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Hermeneutics: The Game [Nov. 23rd, 2012|06:18 pm]
One thing I admired about the Ohio Less Wrong meetup group when I attended was their ability to schedule specific educational activities instead of following the standard meetup practice of sitting around a table awkwardly until everyone feels uncomfortable enough to go home. They would always have little games to get you thinking and, more important to the purpose at hand, talking.

The last Ohio meetup I went to involved a draft to see who would be forced to come up with the activity next time, a draft I escaped only by not being a permanent resident of Ohio (a strategem which has in fact served me well in many different areas of my life). But my close call with responsibility got me thinking of how I would conduct such a meetup, and in particular whether I could think of any interesting games for people to play that are a bit shorter than Dungeons and Discourse.

So this is Hermeneutics!, a game for 3-6 players.

Hermeneutics! The Game

Objective: to teach how easy it is to find seemingly plausible arguments given a biased "bottom line", and how convincing other people's arguments may sound even when they are constructed for reasons other than factual accuracy.

The game starts by selection of a number of hermeneutic tokens greater than or equal to the number of players. These tokens each describe ways of interpreting a text. Once players understand the game they can subtract tokens they don't like or make up their own, but a good standard set for starting out with would be some or all of the following:

1. This text is a Christ metaphor.

2. This text is offensive to minority groups.

3. This text is an accurate prophecy predicting seemingly unrelated historical events.

4. This text is a deeply wise guide to spiritual self-development.

5. This text is incredibly biased in favor of one of the two major US political parties.

6. This text's author secretly believes the opposite of the text's apparent meaning.

7. This text foreshadows modern scientific discoveries the author could not possibly have known without supernatural help.

8. This text espouses a Marxist theory of class relations.

9. This text is laden with sexual imagery.

The tokens are placed in a hat and each player picks one at random.

The dealer hands each player a face-down copy of the same randomly chosen text of about one to four paragraphs. At a chosen signal, the dealer turns over an hourglass and the players look at the text. They have five minutes to develop an argument for interpreting the text in the way listed on their token. If they don't think such an argument is possible, they may exchange their token for one of the tokens still in the hat exactly once; they may not trade back if they don't like the replacement.

After five minutes are up, players go counterclockwise and spend about thirty seconds to a minute presenting their arguments. At the end, the players vote on which interpretation they believe is "correct", and the player who made the argument takes the text. Whoever has the most texts after five rounds wins.

Example Round

Consider the simple text consisting of the first paragraph of the Gettysburg Address:
Four score and seven years ago, our forefathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the idea that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of this war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives so that their nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

"This text is a Christ metaphor": Lincoln's phrase "conceived in liberty" represents the Immaculate Conception, occuring free from human sin. Christ's birth superseded God's relationship with Israel, in which holiness was based on one's nation of birth, with the Christians as a sort of super-tribal nation of people united not by birth but by faith, "a new nation...in which all men are created equal". "Those who gave their lives so that their nation might live" of course refers to Christ, who died so that the "nation" of Christians might gain eternal life; therefore, it is "fitting and proper" that we should honor Him and His sacrifice.

"This text is offensive to minority groups": By "our forefathers", Lincoln clearly meant the forefathers of his all-white audience, suggesting that only white men (note that he mentions no foremothers) had any part in the foundation of America, despite the overwhelming role that men and women of color as well as Native Americans played in the Revolution. When Lincoln claims that the Founders of the US believed all people were created equal despite their obvious theories of racial inferiority he is implying whether deliberately or accidentally, that minorities must not really be people. Finally, he claims that the Civil War tests whether any nation conceived in a belief in equality can long endure; this is victim-blaming as he is laying the responsiblity for war solely on those in the nation who believe in equality and not on the opponents of equality who actually precipitated the conflict.

"This text is an accurate prophecy predicting seemingly unrelated historical events." Although purporting to be talking about four score and seven years before the Battle of Gettysburg, Lincoln was actually predicting events four score and seven years after. 87 years after 1863 was 1950, which by what seems unlikely to be a coincidence, was the precise year the Schuman Declaration proposing the European Union was first proclaimed. The Europeans were the "forefathers" of the white Americans in Lincoln's audience, and indeed (and seemingly impossible for Lincoln to predict) they brought forth their new nation "upon this continent" (North America) via the United Nations in New York. Lincoln notes that there is now a "civil war" in that nation, referring to the fact that in 1863 when he spoke Europe was still divided among various countries that were hostile to one another, yet he somehow knew - and predicted the exact date! - that Europe would one day become united.

...I'm not going to run through all nine, but I assume some people will pick up the others in the comments or come up with better versions of the ones I've already done.

[User Picture]From: eyelessgame
2012-11-24 12:33 am (UTC)
Add Jungian/Campbellian heroic journey, and Feminist to the hermeneutic tokens. I *love* this game.
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[User Picture]From: f45one
2012-11-24 01:47 am (UTC)
I like this game, it sounds like trolling the internet or how everything is Obama's fault according to the internet
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From: (Anonymous)
2012-11-24 06:42 pm (UTC)
Why is "the author secretly believes the opposite" in there? That's not a fact about the text.
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[User Picture]From: andrewducker
2012-11-24 07:49 pm (UTC)
Yeah, it should be "This text actually means the opposite of the apparently obvious meaning."
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[User Picture]From: bart_calendar
2012-11-25 11:34 am (UTC)
Exactly. And, that's an argument often made in post modern literary discussions.
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[User Picture]From: cartesiandaemon
2012-11-25 12:10 am (UTC)
a strategem which has in fact served me well in many different areas of my life


And the game sounds fun too; throwing half a dozen interpretations into the mix is a good way to see how things can be interpreted in radically different ways while (hopefully) remaining innoculated against being convinced by one of them unless it's plainly actually valid. Although I also worry we've reinvented comparative linguistics :)
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From: (Anonymous)
2012-12-02 12:47 am (UTC)

It is kinda offensive to minotiries!

The second argument is uncomfortably convincing in that it doesn't immediately set off my, um, "cow excrement" sensors the same way the first and third one do. I'm not sure what it says about me, the author, the argument in question, or the amount of "stretch" I perceive is needed to make an argument like that.
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