June 18, 2003

20 Questions (Okay, Really Only 5)

by Nick Montfort · , 9:43 pm

In typing up a recent comment to add to the neverending thread on the category “Games in Virtual Environments” I realized that I know very little about which traditional games are played in different cultures. Well, not very little, perhaps – but I don’t exactly know what I do and don’t know about this. Certainly, I’m aware that lots of people will know what chess is, and that all sorts of consumer products (games included) have made their way to other markets, but I think I have a much better sense of what literature and art is known cross-culturally than I do when it comes to non-computer games.

After a discussion with some friends about spelling bees (which seem to have originated in America), we realized that this sort of contest would be absolutely absurd in Japan, where words are spelled exactly as they are pronounced. In crossword puzzles there are plenty of national differences; sources indicate that we find “American, cryptic, quick, freeform, coded, French-style and clues-in-squares crosswords.” But it isn’t only within language games that we can find these sorts of variations.

What about the ever-popular diversions for children who travel by car, such as License Plate Bingo? (That would seem to rely very heavily on having childhood experiences of car travel, not to mention a specific sort of political geography.) What about another observation game, I Spy? Do people in different parts of the Internet-using world play similar verbal games of other sorts, such as 20 questions? Who am I? Ghost? Even without getting into sports or games that require any special equipment, there’s a good deal to wonder about.

Perhaps if I were a better scholar of traditional games I’d know the answer to these questions. If you have answers, or have gaming experiences that shed some light on this topic, I’d be interested to know. Most interesting to me would be the sort of comment that begins “I was completely puzzled when X from another culture made reference to a game I’d never heard of …” I suppose that hasn’t happened to me yet, which may mean that my worries about games in different cultures aren’t well-founded. Or it may mean that I haven’t recently read that much scholarship that refers to traditional gaming. Anyway, I hope I didn’t give anyone that sense when I mentioned Twenty Questions in commenting on the GIVE category.