Natural Hazard

It wouldn't be the road to hell if it wasn't paved in good intentions

The Game of Mao is a Prototype for Getting Hazed Into a Social Order

I'm about to deconstruct a video of some kids playing a silly card game. I first encountered the game of Mao at summer camp when I was 11 or 12. I always hated it and recently I realized why.

Lots of games that kids play have the effect of being practice for participating in social forms that they will encounter later in life in higher stakes situations. Unstructured "pretending to be adults" is a common theme in the games of young kids, as is play fighting. Because it's play, you can go in and out of the game more easily than you could when it's "for real". Kids practice taking on different roles in a non-serious way that lets them gain familiarity with the roles.

The social form that Mao teaches you is how to haze people into a group and how to get hazed into a group. You aren't taught the rules of the game, you are penalized semi-arbitrarily, you are penalized for asking about the rules of the game, and the main point of the game is for the older kids who know the rules to have fun messing with the younger kids who don't. Yet through all of this there is the promise that if you stick through and learn the rules, one day you too can be the dealer.

To be clear, I don't see playing Mao as itself an act of hazing. Instead I see it as a game that shares the same key structural properties as hazing, but it doesn't qualify as hazing (in the scenarios I have encountered it) because it's still play at low stakes where people could enter and exit without much difficulty. It's play hazing, in card game form. Not itself a terrible thing, though it is practice for participating in a terrible thing.

With the preamble out of the way, onto our primary source!

Some select excerpts:

"The rules for Mao are... I can't tell you the rules"


"Why are we doing this? If I don't know the rules how am I supposed to play?"


"I can't tell you the rules"

"I feel like that gives the person who knows the rules the advantage"

"It does, but only for the first couple of rounds, once you figure it out it's really fun."

The first "card for talking" is met with confused "wtf?" expressions. It's still not clear to everybody what game is even being played. The repercussions of being given a card aren't clear, but it is clear that it's a penalty in some way. "You've done something wrong" What exactly? Who knows. How exactly will the punishment effect you? Who knows, you still don't even know how the game works.

Throughout the game the ongoing fight/negotiation between Abbey and Keagan is one of the most interesting things to pay attention to. Abbey, as the dealer, is the main force of "order" and Keagan is the main person resisting. Abbey is navigating the tension between wanting to have fun being the Mao hazer and the need to break from that role enough to keep others willing to play the game with her. Keagan is navigating the tension between seeing that the game is clearly a bad deal and wanting to be able to do something with his friends and not be bored.

Around 1:20 Keagan starts doing random stuff with the cards in protest and Abbey calls a Point of Order to give him at least a minimal shape to the game being played.

Keagan: "I thought you weren't gonna tell us how to play so I was just going to start playing something."

A very reasonable idea! Even if someone won't tell you the rules of the game, they'll need to enforce the rules for there to even be a game. Random motion through the space of possible actions to find where you get push-back is a pretty straightforward way to learn the shape of the rules. If you haven't bought into the game yet, in-game penalties have no emotional content, just informational content, so you can freely explore whatever feels most salient to further your own understanding of the game. This is why people will often do a demo round when teaching someone a new game. "We're just gonna try it, and I'll tell you if we're doing it right, and it's fine because we're not actually playing for real."

Mao doesn't generally start with a demo round because the whole point of Mao is to take turns having "fun" being "in the know" about how the games works and getting to have temporary in-game power over others, watching them squirm and be confused as you haze them into the rules of the game. This only works if the people new to the game buy in and are actually trying to win and feel affected by in-game penalties.

The other two friends are willing to buy in, and thus Abbey can just interact with them via in-game mechanisms. But Keagan doesn't want to buy into a game that puts him at such an obvious disadvantage. First he's trying random moves. Then he's flagrantly violating the few rules he has picked up on to see what happens. "What happens if I get all the cards?" Abbey alternates between trying to bring him into line by in-game penalties (card for talking), and when that fails resorts to out-of-game punishments ala displaying frustration, insulting him, and general low to mid tier cajoling.

Abbey: "Point of Order, Keagan stop being such a shit head and play the game!"


