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Fun and games in the Fatherland

The Local · 10 Mar 2010, 14:39

Published: 10 Mar 2010 14:39 GMT+01:00

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I couldn’t help but feel a little schadenfreude that Germany’s big Oscar hope this year, Michael Haneke’s dark period drama Das weisse Band, came up short at the Academy Awards.

Have you seen this movie? It lays the blame for two world wars at the feet of barbaric, turn-of-the-century German parenting.

Beside the fact that it seems a bit rich to have an Austrian director pointing a fat finger at the Germans, I don’t think childhood elsewhere in the world was all fun and games back then. At least not according to my grandparents, who didn’t start any wars, or, in fact, even fight in them.

Unlike Haneke, I refuse to presume what caused the worst conflicts of the 20th century. But I do have my own theory about what may be wrong with modern Germany. It’s one I’ve developed after observing my German wife’s difficult relationship with her father, and my own children’s interaction with their grandfather. He spent his entire military career in the kitchen feeding the Bundeswehr. But as Opa never fails to mention, he was still trained to kill – if he had to.

Early on in our relationship my wife told me of her troubles with this man. It was based around a game of conquest, violence and humiliation. And that childhood pastime recently turned 100: Aggravation. Or Mensch Ärger Dich Nicht in German.

If you ask me, this Teutonic invention, coming as it did at the end of Germany’s tenure as the world’s think tank, is one of the greatest ills plaguing German society. As the daily Berliner Zeitung recently pointed out, Aggravation has but one compelling element – schadenfreude. Of course, this is such an inherently German trait that other cultures have simply adopted the unwieldy German word rather than coming up with their own to describe it.

Think about it for a moment: This game is all about chasing down and knocking your opponents back to the beginning, where they can only start over with great difficulty. This is because you have to roll a six to free a gamepiece from its homebase. The aim of the game is to not only win, but ruin your opponent’s chances at the same time. A classic scorched-earth approach to life.

My father-in-law loves it. When my wife was was little, he often goaded his reluctant daughter into playing Mensch Ärger Dich Nicht with him. But the game always ended prematurely with her in tears. Every time he knocked one of her players off the board, he sang this little ditty:

And they carried,

Another dead one,


Just some nice father-daughter quality time in Germany. And he still does this. My kids aren’t old enough to appreciate the pressure he’s putting them under. They just think he’s a funny old guy with funny old tunes. My wife fumes. I go get my hair done or pay fictitious bills.

And I can only imagine that this scene repeats itself hundreds, if not thousands, of times a day in Germany. My father-in-law isn’t the kind of guy to have made up that song by himself – someone has to have taught it to him, probably while playing Aggravation.

Germany’s love of this game brings up some disturbing questions. What do children – my children – learn from it? Hunt your opponents down, knock them back to the start, and revel in it? That not only is winning important, humiliating your opponents is a key part of the game of life? The game’s German name speaks volumes – the onus for not getting upset when someone pees in your cornflakes lies squarely on the victim.

Story continues below…

This may not sound like modern Germany’s approach to world affairs, but have you tried commuting to work here in your car? It often seems all anyone cares about is getting through the next intersection – first. Or on my bike the other day I had a guy not only overtake me, but also dangerously rub his rear tyre on my front wheel. It wasn’t about simply passing me, he was trying to aggravate me in the process.

So happy birthday, Aggravation! Perhaps Haneke had you in mind while making his other rather disturbing film “Funny Games.”

Since a good German Stammtisch is a place where pub regulars come to talk over the issues of the day, Portnoy welcomes a lively conversation in the comments area below.

The Local (news@thelocal.de)

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Your comments about this article

15:26 March 10, 2010 by Portnoy
Apparently it's not, as this is the first I ever heard of "Ludo". We played several variations of Aggravation as a kid, however.
19:31 March 10, 2010 by Renate
Rainking, 'Ludo' is perfect, don't worry.

Patcheesi or Parcheesi (trade mark Selchow and Righter Company, 1874) would be good as well. The Game has its origins in India: the so called 'Pachisi'.

