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14 November 2008 @ 02:35 pm
Battleship and Claw Machines: The Significance of Games in "How I Met Your Mother"  

Never before has a sitcom brought out the English major in me with such ferocity.

After watching the episodes of this show several hundred times each, I began to notice a very strange correlation between the games the characters play and their love lives. Namely: Ted's fascination with claw machines, Barney and Robin's affinity for Battleship, and, of course, Marshgammon. Though at first these games don't seem to have much to do with the characters themselves, they end up being complex (and well-hidden) metaphors for the characters' romantic journeys.

Read on, and hopefully it'll make sense.


We'll start with Ted and the claw machine. To me, the claw machine game is a representation of Ted's quest to find a wife, or "Your Mother" from the show's title.

Now, this relationship first makes an appearance in the second episode of the first season, "Purple Giraffe." Here, Robin is reporting a story about a boy who got stuck in a claw machine while trying to get a stuffed purple giraffe; Ted, who arrives on the scene in one of his attempts to "accidentally" run into Robin, taunts the boy by saying, "Just had to have that toy, didn't you? Couldn't play the game like everyone else."

Now I know at first, the kid's quest for the purple giraffe and Ted's quest for Robin don't seem to be that related. But one sequence later in the episode makes it anviliciously clear that the purple giraffe is meant to be a metaphor for Robin. Once Robin heads up to the roof with Carlos, Ted brushes it off in the following way: "It's a game, I just gotta keep playing it." Then comes a montage where the kid's attempts to get the purple giraffe out of the crane machine are interspersed with shots of Robin and Ted from the pilot (if I could make screenshots from DVDs, I'd put them in here; sadly, I don't know how to do that). The parallels are made most obvious when a shot of the purple giraffe slipping out of the claw is followed by Ted telling Robin, "I think I'm in love with you", as well as subsequent shots of the boy crawling into the crane machine to get his giraffe as Ted climbs out the window to follow Robin to the roof.

It was made fairly obvious in the pilot episode that Ted became fixated on Robin simply because their meeting was "like something out of an old movie, where the sailor turns to his buddy in the bar and says 'See that girl? I'm gonna marry her someday.'" When he first saw Robin, he felt like Marshall and Lily's impending marriage meant he was going to be left out of their lives, making his need for a wife that much more desperate; Robin was simply the girl he picked to fill that void.

Much like the little boy looked into the crane machine, saw an awesome purple giraffe, and decided he HAD to have it.

As I said, the similarities between Robin and the giraffe are far from subtle (a flaw I am willing to forgive since it is only the second episode in the series). But this episode isn't the only time a claw machine comes into play when it comes to Ted's search for a wife. Remember Ted's proposal to Stella?

"I spent ten minutes on the damn claw machine trying to get the big fake diamond ring, but all I could get was this orange kangaroo."

Or, in other words:

"I wanted something awesome, but I ran out of time and patience, so I figured this was good enough."

This, to me, is why I never saw Ted and Stella working out. In (again) the pilot episode, Ted says he won't even think about getting married until he's 30. Don't forget, he hit his 30th birthday just a few weeks before "Miracles" happens, so his desperation to get married must have been growing exponentially since his first encounter with Robin at the age of 27. His near-death experience didn't help matters, either. He had been searching for the perfect woman, but he saw Stella and must've figured, "Eh, good enough." Then again, this is a guy who thinks it's okay to get waffles when you order pancakes. Um, completely different food, Ted. (And completely different essay, as well.)

(On a semi-related note, I also saw it as a message from the writers to long-time viewers: "We know the actual mother's still out there, and she's awesome, but our show might be over since CBS hasn't renewed us yet, so we're giving you Sarah Chalke, who may be awesome, but we never meant her to be the mother." HIMYM's 4th season wasn't greenlit, in fact, until just a few days before "Miracles" made it to air; it was clear that the writers had to make a last-minute adjustment based on the circumstances.)

Eventually, I'm sure, Ted will find his "fake diamond ring", that elusive prize in the claw machine full of purple giraffes and orange kangaroos.

My final thought on this metaphor:

Robin: They finally got that kid out of the crane machine.
Ted: Did he get to keep the purple giraffe?
Robin: Yeah, they let him keep all the toys. He was in there a long time and little kids have small bladders.

...Yeah, I'm not going to touch that one.


Moving on to Battleship! This, of course, is a game closely associated with Barney and Robin because of the episode "Zip Zip Zip". I see this game as an allegory for their secretive natures and the difficulties this creates in their romantic lives.

Anyone who's ever played Battleship knows that the whole point of the game is to guess where your opponent has put their ships, so you can break down their defenses. Of course, you have to keep the positions of your own ships a secret and hope the other person can't figure out where they are. Winning, however, is made that much more difficult when your partner isn't playing by the rules. Observe:

Robin: You know what game I really miss? Battleship. I've never lost a game.
Barney: Neither have I. Of course, I cheat.
Robin: Oh, me too.

