Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Games Without Frontiers… at Camp

I’m continuing to watch how things play out in a camp environment where games are run very loosely. I can’t quite follow what the real standard is because it’s very situational. Sometimes a contest is handed to a kid just based on their cuteness factor and it’s clear that the activity is all smoke and mirrors meant only to distract, engage, and amuse.  In things closer to “real” games, cheating is frowned upon as poor sportsmanship only after someone’s in tears. But to press for consistency in rulings, to confront cheating, or to organize a team into an effective strategy is often called out as being “taking it too seriously.” It strikes me as a recipe for hurt feelings.

Back in canoe class, we had another round of the rubber duck game. You’re supposed to pick up ducks from the water and throw them into other peoples’ boats. You’re not supposed to throw ducks out of your boat once they’ve been thrown in, but a few people didn’t “understand” that. We reviewed the rules discussed that one point of whether or not to actually try to play the rule correctly this time, but several people argued that we should just let it go. My argument that the game basically falls apart  without that rule fell on deaf ears. (What was to keep someone from just dumping ducks out of their boat right up until time?) I let it go and went with the flow.

Well, we got started and the two older boys seemed to be up to their old tricks. They were really good at this. If anyone threatened them they could pretty effectively use their paddles to parry any duck that was coming their way. So… we weren’t in any sort of a balanced or fair game. Since most all of us were outclassed, I did what any euro gamer would have done under similar circumstances: I organized everyone against the players with the least amount of goodwill. I was surprised at how everyone instantaneously agreed to this.

I cruised around the lake with my son. There were a couple of engagements, but I started collecting ducks. I toyed with collecting all of the ducks in order to force an end game. But after a while I noticed that the two older boys were distracted and I closed in on them. We got to point blank range and started throwing ducks into their boat in the presence of enough other witnesses so that it would be clear that they’d “lost” even if they dumped all the ducks out later. At first they blocked my pathetic “old man” lobs, but my son and I kept throwing. After the tenth duck, they became dismayed– they’d had no clue how much ammunition we had. After the twentieth… their morale broke and they were crying, “foul!”

Which just goes to show you, if people don’t understand what the rules are intended to do and aren’t willing to enforce them when they agree to them… then there is only ever going to be a semblance of a game going on. The only way to “win” under those circumstances is to create your own objectives and victory conditions. And in that respect, chaotic non-games have a surprisingly large amount in common with both with Start Trek’s Kobayash Maru test and old school Dungeons & Dragons.

The real answer here does come down to game design, of course. When enough people are untrustworthy and the judges are unpredictable, you really need something that works the way that the pie rule leverages people’s inherent selfishness to produce fair outcomes. (The pie rule is where one person slices something in half, but the other person gets to pick which piece they get.) The other rubber duck game where you have to take ducks off the bow of other peoples’ canoe is much harder to mess up, for example. It’s kind of hard cheat in that particular game. It’s clear that it’s over when there are no more ducks on peoples’ bows, and you can’t really steal ducks from other peoples scores without causing a scene.

Canoe class was still a success, though, and the kids all got used to paddling around and we were all outside and away from gadgetry. Things got so intense during the game that the instructor actually flipped her canoe over. This was actually pretty educational to observe. The two older boys redeemed themselves by being johnny-on-the-spot and assisting in getting the boat righted and everyone back on board. I was impressed. All’s well that ends well, right?

But the late evening capture the flag game did not go so well. Kids were tired and tempers were short. A couple of contests run earlier had set the tone that strict rules enforcement was not going to be the norm, but that didn’t keep some of the younger kids from being outraged when people tried dirty tricks by switching sides on the field. The whole lot of campers got a stern talking to about their poor sportsmanship after the game.

Meanwhile, a few parents were trading notes on guerrilla tactics to take home with them. The tale was told of the mom that packed for camp a week early. She pretended to take her boys to camp and sternly told them she was turning the car around if they were going to cut up. She hadn’t even got one block away before they started up. Sure enough, she turned the car around and taught them a lesson. A week later she announced she’d managed to get another date set… and this time the kids behaved all the way there.

That right there’s how it’s done.


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