The Adlai Stevenson Game
August 1, 2008
The Adlai Stevenson Game
It used to be that when someone got up to get more food at dinner, my friends and I would pick a phrase to try to get that person to say, or some type of information to get them to volunteer. We’d then direct the conversation toward accomplishing that goal, with the one observed rule that no one was allowed broach the target topic directly. This was called the Frary Game, because of the dining hall it originated in, and it quickly fell out of favor because it was too easy. To win, each conspirator simply volunteered information related to the target information, and the target’s desire to participate in conversation did all the work. The game was also susceptible to self-reference: once people knew about the Frary Game, they either became obstinate about not speaking, or spent the whole time guessing what we were trying to get them to say.
When the Frary Game first appeared to be reaching the end of its viability, my then-roommate Warren and I spent some time trying to come up with a suitable replacement. We liked that the game promoted confusion in people who weren’t in on it, but other than that did no real harm. We also weren’t ready to let go of the snickering satisfaction that comes from being among a small group of people in on something, even if that something is trivial.
It occurred to us that one way to address the problems the Frary Game had encountered would be to increase its scale. We could, we thought, designate an arbitrary number of target people and things for them to say, score a point for a player when they report success, and take that target off the master list. After a predetermined amount of time, or the exhaustion of the targets, we’d declare a winner and come up with new goals. This would solve the self-reference problems and offer a bigger challenge.
While the Macro Frary Game would have been fun, we tabled it when we realized that it failed to capture the best aspect of the initial game: that it was cooperative. The aforementioned snickering satisfaction is derived not just from knowing about something that other people don’t, but from working with other people in light of this information. The Frary Game allowed us to laugh about something together, rather than to take turns laughing at each other.
This realization led us to what was eventually called the Adlai Stevenson Game, named for its first and most successful iteration. Warren and I gathered several players and decided on our friend Ilan as the first participant. I can’t quite remember how, but we settled on a target action as well: getting Ilan to express frustration about Adlai Stevenson.
This proved to be a great choice because it required that the group succeed in creating a situation that would not exist independent of the game. Rarely do people express frustration with presidential candidates that lost fifty years ago. In fact, they don’t usually come up at all. Better yet, we were pretty sure that had he been around at the time, Ilan would have voted for Eisenhower, so there was no chance of getting him to express frustration about Adlai’s losses.
The right strategy, then, was to get him frustrated with the idea of Adlai Stevenson. So, that’s what we did.
Things started off somewhat innocuously. Dan was writing a paper on Stevenson, so he asked Ilan to read it for him. I read enough about him to cherry pick some esoteric facts and brought them up in conversation. “Hey, Ilan, did you know Adlai Stevenson was a Unitarian Universalist? I know; I thought it was interesting too.”
Eventually we ran out of casual ways to bring him up, so we alternated between being more creative and more direct. Grant and I took to shouting “Adlaaaaaaaaaaai Stevensooooooooon!” while throwing off during games of Ultimate Frisbee. Warren and I would run into Ilan and ask who’d win in a fight, Adlai Stevenson or the Fantastic Four.
“Okay, but what about Adlai Stevenson and the Ninja Turtles? You have to admit that one would be a toss up.”
Harsh once stopped him in Collins and exclaimed “The soups are so much better than usual today. They must think Adlai Stevenson is coming or something.”
Once, Matt ran out of ideas and went with “Hey Ilan, ADLAI STEVENSON!”
This kept up for a couple of weeks.
I wasn’t there when Ilan finally cracked. From what I hear, the last straw was a question: if given a choice, what type of sandwich did he think Adlai Stevenson would be? The story goes that he threw his arms back and cried out in frustration.
“Why is everyone talking about Adlai Stevenson?”
Grant and Harsh had the good sense play dumb and ask what he was talking about. We never mentioned the name to him again.