Battleship is a hard enough game as it is: there are only five little ships floating around the board, and it often takes a long time to find out where these opponents' weak spots are. Barney and Robin decide to make it even harder by "cheating at Battleship," or making those weak spots of theirs even harder to find for anyone trying to get close to them; therefore, they are almost impossible to beat. More dialogue:

Robin: The trick is to bend the aircraft carrier so it makes an L.
Barney: Huh. I always just stack the ships on top of each other.
Robin: Nice. We should have a cheaters' grudge match.

Both Robin and Barney break the rules of Battleship by making their ships harder to find; this is a reflection of the secretive natures of both characters. Both have things they want to keep secret, even from the people they care about most, so they don't appear vulnerable. Robin didn't want to tell anyone about Robin Sparkles; Barney kept Granola Barney a secret until Lily dragged it out of him. Robin is generally described by Marshall in "Slap Bet" as "a private person"; Barney, of course, lies to almost everyone he meets, creating mysteries about himself and creating elaborate lies for the women he hits on, in order to prevent himself from becoming too vulnerable. However, they have both just told each other (without prompting) their tricks to winning Battleship, and Robin suggests a "cheaters' grudge match" to see which strategy works best. If this isn't an esoteric allegory for their relationship, I don't know what is.

(Also, speaking as a Battleship veteran, Barney's trick of stacking the ships on top of each other would probably work best as a cheating strategy, since out of the 100 spaces on the board, only 5 pegs will get you a hit. But once the opponent hits those 5 "sweet spots", you're completely destroyed. Think of Robin as Barney's Achilles' heel and you'll see what I mean. Maybe?)

Also worth noting: Barney confuses "playing Battleship" as a code for "Come up to my apartment and we'll have sex". Sure, it plays in the scene as not much more than a comedic misunderstanding, but the fact that he equated Battleship with sex with Robin doesn't go unnoticed. Just like how, in season 4, he tries to equate his deadly infection of Feelings with libido in "Shelter Island".

(Bonus half-nekkid NPH. =D)


Finally, Marshgammon, or the game Marshall creates for the gang in "Game Night," could be seen as an allegory for the world of dating and marriage. (Wait for it.)

The very first thing this episode establishes is the fact that Marshall is "unbeatable" at games; the suggestion that he run the gang's next game night instead of playing it, in fact, is the event that leads to the creation of Marshgammon. Marshall's mastery of any game becomes a long running gag in the series (Zitch Dog, the game Barney plays in Atlantic City, etc.). It's a long time before this bit of knowledge about Marshall comes to mean anything, however. It's not until season 3, in "Little Boys", that he makes a clear connection to this and marriage: "I'm married. If dating is the game, then marriage is like winning the game."

Anyway, back to Marshgammon.

I'm not really worried about the intricacies of the rules of Marshgammon and what it could mean in the dating world if you "advance to the Gumdrop Mountains". All that's really important is that no one except Marshall (and Barney) really understand how the game is played. (It's also interesting that Ted is the loudest when he says he doesn't understand the rules.)

Two things about the Marshgammon rules that I will point out: alcohol is a key component to the game (echoing the gang's love of hanging out in McLaren's), and it appears that the only trivia questions that get asked (based on the brief scene we got with the game) revolve around the player's love life. It would appear, in fact, that this portion of the game was only invented so Marshall could have an innocent reason to interrogate Victoria, to see if she would be the right woman for Ted. Hence, Marshgammon has become a test of compatibility for the two lovebirds.

This gets a bit complicated, so I'm going to deconstruct the scene piece-by-piece. First off, though six people are present (the 5 main characters and Victoria), neither Marshall nor Lily is playing. In other words, only the single people (Victoria, Robin, Barney, and Ted) are playing the game. You can tell because though they seem to be going in a circle, Lily and Marshall never take a turn (when Marshall says "the player to [Robin's] left", he means Victoria even though both he and Lily are to Robin's left), and there are only four figures on the game board. Once you're engaged, you don't have to play the game anymore.

We start with Victoria's roll, when, as I said earlier, she gets asked a question about her dating life. Again, Marshall is trying to see if she is suitable for his best friend. Then Lily brings up Shannon to Barney, blah blah blah, leaves to get the tape.

Next, it's Robin's turn, and she gets really excited as she rolls the dice, happy to participate. But her face falls as Marshall announces that her "Autobiography" question will be going to Victoria, as per the rules of Marshgammon.  In other words, Marshall doesn't care to see if Robin would work with Ted; it's all about trying to find his best friend a wife. With a board game. Now, I don't think Victoria is the mother, but we can see her as a stand-in for the eventual mother in order to make this work. At any rate, Robin apparently gets to advance her game piece on the board; she just never opens up to the other players by answering a personal question, the way Victoria does. She's playing the game, but never making any kind of connections with (most of) the guys she dates. (Remember what's-his-name, the doctor? Yeah, me neither.)

