Games people play

I read an article on BoingBoing today called “The case against Candy Land“. The author writes (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) about how video games are far more educational for kids than some classic board games like Candy Land, where whether you win or lose depends entirely on the random arrangement of the cards, and not on any skill on the part of the player. If I play chess with my six-year-old, I can almost guarantee that I will beat him every time, because I have some skill at the game — very limited skill, admittedly, but more than him, which is all that matters. If we play Candy Land, however, he is just as likely to win as I am, since no skill is necessary. You don’t even have to know how to count. In particular, there are no decisions to be made.

I have noticed this with my kids’ games as they get older. The older the kids at which the game is targetted, the more decisions they need to make to be good at the game. As a kid, my sister and I played a card game called “war”. You shuffled the deck, then dealt out half the deck to each player. Each player turned over a card and whoever had the higher card won both cards. When you run out of cards, you take the cards you’ve won, shuffle them up, and keep going. If you both put down the same card, that’s a war. Each player deals out three cards face down, then turns one over, and the same rules apply. First one out of cards loses. It didn’t take long before I got completely bored with this game because even as a kid I realized that nothing I did mattered. There were no decisions to be made. Other than the speed at which I could deal the cards out or turn them over, there was no “getting good” at war. Candy Land is the same, as is snakes and ladders.

A game like Sorry or Trouble, or a similar game we like called Aggravation, also involves counting, but some decision-making as well. When you roll a one, do you bring out a new piece, or move an existing piece one space? If you have more than one piece out, which one do you move on any given turn? If you have the chance to either take someone out (“Sorry!”) or move one of your pieces into your safe area, which do you do? I really noticed the difference when playing snakes and ladders one day with Gail and Nicky. The phone rang and Gail went to answer it, asking me to play for her. I did and after three or four turns, she returned. It had never really occurred to me before, but that’s when I realized that the outcome of the game was going to be exactly the same whether I played her pieces or she did.

Ryan is starting to figure this out. There are some games, like snakes and ladders, that he used to like but doesn’t like so much anymore. I’m sure if I asked him, he couldn’t say specifically why; he’d just say that it’s a game for younger kids and he wants to play older kids games. I’m sure that the real reason is that he realizes at some level that what he does has no effect on the outcome of the game. When playing snakes and ladders once, I told Ryan that I could write a computer program to play this game and it would be just as good as any human player. I think he was impressed by that, but someday he’ll realize that it’s really not that impressive. It’s not that I can do it because I’m a great programmer — I couldn’t write a similar program for Monopoly, for example — but because it’s purely an algorithm with no decisions. Pick a random number from 1 to 6, move that many squares, go up a ladder if you’re at the bottom and down a snake if you’re at the top, and repeat until you get to the top.

As you get older, you get into games where more decisions are necessary, from Uno to checkers to Monopoly to backgammon to the game where all you do is make decisions, chess. In fact if you get to a point in a chess game where you don’t have a decision to make about what to do, you may be in check and are very likely in deep trouble.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that games such as Candy Land serve no purpose. They teach things like playing nicely with others, taking turns, and how to win and lose graciously. But if you’re over the age of 6 and looking for a challenging game, Candy Land may not be the one for you.


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