Please Not the Shack: How M.A.S.H. Came to Predict Our Uncertain Futures
Everyone remembers spending time at sleepovers and between classes trying to divine their destiny through the acronymic game—but most fail to realize it's an age-old method of sublimating our existential dread as helpless children.
Illustration by Katherine Killeffer
M.A.S.H. is a classic fortune-telling game. As you might recall, to play it you need a sheet of paper, a pencil, and at least one other willing participant who wants to know what the future has in store for them. You start by writing the eponymous letters across the top of the page (M = mansion, A = apartment, S = shack, and H = house) and then categories below it.
The standard are "husband," "car," "job," "number of kids," etc, below each of which you should write more specific nouns as is appropriate, in part by consulting with your willing participant. The more specific nouns can be earnest (e.g., John, whom your willing participant totally has a crush on) or mean (e.g., Nick, whom your willing participant thinks is gross and hates) or fanciful (e.g., Justin Timberlake). Once the board is finished, players use some method to produce a number—usually by tallying the intersecting points of a line drawn through a spiral that you previously made while your willing participant had their eyes closed and completed when they said "stop" at random—and count it out across the options on the page, starting with "M" and crossing out whatever letter or noun you land on at the end of your count until only one is left in each category. The result is your willing participant's future, for better or worse!
Nearly everyone born in the last few decades has played M.A.S.H. in their adolescence, at some point fated to be a doctor living in a shack with Justin Timberlake. I remember playing it with my frenemies in elementary school, who would get me to be the willing participant as a way to find out what boys I liked and to use that information against me.
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In my childhood experience, those who play M.A.S.H. tended to have several underlying motivations: to gain an illusion of control in your life at a time when you're desperately oppressed, to gain power over someone else, to gratify confusing horny feelings in a safe space (if the person you are playing it with isn't trying to blackmail you by obtaining knowledge of your crushes), and I guess "fun" is also a part of it, as other people have somewhat nicer memories of M.A.S.H. than I do. "I think I probably first played it in late elementary school—fourth or fifth grade—though I can't remember with who, because I don't think I really had actual friends then," a friend told me.
It's unclear to what degree players actually believe in the game's predictive powers, but the aspirational element was additionally a big part of the game's appeal and it was always hurtful to end up with terrible results. "I was definitely the 'wish upon a star' type growing up, so when the girls in my second and third grade classes would call for a game of M.A.S.H., I would see it as my opportunity to send a wish out into the universe," someone else said. (The inherent risks associated with such open wish-making were inescapable: "Instead I'd be left with paranoia, spending the rest of the day begging my 'friends' to not reveal to my crushes that I put their names on my list.")
There are also variants. The Wikipedia page for M.A.S.H.—which has very little information about the game, by the way—indicates that in New Zealand they call it P.R.A.M. And, when I asked around, a girl told me about a vaguely racist version that she had once played. "My first experience was on a bus on the way to a camping trip with Indian Princesses (the YMCA-sponsored father-daughter outdoors club that exploited every stereotype about indigenous people)," she explained. "When I played it, we got to choose MISH (I for igloo), MASH, or MUSH (U for underground)."
Anyway, at its mention, the game evokes in a Buzzfeed-niche-content way a shared nostalgia among mostly girl millennials. There's a page on the website liketotally80s.com that indicates it was "the fortune-telling game of pre-teen girls in the 80s," and anecdotally it is the same for 90s babies—not that it was at all a consequential part of our youth, but rather a hazy touchstone. When asked, no one could quite recall an exact time they played the game, never mind the first time they were introduced to it. M.A.S.H. becomes even more of a nostalgic curiosity when you think about it too long and start wondering where the hell it came from. The game is basically a natural law: It just is. It's one of those things you come to know of by way of a friend who learned it from her friend who learned it from her cousin.
"I definitely learned it from people either cooler than me or older than me," Megan, my boyfriend's sister, told me when I asked her about the game after my boyfriend said he vaguely remembers playing it, either because he wanted to get closer to a girl he had a crush on at school or because his sister forced him to. "I'm sure [they were] like, You don't play M.A.S.H? and I was all, What is M.A.S.H?" Megan said she was heavily into it in elementary school in the late 80s and she did, indeed, force her brother to play it with her.
The complete lack of a definable origin point isn't a mystery unique to M.A.S.H. After a very tiring and long search into the history of children's games, I found that there have been many attempts to understand the ways in which children come up with various activities to occupy their often vast amounts of free time.
One of the first was a book by Iona and Peter Opie, a couple who were renowned in the field of the children's anthropology. Their story is actually quite cute: Soon after they were married and had their first child, they found a "ladybird" (or ladybug) and recited a popular-at-the-time children's rhyme to it:
"Idly one of us picked it up, put it on his finger... and said to it: 'Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home,/Your house is on fire and your children all gone.' The ladybird obeyed, as they always do—and yet it always seems like magic; and we were left wondering about this rhyme we had known since childhood and had never questioned until now. What did it mean? Where did it come from? Who wrote it?"
The result of this line of inquiry, for the Opies, was a book titled The Lore and Language of School Children, for which they collected insight, through interviews and observation, from over 5,000 children in schools across England, Scotland, and Wales in the 1950s.
While there is no direct mention of a game called M.A.S.H. in the book, there are mention of some that indicate M.A.S.H.–like diversions aren't a concept unique to Generation Y. The children that the Opies observed six decades ago were fascinated by fortune-telling or divining games in general, most of which had to do with predicting whom they will marry or what job they will have.
