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Pass The Parcel

25 March 201305:12AMintrospection

Have you ever had an idea that just didn't feel like it was 'finished'?

Six months ago
I started drafting a post called 'Things that are not games' right after getting home from a group event, where someone had put a lot of time into making a pass-the-parcel. This post started with a lot of vitriol and snark, about how pass the parcel is not a game, because it falls into the same category as Snakes and Ladders. Both games rely entirely on chance, and don't actually require any interaction on the part of the player.

Pass the parcel was worse than that, I argued. Any kid can see that the optimal strategy for pass the parcel is to hold on to the parcel as long as possible. Adults then put a lot of effort in to teaching them not to follow this strategy, not to win, and then (and I quote) "wonder where they get their weird ideas about how the world works".

For one of any number of reasons, that post never made it past a draft. The way I had planned the post, I would then go on to deconstruct why snakes and ladders was bad, and how exactly pass the parcel taught kids to play suboptimally, but I didn't. I stopped. There just wasn't enough substance to that idea, and attempts to flesh it out with more examples of non-games weren't compelling enough to keep me writing.

So it sat in my drafts folder, along with twenty-two other discarded kernels of ideas.

One month ago
It was the first Monday of semester. I had my first lecture in COMM3003, and I was excited to put down some of these interesting ideas I'd had about games. We'd played D&D; the day before, and something about it had dragged up that discarded thought about pass the parcel. I realised that pass the parcel was not that different from D&D.; You don't play D&D; to win. You don't even have to play it optimally. In fact, if you play an RPG optimally, something like League of Legends is the result. It's devoid of character and storytelling, and impossibly antisocial.

Maybe pass the parcel was the same. It wasn't about playing optimally, and the entirely random nature of the game wasn't relevant. The important part was learning to play with other people, and ignore your desire to play optimally for the greater good. My example for this would be drawn from the game itself: if everybody plays optimally, the game doesn't work. It had a very game-theory ring to it, and I thought I might be on to something. It felt like the unfinished argument from my first draft finally had a satisfying counterpoint.

I was all set to dig up my draft, but not to post. I was going to adapt it to be the first entry in the weekly game journal for this unit. My insight and obscure choice of subject matter was going to impress the tutor and set me up for an amazing semester. All I had to do was wait for the assignment to come up.

Three weeks ago
It turns out that my idea was not as amazing as I'd thought. A Russian psychologist called Lev Vygotsky was mentioned early in the lecture in week 2. He characterised play as crucial to social development, and theorised that it taught kids to act contrary to their ego and voluntarily submit to social contracts.It was, essentially, my idea, only expressed much better.

It's very difficult to expand upon an idea which you know isn't original. Which is what leads me here. The fact that someone else had an idea first doesn't make it any less valid. The opposite, in fact. You could have told me in a lecture about Vygotsky's theories on social contracts, and I probably would've forgotten it by the end of the day. But something you work out, discovering it by questioning your assumptions or deriving it from first principles or even just letting it sit quietly brewing for six months, will really stick with you.

I guess that's what I've learned from this whole process, and, fittingly, it was something I'd already been told but had never really sunk in until now. You can read and memorise something every day for a year, and it won't stick half as well as something you figured out for yourself.

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