Game profiles: Hanabi, or, Theory Of Mind In A Box

Hi folks! Thanks to life not running according to those famous Other Plans, we’ve been caught a little on the hop by this month’s Game Profile piece. So rather than another survey of a genre, like the superb effort Ben gave us last month, we’re going to concentrate on a single game.

But whooo-ee, what a game.

Hanabi, which Australian donors Good Games are donating to Aussie participants, is like a haiku – or perhaps something a little less sparse, like a sonnet. It has a tiny number of components and systems, but they are arranged so artfully that they are more even than the product of their parts, let alone the sum.

Hanabi is Japanese for fireworks, or literally “flower fire”. The story of the game – and it’s largely decorative, with little connection to the mechanics of the game – is that it’s New Year in a Japanese village, and the players are the fireworks crew who are about to put on the annual show. Some klutz has knocked over the carefully sorted fireworks and muddled them all up, and you’re all frantically working together to reorganise them before the show starts – but if you make too many mistakes, the fireworks will blow up and take you all with them.

I’m going to skip over a detailed rules recap at this point – like many games, it’s hard to grok from a description and I would just bore you. The key point is that this is a co-operative game of hidden information: you hold the cards facing away from you!

Yep. When you’re playing Hanabi, everyone can see the cards in your hand but you. And there are strict rules that govern what players can tell each other.

This means that you are constantly thinking about what’s going on in your teammates’ minds. What do they need to know? Why did they think you needed to know that these cards were blue? Should I play them, discard them, or hang onto them and wait for more information?

And, as you get more advanced, you start thinking about how to convey information indirectly: if I discard this red 3, even though we still need one, will my friend work out I only feel safe to do that because I can see that her “unknown-colour” 3 is the other red?

You’ll also start using negative information (“if these cards in my hand ARE blue, then all the other cards are NOT blue”), card-counting-style probability juggling, and more.

Just this surprisingly sophisticated level of puzzle-like logic, theory-of-mind, attempting to read other players, etc. is enough to make the game a keeper. But the real value of the game comes one layer deeper. In addition to those other skills, you’re also receiving a lesson in the fundamental unknowability of other people. And you’re doing it in a framework of co-operation.

Emotionally, it is far easier to engage with the “other people” problem in a competitive or even hostile mode. Our more basic natures reflexively resent the things that make us exert ourselves, and that meshes well with a goal that involves somehow triumphing over them. (One could argue that this is at the root of many modern socio-politico-economic ills – for starters, the rabid anti-intellectualism of large pockets of mass culture.) This is part of the pleasure of competitive play: expressing that basic egoistic subjective sense of the self’s defiance against the world, but doing so in a consensual context where that hostility is licensed, constrained into forms that contain the possible harm, and channeled in ways that mean that even the journey to defeat can still be a pleasurable and educational experience.

But real life – especially a good life – is much more about getting inside other people’s heads in order to help them, whether because doing so helps us too, or simply because we love them. And that’s what Hanabi is all about.

The puzzle that you are collaborating to solve – sort cards drawn randomly into sequences of 1-5 in 5 different colours – is childishly simple. But the fact that you know nothing of the cards you hold except what your partners tell you – and vice versa – plus what you can see of cards in other players’ hands and on the table, and what you can deduce from all that information, makes other people not only a crucial part of the puzzle but utterly indispensible to the solution. Failing to trust your fellow players to tell you what you need to know can completely paralyse you. Failing to consider how even the slightest action will be seen by your partners in the game may well lead to you sending false signals. And most importantly, feeling antagonistic towards other players only distracts you – and probably them; most humans are incredibly sensitive to even slight inflections of blame – from the problem at hand.

This forces the higher functions of the brain not only to engage with the intellectual problem at hand, but to examine and control those resentful lizard-brain “how dare you make me work” impulses. In other words, you are not only practicing being smart but being good; blaming other people for not automatically conforming to internal expectations is at the root of evils ranging all the way from petty to genocidal.

It’s a lot to read into a simple game, I’ll admit. But play it – with someone you’re close to, and with someone you’re not – before you dismiss it. If a handful of words, well-chosen and perfectly arranged, can detonate in the mind and force a re-evaluation of an entire life, why can’t a tiny bundle of choices and rules, actions and consequences, take us deeper into human nature than we even know how to recognise in “just a game”?

And if that’s possible, isn’t it our responsibility as libraryfolk to try and make sure it happens? It is our duty, I would contend, both to seek out the playful works that offer these kinds of possibilities, and – even more importantly – to provide the context and the vocabulary that enables our communities to realise them.

That this vocabulary is still in development, that our culture as a whole is only starting to wake up to the power of play – surely that only makes it more exciting, not less… and more important that community-minded, culture-minded, people-minded voices like ours be woven into the conversation right from the start.

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