Barney would have been next to play, but he never gets a chance because Lily comes back with the tape. As he comes back from smashing it, he says "Oh, look at that. Robin landed on the chocolate swamp. That's five chips for me," showing that he's the only player to understand how the game is played. Barney's not an idiot; he knows very well how the dating world works. He's been in it for so long that he is able to make sage observations about it - the Lemon Law, the Platinum Rule, the Hot/Crazy scale, to name a few - and knows how to avoid the pitfalls of relationships in order to keep up his string of one-night hookups. So he gets how dating works... but he never gets to play because of what Shannon did to him. (The viewing of Shannon's tape is what stops him from taking his turn, and what causes him to storm out of Game Night.)

Also, about the above line with the chocolate swamp: Robin's progress in Marshgammon benefits Barney, giving him his only progress in the game since he never gets to play himself.

I could go on for several more hours about Marshgammon, but I think I'll end on this note:

Marshall: We're not quitting just because Ted's so far ahead.
Ted: I was winning?

Ted never even plays the game, as far as we see, yet somehow he's winning. Perhaps all it will take for him to "win" at the dating game will be for him to lie low and wait for the right woman to find him (as I've suspected may happen in his Mother search eventually).

So as we can see, all these games have deeper meanings tied to the romantic subplots of the show: Ted and the Mother, Robin and Barney, Marshall and Lily. We may not have picked up on it right away because no one tends to take games seriously, but there are undeniable connections. HIMYM's symbolism is indeed more hidden than any of us (except, apparently, me) could have realized. 

And three hours later, this post is concluded.
Mood: geekygeeky
Mistress of Karate and Friendship For Everyonestolenpostit on November 14th, 2008 11:25 pm (UTC)
WOW. This is incredibly well-thought out and brilliant. It all fits very well, and I can completely buy these writers coming up with metaphors based on silly games. ;) I wish I had your analytical skills.

Perhaps all it will take for him to "win" at the dating game will be for him to lie low and wait for the right woman to find him (as I've suspected may happen in his Mother search eventually). That's exactly what I think. That scene with the yellow umbrella sort of implied that it was all a chance meeting, so Ted just has to wait for it to happen. :D
Emurii: himym:barneyrobin madeofawesomeemurii on November 14th, 2008 11:28 pm (UTC)
oh hai mark!: Dr. Horrible jigga whatangary on November 14th, 2008 11:31 pm (UTC)
WOW. This is an incredibly insightful post, I never would have made the connection between these games and the character's outlooks on relationships. Well, except for the claw machine and Ted, but you're right in that that one was pretty much a given xD

Anyway, I thought that your interpretation of Marshgammon was particularly interesting, and how you analyzed the characters through each scene. I think that your last point about Ted is going to be right, and that later on, when Ted will stop trying so damn hard to find the "right" woman for him, that's when he'll meet The Mother.

Loved all your meta commentary, and the Barney 'cap was icing on the cake :)
Roxanne Mjustagurl248 on November 15th, 2008 12:01 am (UTC)
wow.. that was amazing.. more analysis!!. more hidden messages!!.. lol.. excellent job..
idioticonion: Barney Thumbs Upidioticonion on November 15th, 2008 12:36 am (UTC)

I'm amazed-


There's so much clever geekiness in this. Your scene-by-scene breakdown of Marshgammon was just incredible.

"So he gets how dating works... but he never gets to play because of what Shannon did to him."

Did anyone else tear up over this? Just me then?
Phoenixda_phoenix13 on November 15th, 2008 05:45 am (UTC)
"Did anyone else tear up over this?"

*sheepishly raises hand* =)
idioticonion: Barney Thumbs Upidioticonion on November 15th, 2008 01:30 pm (UTC)
Dude, we are far too predictable. :D
Breda: plotting (himym)bredalot on November 15th, 2008 12:44 am (UTC)
Hey now. I would just like to clarify that pancakes and waffles are basically the same food, just in different shapes. You make them with the same mix, after all. :P Of course, this also fits in with your theory about Ted and Stella, because Ted really did like Stella. She had the right ingredients for him, just not arranged in quite the right way, or lacking the final necessary touch, like strawberries or whipped cream. :D

This was fun to read, and really interesting. Of course, I do tend to read things like this and go, "Ok, seriously, sometimes a Chocolate Swamp is just a Chocolate Swamp," (it's the reason I could never ever major in English, because even when I do it I feel like I'm BSing) but on the other hand, sometimes things work out so well that it's impossible to believe it wasn't done on purpose. And if it was, well, the writers of the show are possibly the most brilliant I've ever encountered. :P

Thanks for posting this - it was really quite fascinating! And for all my skepticism, I can't come up with a single valid (or even semi-valid) argument against anything you've said, so really, nice job! :D (I particularly liked Battleship. Isn't it also interesting how their different strategies reflect what they actually do? Robin deflects people from the truth, only exposing some of herself; Barney hides himself beneath so many layers of lies (and, occasionally, make-up) that he is utterly unrecognizable.) Fun! :D
Breda: plotting (himym)bredalot on November 15th, 2008 12:48 am (UTC)
Oh, by the way: nice icon. :P You have excellent taste!
Phoenix: barney equationsda_phoenix13 on November 15th, 2008 12:52 am (UTC)
Hehe. Thanks!

