More fun than a barn raising

How long do you think entertainment seekers can go on being fed on those vulgar TV game shows where contestants trade dignity for dollars, marrying strangers, eating rats on a tropical island, or worst of all, answering trivia questions?

How long before the players of these tawdry games start to feel the hollowness of their greed? How long before the viewers grow disgusted with their empty sad evenings spent on the couch watching others humiliate themselves? How long before people want to do something that makes them smarter, not stupider? (How Long, apparently, is also a Chinese name. But I digress.) In this reporter’s opinion, not long.
Change is coming, and I don’t mean the X-men movie.

Get ahead of the game now. Ride the new wave. Ask yourself this question: “Who Wants to be a Safe Amish Farmer?” And don’t give your final answer yet.

“A Pathway to Safety: Amos & Sadie’s Farm,” a new board game developed at Pennsylvania State University, might herald in the next wave in so-called “reality entertainment.”

This could be big. This could be very, very big.

Although the game is designed to meet the specific educational needs of children living on Amish farms, it can also provide hours of fun for people of any age from any culture. (Oddly, the game developers at Penn State didn’t seem to share this opinion. They sounded surprised and vaguely suspicious that a mainstream Canadian journalist would request a review copy. But I can recognize a hot trend if it jumps up and bites me on the ass, despite my editor’s repeated arguments to the contrary).

In 1525, a radical group of Christians called Anabaptists sought a return to the simplicity of faith and practice as seen in the early church. The Amish split from other Anabaptists in 1693, and today Amish farming communities are scattered through many U.S. states and Southern Ontario. They avoid technology that will complicate their lives, and that will force them to integrate with the rest of society. Thus, they travel by horse and buggy and they’re not hooked up to electricity grids, but they do use tractors and milking machines.

Pathway to Safety embraces many traditional Amish values like simplicity, straightforwardness, non-violence, and lack of dancing. Players navigate their tokens along a path that winds through a rather lovely colour-pencil depiction of some of the common farm hazards: road crossing, water hole, bull pen, manure pit, grain silo, tractor, and a nefarious milk truck.

In order to roll the die and move your token, you must first answer a question about Amish farm safety.

The National Post sponsored an evening of Amish farm safety recently (“sponsored” might be an overstatement – it’s not like they paid for the chips and spinach dip or anything) that brought together a group of carefully selected, highly qualified evaluators (every one of the eight people at the table had seen the 1985 Harrison Ford movie, Witness) for a journey of exciting, albeit cautious, discovery.

The blue team took on the first question, “What are the two potentially dangerous things in the hayloft?”






It was taking the players a little time to catch on to the spirit of the game. The correct answers were a pitchfork and a hayhole. (“Who are you calling an a-hole?” demanded one player, still not quite getting it.)

For a while it seemed as though no one was even going to get a chance to roll the die (“Let’s not call it that,” said a particularly safety-minded participant pleaded), much less travel the whole pathway to safety. But as the game continued, players cottoned on to certain patterns in the questions. Basically, the answer to every true or false question – “Icy, muddy, or manure-covered surfaces can be dangerous.” “Rabies can kill you if not treated.” “If you fall in a grain bin your family can pull you out.” “It is safe to play in the hayloft if you can jump over the hayhole.” – always came down to the worst case scenario. Dust? Dangerous. Rabies? Deadly. Grain bins? A child can be buried in 6 to 8 seconds. The milk house? There’s acid in the soap stored there. Beards? They get caught in machinery. Manure lagoons? You don’t even want to know.

The toughest and most interesting questions, though, were the ones you’ll never see on “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” Imagine Regis Philbin asking, “You want to hop on your dad’s lap while he is driving the tractor in the fields. Why is this not safe?” Or “Your brother says, ‘I am choking on a pretzel.’ What should you do?”

The letter the press officer sent along said, “Farming is one of America’s most dangerous occupations. The danger is especially threatening on Mennonite and Old Order Amish farms where youngsters use tractors, big horses and heavy farm machinery at early ages.

“Across all farms nationally – not just Old Order Amish and Mennonite – an estimated 100,000 children are injured each year and more than 100 are killed in incidents involving tractors and other farm equipment, livestock, building structures and falls.” (Not to mention pretzels.)

In other words, (I extrapolated) farm safety is no joke, and if anyone makes fun of this game we’ll send the Amish mafia after them.
Here’s something else that’s no joke: every player at the table that night learned something, every player had fun, and people were engaging with each other like a community, rather than staring at a box with flickering pictures. This wasn’t reality TV, it was reality.
Educational board games won’t really ever get higher ratings than an anti-educational TV shows, but I wish they would.