Thursday, August 7, 2014

Power Ranking 5 Things

As I stated yesterday, 5 Things is an incredibly fascinating game to me. One that requires very logical reasoning combined with a relaxed and open mind, a couple of the contradictory elements of improvisation itself.

Again, 5 Things involves one player guessing 5 activities suggested by the audience as well as several tweaks to each activity suggested by the audience, all in gibberish and pantomime under a certain amount of time.
My example is always this: He's playing Football, but the ball is a cat, and the field is lava.

Last night, I had the team practice two ends of the spectrum.
There are the "easy" suggestions, or common suggestions, which we get almost weekly. I had us compile one of the easiest 5 Things we could procure, and I had a group of clue-givers attempt to give all the clues in new and refreshing ways.
In addition to helping all of us get on the same page in terms of how we communicate to each other in gibberish and pantomime (as well as what kinds of references we make to distinguish things. For example, I often show Chinese take-out to get chopsticks, but a teammate of mine always shows sushi) it also helps keep the game from getting routine.

The thing I constantly say about 5 Things as a game, as a performance, is that it's likened to a magic trick. And that works on many, many levels.
First and foremost, people accuse us of cheating, in a way not unlike people telling magicians that they know how their trick works. They think gibberish is a code (it's not), they think we got the guesser the answers while they were outside (we didn't), or I've heard even more absurd things, like a teleprompter behind the audience tells the guesser what to say when they're guessing (we can't afford it).
Second, there is a level of us setting up the expectations of the audience, and delivering though not quite in the way you'd expect. I won't go into minor technical things because they really are minute and ultimately don't affect the outcome of the game, but one of them threads back into the first point. We tell everyone what we're going to do, and then we do just that. And it's easier for people to believe in insane theories, like that we practiced a code, instead of believing what is ultimately the easier answer: we just got damn good at the game itself.

Improvisation at its very heart is about communication. It's communicating intention, motivation, reaction, emotion.
All 5 Things attempts to do is test the limits of communication. What happens when you don't have words to communicate? (An absolutely frightening prospect for most improv teams. How many non-verbal shows do you see?) How does one describe that unique panic of knowing absolutely nothing, and seeing everything form in front of you, giving yourself over completely to people you have to trust to get you to the right answer?

Finally, 5 Things is an important set of skills. It's also a rewarding exercise that just so happens to be show-worthy. It leaves quite an impression on an audience.

So to round back to last night's practice, I don't like when things become routine in the game. Things need to be refreshed, renewed.
How many cool, interesting ways can we show a knife? Or act out baseball? Or do Jello?
If we fall into routine, then it looks like we practice, and practicing like that means we're cheating.
My approach to practicing it is how do we shake off routine, how do we keep a sense of danger to the act of 5 Things?
Again, to finish on the magic trick analogy, a magician trusts his trick. He is rarely, if ever, in danger of failing or in a life-threatening situation, but he will often act like he is. So should we. And if there's that level of showmanship throughout the performance, it becomes worthwhile for everyone.

The other end of the spectrum I had the team practice was the hardest 5 Things we could think up.
By the end of suggestion-getting, I said that none of the suggestions were truly impossible, they were just going to take a lot of time.
Over the years, various friends and I have mused over what would make the most difficult suggestions in the game. I've gotten really complicated ideas, very obscure references, and some impossibly meta- suggestions.
In addition to those, I have had some legitimately difficult things pop up in actual playings of the game. I've seen other players and teams get extremely daunting suggestions and have to perform them. 

Today, I thought I'd try and list out all the impossibly difficult suggestions and give you some examples of things I've witnessed over the years, as well as some of the easier side of things.