Here's one that looks strikingly similar in concept, the "Nine Squares Test," as described by a 13-year-old English boy:
"Another charm is that we take a piece of paper, and draw four lines down and four lines across to make nine squares. At the side of the squares, or on any spare paper, mark 'L' for Love, 'E' for Engage, 'M' for Marry, 'H' for Hate, 'K' for Kiss, 'A' for Adore, and so on until you have nine. Then ask the person what names he would like put in the nine squares (i.e. the names of girl friends he is interested in, and wants to find out about). Then ask how old will he want to be when he marries, and count round the nine squares [using that number]. When you come to the ninth square go back to the first again, and when you come to the number cross out the name in that square and put it against the first letter on the spare paper. Then count the number again starting at the following square and leaving out the one you have just marked off."
The Opies' ambitious catalogue of nearly all children's rhymes across time, The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, contains a rhyme that is even more basically the equivalent of modern day M.A.S.H., which dates back to the 15th century. It's called "Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor," which might sound familiar due to le Carré and the movie of (almost) the same name. Like M.A.S.H., the game involves picking a random number—by all accounts it seems that children mostly used whatever cherry pits they had on hand to do this back in the day, for some reason, which they point to as they sing the rhyme—and counting out among desirable and non-desirable nouns, which are gendered.
The first verse denotes profession (for boys)/husband's profession (for girls): Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, gentleman, apothecary, ploughboy, thief. The second is about what you/your wife will wear to the wedding: Silk, satin, muslin, rags. Then there are verses about what car will get you to the aforementioned wedding, what type of house you will live in, and how long the marriage will last.
Children's folklore, like the games and rhymes mentioned above, is passed around through generations of kids, according to the Opies. These traditions develop as a function of a society's culture, and "the traditions which survive today are those which have proved useful and suitable" altering form across the years to stay relevant.
The Opies argue that children pick up on adult concerns and gameify them, in turn passing them down to other children generationally. They write that "oral lore is subject to a continual process of wear and repair, for folklore, like everything else in nature, must adapt itself to new conditions if it is to survive." It's possible that somewhere along the line, games like "Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor" morphed into what we now know as M.A.S.H., in the manner of an iOS update. This is my best, unverified, guess.
Dr. Simon Bronner, a professor of folklore at Pennsylvania State University, says that the origins of the game are less important than the fact it persists. "Part of my fascination with folklore is that these are hard to pin down, but they get at the grassroots of our culture," he told me over the phone.
How many movies have you seen where there's a swirl representing the anxiety of someone moving through time?
He's dismissive of the idea, put forth by a scholar named Henry C. Bolton in 1888, that divining games are primitive rituals that people no longer take seriously transformed into child's play. "There was a whole group of folklorists who were very much influenced by cultural Darwinism in the late 19th century. That's where we get meta-folklore ideas about 'Ring Around the Rosy' originating from the bubonic plague era and 'London Bridge' being related to human sacrifice. They were trying to show that ritual in modern society has become meaningless and that people continue it without its original spiritual and cultural meaning."
Bronner says that these types of games do have a cultural meaning, at least to children. Interestingly, he says that M.A.S.H. in its current iteration probably arose around the same time as the television show M.A.S.H., which aired from 1973 to 1983. "I think the acronym of M.A.S.H. is a children's appropriation of popular culture. You often see these types of appropriations where something enters into popular culture and children want to claim it as their own, adjusting their rhymes and activities toward it," he explained. "For example, McDonald's had the 'Welcome to McDonald's' commercial [in the 80s] that quickly entered into children's jump rope rhymes. There was this idea that popular culture displaces folk culture and oral tradition, but these are examples, I think, that show it actually generates adaptations of traditions by kids."
As he sees it, M.A.S.H. serves a fundamental function for adolescents by helping them address life's uncertainty. His view of the game we remember mostly fondly is kind of dark, in a "facts that just ruined your childhood" way. "Context is important when talking about this, but I can say fairly confidently in an American context that children are asked what they want to be when they grow up very early on, starting when they can walk," Bronner said. "It's not just parents spooking kids about providing for themselves or getting married, it's also systemic. Americans aren't alone in this: There's variations of this divining game in other places," like New Zealand's P.R.A.M, which stands for Poor, Rich, Average, or Millionaire," he said. "It's interesting to me symbolically that in the game you draw a swirl with a line [and count the intersecting points]. The swirl is a trope for transcending time. How many movies have you seen where there's a swirl representing the anxiety of someone moving through time?"
Behind the fun of wish fulfillment and finding out whom your friends have a crush on, M.A.S.H. and its predecessors are a psychological outlet for the societal pressures that are put on kids from an early age, especially girls. "In the 20th century, there was a lot of pressure on girls to find out who they were going to marry. You see this represented in games like the one where you cut open an apple to see the seeds form the initial of your future husband. You also see it in jump rope games about who you will marry: Cinderella dressed in yella, went downstairs to meet a fella is a classic one. Even today, there's still this anxiety expressed for girls. M.A.S.H. seems to get at the fact that there's still the expectation of being the family nurturer with this image of being an independent woman," Bronner explained. The game as a sort of gamble between what are posed as the two options: "The game is not only about who you're going to marry or how many children you're going to have, but also what car you're going to have, or if you're going to have a house or apartment, which would represent a life of independence."
He says the game hasn't gone away since we played it in our youth, either—which is surprising, given that kids these days could just download Pokémon Go or something. "There were predictions, particularly toward the last century, that these kinds of games would disappear as kids were more involved with television and electronic devices, that they wouldn't rely on these types of paper games. But here it is," he said.