Tuesday, January 12, 2010

What's In A Name?

C. Engdahl
The Big E of Big E Toys

“Apples and oranges aren’t that different, really. I mean, they’re both fruit. Their weight is extremely similar. They both contain acidic elements. They’re both roughly spherical. They serve the same social purpose. With the possible exception of a tangerine, I can’t think of anything more similar to an orange than an apple. If I was having lunch with a man who was eating an apple and – while I was looking away – he replaced that apple with an orange, I doubt I’d even notice. So how is this a metaphor for difference? I could understand if you said, ‘That’s like comparing apples and uranium,’ or ‘That’s like comparing apples with baby wolverines,’ or ‘That’s like comparing apples with the early work of Raymond Carver,’ or ‘That’s like comparing apples with hermaphroditic ground sloths.’ Those would all be valid examples of profound disparity. But not apples and oranges. In every meaningful way, they’re virtually identical.”

- from the book Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs by Chuck Klosterman

I don’t dwell too often or too long on the story I’m about to tell. For when I do, I get fairly irritated with myself.

Some of you already know, in addition to other endeavors, I operate a small toy company (manufacturer not store) called Big E Toys that specializes in board games. I introduced my first game about six years ago, but have been tinkering with various board game ideas since the early to mid-nineties.

Games in various stages of development take on many forms around my house – some have boards, some are just card games, others involve dice, and some are simply verbal manifestations of concepts being tossed about. And I distinctly remember one of these verbal manifestations - before I even brought my first game to market - for which I was unable to connect all the conceptual pieces. Someone else beat me to the punch. I missed an opportunity and kick myself periodically because of it.

About ten years ago, I was helping chaperone a whitewater canoe trip on the Brule River in northern WI for a bunch of senior high youth from my church. Our overall group was too large to canoe together and we thus broke up into more manageable sized parties. My group consisted of seven high school seniors, and one junior. All boys. Plus our two guides, both of whom were college-aged women.

For anyone that’s been on a camping, canoeing, or hiking trip such as this, either as a participant or chaperone, you understand the necessity to keep yourself engaged in creative ways with those around you. Aside from some designated solitary time in which people go off to explore their surroundings and contemplate life on their own every once in a while, an overwhelming majority of your time – cooking, eating, canoeing, looking for firewood, sleeping, cleaning up, breaking camp, etc. – is a collective experience. Silence may be golden, but it gets pretty old pretty fast if you’ve exhausted all the standard discussion topics and aren’t able to find creative new ways to interact with those around you.

Games, in virtually any situation – whether at home, at a party, at work, or even on a camping trip - can be used as an icebreaker or ongoing mechanism to interact with others in fun and interesting ways. On this particular trip I remember having had a hacky-sack and small football along with which we could toss around with our feet or hands respectively. Such trips aren’t conducive to board games however. And aside from a couple decks of cards and small cribbage board, we made no attempt to lug along any conventional board games.

But this doesn’t mean we didn’t play games. Even without a traditional board, you can always play charades, or gather some rocks and play checkers in a dirt-drawn board. In our particular case, it just meant our games were largely verbal in nature. We could play these anywhere – in a canoe, around the campfire, while eating, between tents while going to sleep, etc.

One game I initiated, which was largely meant as a way for each of us to simply get to know one another better, involved one person verbally tossing out a theme, topic, or phrase around which others would provide a response. An example of a theme could be “Greatest Breakfast Cereal Character Ever” at which point others in the game might verbally respond “Tony the Tiger”, or “the Trix Rabbit”, or “Mikey from LIFE cereal”, etc, etc, etc. The person that threw out the topic wouldn’t provide an answer, and would instead select the “best” answer from all the others and designate a winner for that round. The winner would score a point. The game would continue with someone else providing a theme or topic and would last until someone scored a certain number of points or as long as everyone or anyone stayed engaged.

Topic: Greatest Band Name Ever

“Echo and the Bunnymen”

“Ned’s Atomic Dustbin”

“Electric Light Orchestra”

“Rolling Stones”

You get the idea.

When it came to selecting a winner for each round, “Best” became sort of arbitrary. The winner might have provided the most obscure answer, the funniest answer, or perhaps simply an answer that most closely coincided with what the judge may have been thinking when he or she threw out the topic. There wasn’t necessarily any rhyme or reason to selecting the winner. And this is precisely what made it particularly fun. It created some great interaction, debate and discussion.

With eight high school upper classmen and two college-aged female guides, you can imagine the good-natured verbal bantering, bordering on flirting, that ensued. The guys were all trying to impress – either by being funny, or smart, or gross, or whatever. Each was looking for their own share of attention.

Topic: Most Visually Graphic Word to Describe a Bowel Movement

What’s your answer?

Does this game I describe sound familiar? Many of you may recognize the basic mechanics of this verbal get-to-know-me game as the now classic, widely popular, highly successful, family-oriented party board game Apples to Apples. A game that I unfortunately didn’t bring to market.

I never connected the dots for this concept.

I was relatively young. I was working on other ideas. I didn’t think to myself how to translate the verbal nature of this game into a more traditional board or card based offering. The game was too simple to be a product. I never had the “ah-ha” moment as has been the case with other ideas.

In retrospect I think I made a very simple mistake.

I never referred to the game as anything in particular. I never gave it a name.

Had I referred to it as “Creative Comparisons”, or “What Do You Think?”, or “The Greatest Ever”, or anything for that matter, perhaps history would be different. But as it was, this game remained just something to pass the time. Without a name, it perhaps wasn’t real in some sense. It couldn’t be tested or further developed. It simply was.

Needless to say, I don’t make this mistake anymore.

Most Visually Graphic Word to Describe a Bowel Movement?

The winning answer (which I provided): “Violent”.

At least I scored a point in that round.

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