Against Articulate

What links Elvis Presley, Gliding, and Bonn? What about Space Invaders, Contravening and Antwerp? If you’d asked me in 2011 I would have told you straight away: you can find each of those sets of words on a single card in the board game Articulate! — their exclamation mark, not mine.

Articulate! was a staple during my first year in uni. At least once a week, our gang would team up and bunker down with the hallowed board and a crate of Biere D’or. And it was a highly competitive affair.

cheap enough for students, weak enough for gamers

I’m not a competitive person unless I’m confident that I can win. I used to be a competitive person, but in reality I’m just not that good at most competitions: rugby, football, running, sport generally, pub quizzes, card games, chess — seriously, I’m bad at pretty much everything that involves any element competition. When you lose enough times, that competitive instinct gets beaten out of you.

The problem for me in 2011 was that I’d gotten pretty good at Articulate!, to the point where I’d begun to be competitive all over again. I’d started to care. Like, when I say that I would have known those sets of words were on the same cards as each other I fully mean it. Yes, I did read through the deck as some sort of misguided training exercise. No, I’m not proud. No, neither is my family.

worship happened here

I can pinpoint the exact time that I stopped caring. Our team was on the final World segment — for those of you that don’t instinctively know, that means we only needed 3 to win. Rob was describing, the timer had been turned, and the silence was broken by the following words:

“All I know is that it’s in Scotland, and it’s where curry comes from.”

Rob’s a clever chap. He’s been places. He knows things. I’d learnt not to question him. I could count the number of curries I’d had on the fingers of one hand, and I’d never even been to Scotland. But I knew, deep in my bones, I knew that this wasn’t right. Curry does not come from Scotland. That is not where curry comes from. Scotland is not the home of curry.

It turned out that the place he was describing was Singapore — neither the home of curry, nor, indeed, a place in Scotland. This was the moment I stopped caring about Articulate! It was also the time I learnt that words are made of stories — because that’s why Rob thought Singapore was the Scottish home of curry. His description was the product of some convoluted and deeply confused prior experience involving those three elements.

Words are made of stories, which is why they can be confusing. Each word we use is made from layer upon layer of stories: and as each story is added that word grows in depth. The more tables I experience, the more weight and meaning I fill the word table with. Sometimes, though, those stories can be deeply misleading. Scotland is not the home of curry.

Perhaps this is clearest when your counter lands on a ♠. There’s no time limit on a ♠, and anyone is allowed to guess. If your team gets it, it’s your turn next — so it’s a big deal. You want to win. The pressure is on.

♠ how the mighty have fallen ♠

The best way to do this is a shared story, which is the reason for the inevitable 20 second pause while the ♠ describer tries to think of one. You can see on their face what is happening: they’re rifling through their stories, the stories that they use to define this particular word, trying to isolate a story that someone in their team was there for.

Eventually they’ll opt for a really convoluted way of describing the word, all the while making fierce eye-contact with someone on their team; but somehow they will manage to be so vague and so explicit at the same time that their eye-contact victim is left dazed and confused and another team member will get it before they’ve even reached the punchline

But they have two problems.

The first problem they have is that most words aren’t natural protagonists. Not many of them like to be the centre of attention, the focus of a story. A lot of my life stories involve clothes, but not many of them are actually about clothes. Clothes weren’t the point of the story. The story wasn’t pointing to the clothing. This makes it hard for the ♠ describer, because it’s tricky not to be too vague: “remember that time yesterday when I came to your house, and there was something on the floor?”

you just used words to communicate nothing

The second problem that the ♠ describer faces is that stories are everywhere, and human experience is more similar than we think. In reality, our lives have a lot of common ground. This makes it hard for the ♠ describer, because it’s hard not to be accidentally too explicit: lots of people have clothes on their floor.

Words are made of stories, and that makes Articulate! hard. But it’s also what makes it possible in the first place. Without stories, we wouldn’t have words: life would be existence without experience. There would be no articulation because there would be no differentiation, or distinction. Everything would just be, and there’d only be one word for it. In that world, Articulate! is a very boring game.

Articulate for Buddhists?

It makes it hard, it makes it possible, and it also makes Articulate! dangerous. When you play Articulate! a lot — like, a lot — you end up with new stories with which to make your words. Contravening becomes ‘the one below Space Invaders’, Clothing becomes ‘the one Jane got instead of Ollie’, and Singapore becomes ‘Rob’.

That’s fine, in a sense. Sure, it’s kinda fun — for you. It’s less fun for everyone else playing, because you’ve just changed the game from Articulate! to Recall! My words aren’t really there to communicate, they’re there to trigger a set response in certain people, and this is only really going to be fun for them. #TakeBackControl #BetterTogether

But it’s worse than that, because if my understanding of Singapore gets reduced to a story that small, I’ve got a problem. My world is the size of my words, and if my words and stories are small, my world will be too. When Singapore becomes to me just a story about a board game in Durham, I’ve ended up making the same mistake that we laughed at Rob for in the beginning. Articulate! should drive us out, not in.

“All I know about this place is that it’s in Durham, and it’s famous for board games”

I love Articulate! because it reminds us that communication is never just about us. Words are made of stories, and our stories should be as big as our world. Without words, and stories, we’d all be objects — just existing. If our stories are too small, we’ve kind of gone the same way — we’ll talk, but we’ll only ever talk to ourselves.

Don’t just exist. You’re bigger than that.

Don’t make the world about you. It’s bigger than that.

Don’t just talk to yourself. Invite others into your story: and make sure your story is big enough for everyone. Articulate!

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