It is not a 'Teutonic invention' xD xD xD

It is well-known in Spain, where it's called 'Parchis' or in France ('Petits chevaux' or 'Jeu de dada').

Germany is just another place where this game is played... In fact, the German version was imported from the USA.
19:37 March 10, 2010 by So36
My, my. I suppose if everyone else is going to put on their pedant hats then so will I. Based on Parcheesi it might be, but the incarnation Mensch ärgere Dich nicht is very German: http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Josef_Friedrich_Schmidt
09:33 March 11, 2010 by Alofat
Let me get that straight the US made stars out of Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brother and all the others and the UK still things people in funny hats who walk like drunk Russian soldiers in a military parade are the high point of comedy, but somehow Schadenfreude is purely a German thing?
17:16 March 11, 2010 by loz_adele
Well, the board does look like Ludo but when I was young, we used to play this game too except it was called 'Frustration' not Aggravation lol and the board was slightly different. There was a transparant plastic dome in the center with a dice inside and you had to press the dome, which would sort of make the dice jump - rather than throwing the dice yourself. But you also had to roll a six to free one of your pieces from its base and then try to send other peoples' pieces back to the start, so it sounds like the same game to me. Does anyone else remember this?
18:40 March 11, 2010 by Portnoy
Exactly loz! I confused "Frustration" with 'Aggravation'. Or maybe we even called it that but that is EXACTLY the game I was thinking of. A buddy even thought I meant boggle because of the dome in the middle. Rolling a six is the same in Mensch Aergere Dich Nicht. I never finished a game of Frustration. Not my cup of tea.
19:56 March 11, 2010 by So36
Or maybe you actually played Aggravation: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aggravation_(board_game)

I remember the weird plastic dome thing as Trouble:

09:43 March 12, 2010 by Randall
Were we twins separated at birth?!? I totally, completely agree! Now, let's talk about the German driver's aggressive compulsion - like you bike rider- to pass unnecessarily, then brake..., causing me to brake to avoid rear ending him..., and then signal to make a turn - all within 200 meters! My own father-in-law did this, too! And we were going to the same place! When I asked him, "Why did you pass me? You arrived home only two-seconds before me..., his answer, which I'm sure made perfect sense in his head, was..., "You were going to slow."

The stupid things people say, when you're not carrying a gun!
23:41 March 12, 2010 by till.eulenspiegel
Brings to mind a lovely, astute observation by one who never fails to enlighten and amuse:

"It is not enough merely to win; others must lose."

— Gore Vidal
11:17 March 13, 2010 by aceroni
So you want to tell us that the fact your father-in-law was a complete dick with his daughter has something to do with Germany starting the world war?
13:58 March 13, 2010 by lordkorner
Once again I vow never again to read this silly man's sillier articles.
09:01 March 14, 2010 by Jim09
Wow I'm glad to see that im not the only one who sees what an complet moron this guy seems to be. Seriously, is there no one talking care WHO and WHAT is written on the local?

like some kind of supervisor lol.
23:18 March 15, 2010 by Portnoy
"Once again"

I dig yer sense of humor, lord (or Mike).
09:27 March 16, 2010 by Sven75
The error of attributing "Mensch ärgere Dich nicht" as a german design has already been pointed out.

I would like to add, that in modern boardgame design, games refered to as "german games" (or German-style boardgames, later "Eurogames") are games that minimize conflict and avoid player elimination. Famous examples are Settlers of Catan or Carcassonne. So that's quite the opposite of what you are portraying here.


But I would agree, that exposing children to Pachisi on a regular basis is bordering on abuse - just because it's a horribly bad and boring game. :-P
22:17 March 19, 2010 by flagwag
I think you are completely going *overboard* on this...

The object of this game is clearly stated: "Don't Get Upset". If you do anyway, well, you just ARE a sore loser. There is definitely more to this game than to make your competition cry.

The link board game - WW connection is weak at best.
10:23 March 29, 2010 by napacal
maybe germans do both, compete to make the other lose, and abhor competition
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