Of the possible activity categories, sports are across-the-board the easiest to get.
Equipment is discernible (usually a ball), environment is distinguishable (ice, a net), and even if you don't follow sports (me), you can recognize them without words.
Tennis and Baseball for me tie the bottom spot. Unmistakable, ubiquitous, etc.
All the major sports follow: Football, Basketball, Soccer, Golf, Volleyball, Hockey.
Curling comes up surprisingly often. I like that people seem to think they're incredibly original when suggesting it, but if they don't say Hockey for a winter sport, for some reason they'll say curling.
The smaller sports can occasionally be a challenge: Badminton, Lacrosse, Field Hockey, Water Polo, regular Polo, Cricket, Rugby. If you just didn't grow up watching them or with a high school that had teams for some of these, then as a guesser you simply might not get the set ups.
Topping the "true" athletic competitions, Racquetball and Squash are often nearly impossible to distinguish. 
After that, the Olympiad can get a little hard to distinguish too: Some people don't recognize the difference between Bobsledding and straightforward sledding or tobogganing; the Skeleton and Luge are sometimes interchanged; cross-country skiing is sometimes complicated to show; Handball is played completely differently in the Olympics than most people play it; Australian Rules Football is completely different from soccer, rugby, and of course, American Football.
One of the toughest things to distinguish is the various gymnastics events, the Vault isn't very dynamic and therefore hard to show, and the Pommel Horse gets confused for the Parallel Bars (for some reason).

Best pantomime of a sport? Capture the Flag or Dodgeball is always hilarious to see.
My top spot for most difficult, though? The Decathlon. No rhyme or reason, too long, and no pay-off.

Board Games
After sports, I'd say Board Games are as easily recognized, though slightly less commonality. If you didn't grow up playing a specific board game (I didn't play Monopoly until I was an adult) then there are references and perhaps even subtleties you just won't be privy to.
On the easy side, I think Chess is actually marginally easier to pantomime than Checkers is. At least in terms of how 5 Things is played, getting someone to do a "correct" move in Chess is easier than getting them to understand Checkers.
After that, any children's game is straightforward enough: Battleship, Connect 4, Guess Who?, Trouble, etc.
Clue and Monopoly, though very complicated games are easy to pantomime. Games like Twister, Operation, and even Candyland are iconic too. Games like Chutes and Ladders (or the inexplicable Snakes and Ladders) and Hungry Hungry Hippos can be gotten through external qualities (the ladders, the hippos). Cranium has become quite easy too. And Scrabble is a fast get.
Going up from there, Sorry takes some time. Trivial Pursuit is hard to distinguish unless the person knows the wedges system. Life and Risk are close to the top, certainly. Stratego is one of the more difficult ones I've seen.

Top spot goes to 1313 Dead End Drive. Impossible for 3 reasons:
It's Clue, but without the deductive reasoning.
Everyone played Clue.
Only poor kids had 1313 Dead End Drive because they couldn't afford Clue.

Chores tend to be relatively easy because all of them have a built-in necessity.
None of these things are done unless there's something that needs to be done about them.
Laundry, dusting, taking out the trash, vacuuming, cooking, sweeping, mopping, Swiffering, doing the dishes...all of them have inherent need.
Really, chores are probably the easiest of all categories.

Top spot? Cleaning the rain gutters proved quite difficult for a team of Southern Californians unfamiliar with rain.

This can be a hit-or-miss category. Most of the time, we end up with Flying, so that gets bottom spot here.
After that, it's all a matter really, of how nerdy the crowd is.
On the easier side: Magic, Healing, Fire, Weather Control, Invisibility.
Medium: Teleporting, Telepathy, Reincarnation, Time Travel.
Difficult: Self-Transformation, Achieving Enlightenment, Hacking (I know, it's a real thing, but I mean, like, good hacking).

Top spot: Master of All Languages. Go on, try and do every language in gibberish. I dare you.

The Rest
Everything else can run the gamut:
Easy stuff you got Cheerleading, Writing Letters, Churning Butter, Watching Movies, Sleeping, Jousting, Skydiving, Paintballing, Laser Tagging, Bungee Jumping, etc.
Middle of the road stuff is mostly more specific: Taking A Nap instead of Sleeping, playing a specific video game system as opposed to just Playing Video Games, Base Jumping instead of Skydiving or Bungee Jumping,
Slightly harder is anything involving "going" somewhere: to the beach, to a party, to a concert, to the movies, to a theme park, on a date, etc. The active part of the activity is rather vague so it's a unique challenge at first.
Childhood games are incredibly fun and may only be difficult if your guesser simply didn't have a childhood: Heads Up 7-Up, Building Forts, the Hot Lava game, Marco Polo, Freeze Tag, etc.

So the hardest of all the remaining activities? I could go with Jumping on the Bandwagon, I could go with Hunger Games. But...
One we got right: Buying a boat.
One we got wrong, and I still to this day cannot figure out how to do: Building a website.

