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.

4 Responses to “20 Questions (Okay, Really Only 5)”

  1. vika Says:

    Word games are popular in Russia, as a childhood pastime (and also children playing with adults, usually parents). One that I remember involves bouncing a ball on the ground and saying in time: “I – can – name – [agreed-upon-number] – of – [agreed-upon-category-of-thing] – that – starts – with – A: – ….” And so on down the alphabet. If you don’t keep time with the ball, you lose.

    Another game is called, surprisingly, Words. One person says a word, any word (nouns only). The other person must then say a word that begins with the same letter that ended the first word. And so on. With little children, the game is played without restrictions; to make it interesting, you can agree on a no-proper-nouns rule, or else stick to one category of things.

    The Russian version of Scrabble is called Erudit. The rules are slightly different: for example, you can put down more than one word during your turn; in my experience, this tends to produce more interesting words than the American points-centered approach does. (Though, I suppose, if you’re playing with Real word-crazed Erudites, the words will be interesting no matter how you play.)

  2. torill Says:

    We play “Min båt er lastet med” – my boat is loaded with – and then it has to be something starting with the specified letter. “Applecake” is nice, but “aberrations” is more amusing.

    There is “Hali – Hala” played with a ball, the children have to guess a word, for instance a breed of dogs starting with “c”, when a child guesses, the one who asked the question bounces the ball, yells “Hali” and runs, while the other has to catch the ball and yell “Hala” – at which point the other stops. Then the child with the ball can take three steps in the direction of the other, spit, walk up to the point where the blob landed and then throw the ball into the circle of the other child’s arms. And word-games are used in the rhymes to choose who will hide and who will seek, and then there are the combination word-and-number games, where you make up a word that sounds like nonsense until you hit the number that gives it the correct ending: polien – polito – count up to ten, at which point the word is “politi”, which means police.

    These are just some I can think of right away. I know these things have been studied in Norway both by child-behaviourists and linguists, who use children’s games to uncover regional language anomalies.

  3. William Huber Says:

    The Japanese version of “words” is called “shiritori”, and uses syllables (individual kana) instead of letters – there are no letters in japanese. So, if one player begins with “tanuki” (spelled with three kana in phonetic written Japanese: ta nu ki), the next player can say “kimono,” followed by “nori,” then “rikishi,” etc.

    The word “shiritori” means “take the end” or “take the bottom” – “shiri” is Japanese for buttocks.

    I wonder if all these versions of these games rely on the written-language representations of the words at hand, instead of the phonemes?

  4. vika Says:


    I think that whether they rely on writing is a function of the language in question, and the specific game as well. There are two letters in Russian which are never pronounced, one of which — the soft sign (it softens consonants) — often ends words but never begins them. (The hard sign also never begins words, but it never ends them either, so it’s not an issue.) One could say PAMIAT’ (‘memory’), and an acceptable continuation would be TARELKA (‘plate’), in which the T is hard. Also, often, sounded consonants (D, B, G) are pronounced as if they were unsounded (T, P, K) at the end of a word. The continuation to GOD (‘year’, pron. like the german GOTT), however, would have to start with a D and not a T.

    I guess, in the case of Russian going by phonemes would be a further constraint, which might be valid and fun. In this case, TELO (‘body’) would be an acceptable follow-up to PAMIAT’, whereas TARELKA wouldn’t. In English, it would manifest as APPLE–LEAF as acceptable, but not APPLE–EARTH.

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