, no, no! No names! No rhyming! No sounds a-likes, you actually have to--
Michael Scott: Ok! Ok! You're getting into my head! First name is blank and he goes on a cruise. He goes on a Caribbean cruiseee.
Angela: I don't know.
Jim Halpert: Katie Holmes.
Michael Scott: Bahhhhhh!! But he's married to her!
Jim Halpert: Oh Dawson's Creek.
Michael Scott: No! No, it has to be a real person, Jim, come on! Ok no no I'm gonna pass. Ahh, oh ok! Um, rhymes with Parnold Sporchzenegger.
Jan: No rhyming!
Jim Halpert: No really a rhyme...
Angela: Another clue! Another clue!
Michael Scott: Alright he's the Governor of California, he is The Terminator...
Angela: Those aren't helpful--
Jim Halpert: Tom Cruise!
Michael Scott:Noo--
Andy: Time!
Michael Scott:Does anyone read the paper??

Anonymous said...

Dear Nick O'Leary:

I think it is a GLARING OMISSION and a sign of your LACK OF PROFESSIONAL INTEGRITY that you would quote The Office and FAIL to give the SURNAMES of FEMALE CHARACTERS as IMPORTANT as Angela MARTIN and Jan LEVINSON.



Prezzie Snow

Unknown said...

Oops! I pulled the dialogue off a quote site and didn't notice the omission of female last names. Very strange. My apologies!