Abbey: "If you don't play the game I'll punch you in the fucking face!"


Abbey: "Keagan get fucked either play the game or don't, I don't fucking care!"

In general, if you're not willing to explain to someone what the game is you want them to play, you can't credibly make claims about why the game would be a good game to play, so all you've got to influence them are things like "trust me" or brute force insults.

Eventually it seems like Keagan is either kicked out or rage quits. From 3:00 to 4:38 Keagan is sitting out and is clearly bored.

Around 4:00 Abbey gives Stripey Sweater a card for talking and you can see him get incredibly frustrated. He was starting to get the hang of things, he was feeling like he had figured out the rules, and the BAM card for talking. Abbey calls a point of order, probably because she sense's that she's toeing the line of how much hazing Stripey is willing to put up with.

Abbey: "You said 'have a nice day', that's talking"

Stripey: "But you said 'have a nice day' too!"

Abbey: "After I put down a certain card, you have to figure out which."

Notice Stripey's tone of voice is not merely confusion, but indignation. It's not just "I'm confused about what's happening" it's more "I thought we had a deal!"

The next really interesting things happens at 7:07. Abbey gives Stripey a card for talking, but then he calls a Point of Order to tell her he just looked up the rules of Mao and he was in fact following the 'thank the dealer for penalty cards' rule.

Abbey: "You're not supposed to look the rules up! And I've never played it like that."

Listen to the change in Abbey's tone! This is the first time it seems like she's actually worried that she might lose her control over the game. Stripey has presented a credible challenge to her legitimacy as the arbiter of the rules. Abbey senses her legitimacy getting more tenuous, which is why she switches to using a more appeasing voice.

Keagan: "What's the difference between him looking up the rules and us knowing them before hand?"

Abbey: "You're not supposed to be that asshole who looks up the rules!"

Keagan: "Why is everyone an asshole except for you?"

Abbey: "You're not supposed to look up the rules, that just sort of ruins the game for everybody."

Being "that asshole" and ruining the "fun". It is possible for Mao to be fun. I know someone who used to have a blast playing Mao with friends at math summer camp growing up. They'd make complicated tricky rules and enjoy puzzling them out. In those contexts, just telling someone the rule would in fact anti-socially spoil the fun of the game. There are also games like Zendo which is based on the idea of one player picking a secret rules and the others trying to figure it out through trial and error. But both of those are very different contexts from inducting a new player into the game of Mao. Both Zendo and an experienced Mao crew have a shared understanding of the basic premises of the game, and the secret rules slot into a small bounded chunk of the game experience. A new Mao inductee has uncertainty about the basic shape of the game they're playing (Abbey threw them a bone at the beginning with "it's like silent Uno", but I've seen games where kids were given zero hints).

The only rules of Mao you can look up are the basic rules of the game. Which means the only fun you can spoil is the fun of whoever was hoping to enjoy watching your ire and frustration as you figured out what the hell was even happening and how much you were willing to go along with it. So you're an asshole if you don't let yourself get hazed. This seems to mirror the broader derision and shame I see pointed at folks who explicitly look for the rules of how to navigate various social situations.


Keagan: "If everyone knows the rules then what's the point of not talking anymore?"

In broader social structures, the "point" of creating pressures to not talk about the rules is often because the rules a structurally unfair and if there was common knowledge about the ways in which the rules were unfair, it's possible people might coordinate to change things. Not talking about the rules is a way of maintaining the status quo.


Keagan: "Who won?"

Stripey: "Abbey"

Keagan: "Surprise, the person who knows the rules and was the dealer won."


Abbey: "[recounting various rules] 8's do something i don't remember"

Keenan: "The person who knows the rules doesn't even know all the rules!"

Abbey: "I know, there's so many rules, and so many variations, it just depends on who the dealer is. And then other people make up rules and the dealer has to figure them out."

Keenan: "I made up my own rules and you got angry at me."

Abbey: "cuz you didn't win any games."

Keenan: "oh"

The game is made it up, and you can even make up your own rules, but only if you've already won. Boy does that sound familiar.