Friday, June 05, 2009

Musical Chairs (dark themes in children's games and global crises)

I'm fascinated by children’s games, especially the pre-board game toys intended for younger children that involve physical participation.

One of the reasons I'm so fond of these games is their dark underlying themes: "time is running out" (Perfection, Beat the Clock), "impending doom"/"immanent disaster" (Don't Break the Ice, Don't Spill the Beans, Jaws) "artificial scarcity/struggle for resources" (Hungry Hungry Hippos) and "last man standing" (Stay Alive).

These narrative themes, built into the interaction of these games are also the themes that structure and haunt our lives. In the fortunate lives of those in developed countries, "work" is the specialized efforts undertaken to satisfy needs and acquire what is desired. In most of the world, struggling to fulfill basic needs is a constant, defining aspect of life. For everyone, the sense that years are passing and the end is getting nearer increases as the losses of days and the deceased mount around us.

Presently, the global crises threatening us (we are constantly reminded) are conditions of scarcity (the economy, peak oil, food prices, worldwide hunger) and interestingly, abundance of resources (the ills of greed and consumer capitalism) and well as the "impending doom, must act now, time is running out" spectres of climate change, terrorism and pandemic.

My all-time favorite game, and the one I think reflects so eerily human existence in our present age is Musical Chairs, the game in which party guests form a circle around a ring of chairs. There is 1 fewer chairs than players. Music begins to play and the partygoers move in a circle around the ring of chairs. When the music abruptly stops the players scramble to sit down. One player in each round is eliminated. Everyone stands, another chair is removed, and the next round beings. This continues until only 1 person is left.

Music Chairs has many of the themes that I love so much in the children's games I referenced: artificial scarcity, struggle for resources, a gradual extinction until a single player remains. It also involves full physical participation as opposed to the use of a game piece proxy. This may be what gives the game its unique character: the emotional turn that takes place.

Musical Chairs is a simple and easy enough game that everyone can join in, and the more that do, the merrier. In the beginning the spirit of the party defines the mood. It starts slowly, more like a jaunty dance line that a competitive ring of contestants. The weak, the slow and the less engaged and aggressive are the first casualties. As the rounds play out, resources diminish and the intensity heightens. The dance line tightens into a narrowing downward spiral and an increasingly personal struggle. In the final rounds it can get ugly and clumsy and personal: pushing, falling, chairs tossed and turned. What starts with an air of cheer and pageantry becomes a heated and desperate struggle for what little is left by a remaining few. All is gone but a lone winner and scattered remains.

-The Sherman Foundation
"Our Side is Winning"

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