Bad Games People Still Play: I-Spy

I spy with my little eye, something that is boring. Give up? It’s I-Spy, the crap game that kids play when they’re bored and want to annoy their parents. Why do people play I-Spy? And is there some kernel of fun within it that can be salvaged?

Well, there is something fun about having a secret. I-Spy gives the spy a little secret to keep for a few seconds. More importantly, the other player must guess and conjecture as to what’s been spied. Meaning that for the game to be played, someone must act interested in your ephemeral secret. Fun for the person with the secret, but boring for the guesser, who usually only wants find the object so it will be their turn.

The I-Spy books, however, were a marked improvement over the repetitive Where's Waldo series.

The I-Spy books, however, were a marked improvement over the repetitive Where’s Waldo series.

Now games like this, where players take turns being the one who has fun, are obviously not ideal. But it is common symptom of guessing games. 20 Questions sometimes has this problem too; people seem to prefer having a secret to trying to uncover one. But is there some way we can tweak I-Spy so that both players can have fun simultaneously?

The problem with I-Spy is that the guesser has no way of narrowing down or figuring out what the object is. (Unless the spy is sloppy and keeps glancing at their secret object.) Usually the only thing you can do is guess-and-test. Is it that hat? No. Is it that shoe? No. Is it the sky? No. Is it my pen?

The pen is blue.

The pen is blue, presumably.

Yes! Whoop-dee-doo, it was my pen this time. There’s no thought or strategy for the guesser. You just guess everything that could possibly apply until you win. Or you give up, which you could hardly be blamed for, because your role is boring and mindless and best to get it over quickly.

What if the guesser had some methods for finding the object? Try hot-and-cold. The spy picks and object, but rather than hint as to its colour, the only tell the guesser how far (cold) or close (hot) they are to the object. Now the guesser can tell when they are close. If played in a car, the guesser can pick an object and heat or coldness is determined by how close the picked object is to the secret one.

The game still has an element of guess-and-test, but every time you ‘guess’ you get more information. The crescendo of ‘heat’ as you close in on the object gives the game a natural sense of drama, with near misses and a climactic ‘very very very hot’ finish. Same principle, more fun.

Wearing heat vision goggles is, of course, cheating.

Wearing heat vision goggles is, of course, cheating.

Also try I-Spy in reverse. Instead of picking an object in plain sight, the spy removes an object (while the guesser closes their eyes) from a room, preferably a messy room full of odds and ends. Then the guesser tries to figure out what is missing. Instead of a litany of “Is it X? No. Is it Y? No.”, players can see for themselves what objects are still there, and thus are not the secret object.

Now rather than just random guessing, there is an element of skill. Those with photographic memories can excel. And when skill is present, there is room for growth. Players will become more observant, better at memorization, and more familiar with the contents of their rooms. It is both fun and satisfying to improve at a game.

Lastly, a game invented by none other than Nobel laureate Richard Feynman, as described in his book ‘Surely you’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!”. I don’t believe he gave the game a name, but it seems appropriate to call it I-Smell.

Like the previous game, the guesser (the smeller) either closes their eyes or leaves the room, while the other player (the smellee) picks an object. But instead of removing it, they simply pick it up, handle it for a few seconds, and put it back exactly where it was.

The guesser then re-enters and walks about the room smelling objects to see if they can tell what was handled. The game was invented to test the human nose, and you might be surprised how well yours works.

Although perhaps not as well as Mr. Feynman's fine honker pictured here.

Although perhaps not as well as Mr. Feynman’s fine honker pictured here.

Again, by providing a method for discovering what object was chosen, the guesser can enjoy the search, while the player with the secret can enjoy the suspense.

Know any good guessing games? Or do you have your own version of I-Spy?



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