Bad Games People Still Play: Telephone

Telephone, or Chinese Whispers, is a simple, and very popular game for kids. Cellobone, or Chinese whimpers, Lisa Thimble, and very popular gamer orchids. But if you’ve ever tried playing Telephone past the age of 12, you’ll know that it just doesn’t work anymore.

People either hear the message perfectly, and pass it along, or they hear the message perfectly, and then try to corrupt it in some ‘hilarious’ way. Usually by changing a few words to ‘poop’, or by outright substitution with their own message.

And you can’t really blame the corrupters. Without them the message wouldn’t change at all, which doesn’t make the game much fun. But rather than jury-rigging the verdict, could the game itself be tinkered with? How do you make telephone fun again?

Side question: Will the game still be called Telephone in 50 years when we're all speaking via microchips in our brains?

Side question: Will the game still be called Telephone in 50 years when we’re all speaking via microchips in our brains?

One of the problems with Telephone is that it is too easy to hear and understand people. You could play with crackers in your mouth, speak quickly or only in Bane impersonations, but there’s another bigger problem, which is that people seldom mishear words as other sillier words. Instead they hear garbled syllables, nothing distinct enough to repeat.

If the parts of the message are not understood, they are either dropped or they are `fixed` to maintain a sensical message. This does alter the original sentence, but does not produce a string of random English words in strange syntax. Seldom do you get the phonetically-similar gibberish that people find so funny. Telephone needs bigger changes than just disguising your voice.

In telephone, players are told to just repeat the message, and let the magic of miscommunication guide the sentence, but as discussed, this only works with tots. And why should they have all the fun? Those who intentionally corrupt messages are on to something with their rebellious interloping, but we can’t have complete anarchy either.

If players can change the sentence however they choose, then the last player has the final say, and all the creativity of the preceding chain could be discarded. You should be instructed to change sentences, but only to a certain extent, or according to certain rules.

For example, players could have to reword the sentence entirely, but attempt to keep the meaning as similar as possible. If the message began as
“Biscuits are nice eating, yes?”, the next player might relay
“Cookies is good consumption, yeah?”, then the next player whispers
“Treats be fine food, sure?”.

Since the message is whispered, one person to the next, players don’t know which synonyms have already been used, and so the message could end up back where it started. But because of the vagaries of English, and the caprice of players, you’re more likely to end up with something barely recognizable and delightfully silly.

Similarly, players can be instructed to say the exact opposite of what was just said.
“Biscuits are nice eating, yes?” could become
“Garbage ain’t mean pooping, no?” which becomes
“Goods are kind peeing, yes?” and so on.

This works best with an odd number of players, so that the final message could come out the same as the first. But of course, it’s more likely to spiral into gibberish, which is much preferable.

Other methods include swapping out one word with another of your choice, adding another word to the end of the sentence, or by quickly drawing and copying pictures instead of speaking.

You can also play on actual phones over a long period of time with scandalous stories about other players standing in for the message. This variation is called 'gossiping'.

You can also play on actual phones over a long period of time with scandalous stories about other players standing in for the message. This variation is called ‘gossiping’.

So what’s so fun about Telephone and its variants? Surely there are easier ways to produce gibberish sentences. Easier, yes. But the process of playing Telephone has its own appeal.

There’s the appeal of coming up with the input sentence, the suspense of wondering how or if it will change. There’s appeal in getting to reveal the output, of delivering the silly sentence that will have the party of players howling with laughter, as though you had told a brilliant joke. There’s appeal in seeing how rapidly and dramatically a message can change by simple increments, and in tracing back its progress from nonsense to sense.

Moreover, Telephone speaks to us as social creatures, as storytellers. It shows that messages are corrupted or exaggerated by simply travelling. The game is a microcosm of how humans spread information, whether rumor or fact, anecdote or myth. David Cross once jested that the bible was the world’s longest game of Telephone.

But its not just the bible, in every thing we say, every time we communicate, some things get lost and others get added. It even happens when we `talk` to ourselves. Whenever we recall memories and experiences, things are lost and added. We might not notice it as much on a daily basis, but given a long enough timeline every message turns into gibberish. Purple monkey dishwasher.

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