The card game “Mao” is so much like academia it should be named Academia, or perhaps academia should be called Ruthless Bloodthirsty Dictator Land. Since I’m not allowed to talk about the rules of Mao, I will illustrate by way of example. Nell taught many of us how to play Mao over Christmas. Some of us had experienced the game before, some had not. The game went sort of like this. (I don’t remember every detail exactly.)

Nell announced the rules. “The first rule is: I can tell you the first three rules. The second rule is: We can’t talk about the rules. The third rule is: Every time a game is won, a new rule is added. So after 5 games, there will be 5 new rules.”

She dealt the cards. We were chatting and some people naturally picked up their cards. “PENALTY for touching your cards during Point of Order,” she said sternly, passing out penalty cards. They sheepishly put their cards down. “End Point of Order,” she announced, and picked up her cards.
“Can we–” Dad started to ask.
“PENALTY for speaking out of turn,” she sternly handed another penalty card over.
We waited. “PENALTY for failing to play within 5 seconds.” Another penalty card to Dad.
Jon was to Dad’s left. He shrugged. He tossed a card onto the pile.
“PENALTY for failing to play in suit.”
Katie to his left tossed a card out. This one was in suit. No penalty.
The game continued.
“PENALTY for failing to knock. PENALTY for playing out of turn (certain cards, it appeared, reversed turn order, or skipped the next player).” And, most often, “PENALTY for speaking out of turn!”

The game was won, and the next game began. Jon had caught on, and was (illegally) helping Katie by grabbing her arm when she started to play out of turn after a reverse or a skip. But a new rule had been added. No one knew what the new rule was until we heard, “PENALTY!”

In Mao, in Academia, and in dysfunctional families, players are routinely penalized for breaking rules they didn’t know existed. Players are expected to know rules without being told. Players can rant and rave against the system, or they can adapt, learning from their own and others’ infractions, accepting the penalties they can’t avoid and accumulating as few penalties as they can.

I wrote this a couple weeks ago, and delayed posting it until after a recent party where Nell got to teach several people how to play Mao. Only they didn’t cooperate. One threw down 6 cards at once. “Penalty,” Nell scolded and returned the 6 cards plus a penalty card. Only while she was doing that everyone else started throwing down cards. And talking. And breaking all of the rules at once. Showing that unionization and solidarity can beat even Mao. At least if Mao is a sweet little 15 year old girl without too many tanks and weapons of mass destruction.

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