Apples to 010000010111000001110000011011000110010101110011 (…Apples)




Apples to Apples, while an amazing game, is not accommodating of small groups. It’s technically possible to play with only three people, but the game isn’t too riveting when you’ve got a 50/50 chance of winning each round. And of course, with two or fewer, the game just doesn’t work.

A few years ago, I ran into this problem when my cousin and I were visiting my grandmother. We wanted to play a board game with her, and while Apples to Apples was our top pick, we only had three people – one short. When I was about to re-shelve the box, my grandmother piped up, “Well, we can always just play with the ghost!”

Naturally, I didn’t really know what to make of that comment. Maybe that my grandmother was finally losing it. Before I could get too worried, she offered an explanation: “When we don’t have enough players, I deal an extra hand or two and lay them face-down on the table. Each round, I take a random card from each extra hand and put them in with everyone else’s contributions. Since no one’s actually ‘playing’ those hands, we call them the ghost hands.”

Obviously, this wouldn’t work with a lot of games. But for a game like Apples to Apples, where the only action needed to play is to toss in cards (and judge hands, but we just skipped over the ghosts turn there), it works without a hitch. It’s a pretty brilliant idea, and one that’s apparently used with a host of compatible games – something I only just learned in preparing for this blog post.

Beyond the utility of being able to play Apples to Apples with only three “real” players, the ghost hand also provided us with a wealth of entertainment. For as many rounds where one card was such a sore thumb that it took little guesswork to know its owner was the invisible hand, there were just as many where the “ghost” picked the funniest and/or most relevant card, and won the round handily. Much like how we personify a sluggish computer by saying it is “tired” or “just thinking”, my relatives and I quickly began to view prescribe characteristics to our invisible contender: “whoa, the ghost’s got a twisted mind”, “he was just off his game on that round”, and so on.

While not an example of electronic literature, or even digital technology, I think this anecdote ties in nicely with the topics we’ve discussed over the past month. There’s something inherently entertaining about random creation, especially when it appears incongruous or at odds with its context. My family and I laughed when the ghost hand played “cotton candy” for the “Tragic” green card; likewise, our class chuckles when Eliza responds dismissively to our depressing confessions. Computers, for all their sterility and routine, can be pretty darn funny – without even trying.

It almost strikes me as an effect similar to to the Uncanny Valley, the phenomenon that sees us growing more and more uncomfortable as things edge toward looking like us. Maybe we feel similarly about things that create like us. By that logic, we laugh at the bot that name-drops Trump and Hitler in the same sentence at least partly because we are relieved that computers are “still dumb,” not sentient, and not poised to overtake our creative throne. At least, that’s what we like to tell ourselves.

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