Before my wilderness trek with NOLS, my idea of gaming usually involved an evening spent on the couch with a PlayStation controller in one hand and potato chips in the other. In the backcountry though, gaming takes on a whole new meaning. While hiking through the Gila National Forest with fellow Winterliners in September 2018, the usual gaming options were out of the question; yet not having a computer or board game within a 50 mile radius gave us all the more motivation to be inventive. Deprived of computers, phones, and board games, the only gaming equipment we could find were our hands, words, and the occasional funky looking stick.
“Out there things can happen – and frequently do – to people as brainy and footsy as you” (Dr. Seuss)
At the start of every day-hike, I found myself paying particular attention to the landscape around me. I was awed by the stunning landscape that surrounded us, ranging from scorched hillsides to a raging river enclosed by canyon cliffs. After a while though, I found myself focusing on the ground before me. This was in part to keep my wobbly, heavy-laden self from stumbling, but also because I had become used to my surroundings. I began to notice how the backpack chafed my hips, how the dust of the trail stung my eyes, and how each step caused my feet to ache just a little bit more.
What kept me from focusing too much on my exhausted body were the intensely competitive and wacky games that we played. Some were closely related to nature, including things like identifying bird calls, plant types, and animals, while others were more abstract, involving words games and puzzles. Instead of being tired and grumpy, I found myself immersed in each game, eagerly clashing wits with my peers.
Many of the games we played were introduced to us by our NOLS instructors, who have amassed a collection of games over countless wilderness expeditions. Each of our instructors had their own favorites; some of which are simple and intuitive, while others are… well let’s just say: a little strange.
A voice crying out in the wild
One game called “Ichi-Mini-Hoy” – allegedly introduced by a Japanese NOLS instructor – was a particular highlight. Essentially, Ichi-Mini-Hoy consists of two teams walking around a self-designed baseball field. Each team sends out one player from their home base to circle the field from a direction opposite to the other team. Whenever two players meet, they face off in a fierce rock-paper-scissors duel, and whoever loses has to return to home base and start over. 1 point is scored whenever a team member makes it all the way around the field. Sounds pretty normal doesn’t it? Here’s the catch though: every player was required to keep their knees together and squawk like a wild bird.
Any onlooker would have doubtlessly questioned our sanity. Luckily for us, we were miles away from any sign of civilization, so the only confused onlookers may have been actual birds, squirrels, and the occasional deer.
Will you look at that… another tree
After spending days in the wild, I expected my standards for what qualifies as entertainment to change drastically. I thought that soon enough, I would be seeking out funny looking rocks or start poking cacti with sticks as a pastime.
Contrary to my gloomy expectations, the games I played with the Winterline crew only increased in complexity as the hike progressed. Within a few days we had mastered intricate word games and storytelling challenges – many of which could be played on the move.
How Spongebob died choking on a crouton in Hogwarts
The without a doubt favorite game of my hiking trek was a pantomiming challenge called “Murph”. The rules are deceptively simple: all you need is one volunteer to walk out of earshot until another group has decided on three things:
1) a person
2) a place, and
3) a cause of death.
After this, a second volunteer who knows these three things must convey them to the first volunteer using only the word “Murph” and hand gestures. The wild pantomiming that follows produces some of the most hilarious misunderstandings I have ever seen.
In my very first game I had to try to understand the following from a person waving madly and hysterically crying “Murph!”.
1) SpongeBob died in
2) Hogwarts while
3) choking on a crouton
Playing Murph around the flickering light of a campfire after a long day of hiking was a great way to ease tension and relax.
The Murph Effect
The games we played had a more profound effect on group interactions during my hiking expedition than I initially realized. Not only did they lighten the mood, but they also helped us process the inconveniences and struggles of living in the wild. They offered us something to focus our attention on, keeping our minds off our unshowered selves and aching muscles. This, in turn, reduced group grumpiness and helped bring us closer to together. Instead of simply being a way to pass the time, the games and puzzles shaped my overall hiking experience and helped me bond with fellow hikers.
It is refreshing to realize that you really don’t need electronics, board games, or even cards to play a game. Even though we may not realize it today, the human mind is more than capable of finding entertainment without these things. In the backcountry, all you need is another person and a little bit of creativity – the rest creates itself. In the end, gaming is really about clashing wits with another person, and having fun along the way.