The Suggestions
I know, inanimate objects are such a wide range of things. But I mean, just things you find in the house every day are usually what I think of here.
Knives and other utensils are some of the easiest. Then other kitchen appliances followed by other household appliances. (Again, kitchen is easiest because like chores, there is an inherent, immediate need to do anything in the kitchen.)
School supplies are a little more difficult, followed by any historical objects.
The most difficult things tend to be obscure, like a pennyfarthing, or confusing, like having sports equipment used in different sports.
The Rosetta Stone tends to be very easy, the Magna Carta tends to be impossible.

Hardest suggestion I've ever heard, though? A pantomimed bicycle. Considering you are pantomiming everything already, having to pantomime that something is a pantomime object, will quite literally destroy everyone's brains.

Animals are among the easiest changes to grasp. You'll be hard-pressed to find an animal you can't immediately do, which is why I tend to use them as examples and when I'm first teaching the game.
Domesticates are the easiest by far, followed by anything you find in a zoo. After that, true wildlife is tougher, then insects can be rather difficult depending, and finally sea life can be hard to distinguish.
We sometimes run into problems between a squid and an octopus, an alligator and a crocodile, and various types of sharks.
Like I said, insects and arachnids tend to be a little tougher, bees and mosquitos make up the easy end, it's a little bit tougher to get things like yellowjackets or specific types of spiders, then on the tougher end you got things like stick bugs and the like.
Dinosaurs, which I technically group with animals, if it's not a T-Rex, raptor, or a pterodactyl (no one will say a different flying dinosaur) then those might be tough to distinguish. I only know one girl who knows all the dinosaurs, and she unfortunately doesn't even play.

Toughest animal? I've seen this successfully guessed too though, so not impossible: Liopleurodon.

Food tends to be really hit-or-miss.
Jello of course is the most recognizable, with pudding being slightly more difficult.
We don't get too many other foods, but anything you have to kill an animal for pretty much comes next (bacon, steak, chicken nuggets, hot dogs) and after that, it's a wash.
Hardest foods though? Fruits, which are only slightly easier than...
Fruits are easier, they're just dumb.
Vegetables, except for like carrots, are impossible to distinguish from one another.

The most difficult? Rutabagas. Because fuck rutabagas.
Oh, TurDucKen is the funniest thing I've ever seen.

Fictional objects tend to be pretty easy as long as the guesser knows the reference.
Lightsabers and Golden Snitches are the easier side of things here.
I've seen Pandora's Box and the Ark of the Covenant come up pretty often.
The Holy Grail also tends to be pretty easy.

Hardest one I've seen? The Green Lantern's power lantern proved pretty difficult.

Anything with historical impact tends to be pretty easy, again, it's mostly reliant on the guesser.
Mount Rushmore has proved surprisingly difficult as of late, I'm not sure why.
Cities tend to be international: London, Paris, Sydney, Venice, Dublin, Hong Kong, etc.
Landmarks tend to be from the US: Grand Canyon, Old Faithful, Liberty Bell, etc.

The most difficult place tends to be obscure.
My personal favorite in this category was and still is The Winchester House.

Celebrities are easy, as long as you stay up with pop culture.
It's actually a curious marking of the passage of time, as pop culture references slip irrevocably by as the years roll on.
Historical people tend to stay the same, and The Beatles is the most often referenced, and I guess to many people they are more a part of history than pop culture.
On the harder side of things tends to be more obscure stuff. Confucius is tough.
Fictional people tend to be easier, because they're designed to be memorable (or at least ideally, they should be memorable to the people who watch the shows, whether because of iconic appearance or catchphrases).
Presidents tend to be easy, because people only know a handful (Washington, Jefferson, Obama, Clinton, Bush, Reagan, the Roosevelts) while most other positions of power tend to be more difficult (King Henry VIII is most common, and tends to escape everyone's minds). Explorers come up occasionally, but it's usually Christopher Columbus, and occasionally Magellan.
I would say that authors tend to be the most difficult, except for Shakespeare (the only playwright anyone ever says). I've gotten George Orwell, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway.

Most difficult:
Author: Kafka
Fictional People: Any god that's not Greek and not Thor.
Celebrities: Non-current celebrities. Gary Busey or Nick Nolte tend to be the hardest of the group.
Historical figures: Any scientist that's not Newton or Einstein. Like Louis Pasteur.