Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Critical Game Analysis

In this, the first and last edition of Graduate Students Who Have Too Much Time on Their Hands, I thought I'd apply skills I've acquired graduate school--like critical race theory, post-colonial studies, and feminist theory--to some of the games Dear Husband and I like to play when we can scrounge up a free hour and some friends. I call it Critical Game Analysis (CGA).

Editor's note: Don't take this (too) seriously--I'm mostly poking fun at how graduate education can warp the minds of the young and impressionable. (Have I ever told you about my spontaneous analysis of artificial Christmas trees and "nature" during my first winter break in grad school--no? Phew!)

We're playing here after a cookout to celebrate AC and JW's
wedding. It was the first time JW had played, and she
whooped us all!

First up is "Mexican Train" dominoes, a favorite after-dinner past time in my family with a racist name. To play the game, each person tries to get rid of their dominoes on their own personal train; if someone can't play (even after drawing from the bone pile), then his/her train is "open" for other players to add to. The "wild card" in this game is a train that's always open...it's a free ride...it's the "Mexican train"--get it?

DH and MK^2 kindly model my second, crushing victory
that night. I only had the single 2x2 green tile left in my hand.

Next up, Blokus, a present from Dear Husband's parents: It's kind of like a two-dimensional game of Tetris for up to four players and with more complicated spatial rules. Each player tries to use his or her set of tiles to take up as much space on the board as possible, preferably while blocking the other players' progress. It's like the Race for Africa for your dinner table: suitable for teaching the basics of settler colonialism to kids ages 8 and up! Once you've put your pieces down, defend encroachments on "your land"; after all, it was just a blank gray board when you got there...

Finally, there's Jenga, a perfect model of patriarchy. I mean come on, have you ever seen a more phallic game design? It just keeps getting taller/longer and--as radical feminist theory would suggest--more riddled with holes and structural weakness until, at last, the whole edifice comes crashing down on itself.

To what other games shall we apply Critical Game Analysis? Imagine the Critical Game Analysis possibilities of the game Othello--or a queer theory approach to Chutes and Ladders! I am thinking of starting a quarterly journal, or at the very least an annual conference for the "study" of this vibrant and vital field...


  1. On the other hand, sometimes a Royal Flush is just a Royal Flush...

  2. I always thought Mexican train referred to the fact that everyone got on it so it was crowded (similar to a visual of South or Central American buses overflowing with passengers).

  3. That's another possibility! At any rate, we've had such fun playing dominoes with friends that a game night is materializing for mid-November. :-)

  4. Last night we discussed the extent to which Creative Commons licenses applied to the various trains, which were founded in the name of a variety of international entities, including Estonia, Bolivia, and South Sudan. It was a regular United Nations around here!


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