And while pancakes and waffles are very similar, there are some days when I'll be like, "Eww, pancakes? I wanted waffles!" Maybe I'm just pickier than Ted is.

And it's never JUST a Chocolate Swamp. Trust me. Never. =)
bex81385bex81385 on November 15th, 2008 01:53 am (UTC)
this is brilliant.. absolutely brilliant... btw i love your mood theme..where can i find my own?
Phoenixda_phoenix13 on November 15th, 2008 01:59 am (UTC)
Thanks! I actually made the mood theme myself by stealing about infinity icons from fanpop.com... I don't know how to share it, but you could try this link?

Miss Mezz: HIMYM - whiteboard equation redsecondmezzanine on November 15th, 2008 03:36 am (UTC)
Oh hurrah, I'm so glad you posted this after our conversation about the connection of HIMYM fans and English majors!! :) I'm a grad student in English, so I teach a basic comp class for college students, and I swear if any of them ever turned in anything this well-thought out and brilliantly written, well, I'd let them write about TV shows all semester long. :)

I think the best part of this is your analysis of Marshgammon, because that game was so inherently confusing that it seems we're just supposed to dismiss it as completely incoherent-- but you prove that there's plenty there to be broken down. And plenty we can take from it.

cocktail in her hand, confetti in her hair: barneyrobin2009starbucksweetie on November 15th, 2008 04:25 am (UTC)
I like it!
promethia_tenkpromethia_tenk on November 15th, 2008 05:15 am (UTC)
Yay, TV analysis! Never thought about the games like this, but you are so right. I have a sudden desire to run off and re-watch all the episodes for more game metaphors. I seem to recall an interview with the creators in which they emphasized the importance of games (and also of fate or chance) to the show, which would seem to lend your analysis even more credence than it already has from its flawless internal consistency.

Battleship ----> broken ship in a bottle?

I'm also wondering how bets and Barney's gambling problem play into this. I think there are some parallels to be made between Barney's penchant for betting and his womanizing: "It's not a problem if you're awesome at it!"
Phoenixda_phoenix13 on November 15th, 2008 05:44 am (UTC)
Hmm. Not quite sure how the ship in a bottle would tie in with Battleship, since Battleship is B/R and the broken ship is T/R (at least in my opinion). You're welcome to find the significance yourself, though! =) For the gambling thing too.

Do you have a link to said interview??

promethia_tenkpromethia_tenk on November 15th, 2008 02:25 pm (UTC)
Alas, no link. And I'm struggling to remember exactly what was said about games, and in what context. It was just one of those interviews I read at some indeterminate point in the past--Thomas and Bays talking about the direction of the show, writing, etc., etc. I don't know how I'd even go about finding it other than sludging backwards through all the links on every HIMYM site I frequent, but you never know--maybe I'll get inspired by a desperate need to avoid doing real work. If I find it, I'll certainly let you know.
Brandy: how i met your motherbrandyleigh on November 15th, 2008 05:45 am (UTC)
Wow, this was really interesting! I was an English major in college, too, so I find all this overanalyzing to be fascinating. I do wonder if the writers have put any thought into these types of things at all, or if it just happens to be by chance, but either way, this was a really thought-provoking post.

Perhaps all it will take for him to "win" at the dating game will be for him to lie low and wait for the right woman to find him (as I've suspected may happen in his Mother search eventually).
Agreed - Ted tries too hard. I think once he stops looking for "The One," that's when he'll find her. Or, you know, whenever Bays and Thomas decide it's time for him to meet her, or the series ends.
Phoenixda_phoenix13 on November 15th, 2008 05:50 am (UTC)
I tend to believe they put thought into these things. I mean, I know when I write fiction I put way too much thought into EVERYTHING, which is why nothing ever gets written (except the crack!fic).

I'm glad you enjoyed this! =)
what you're saying is you just didn't: HIMYM - Stinson logicbohemu on November 15th, 2008 06:52 am (UTC)
THIS is the reason I love this show-- and even more excited that it found an audience that's steadily increasing. Thank you so much for this amazing... essay?
roland44roland44 on November 15th, 2008 09:34 am (UTC)
That was amazing. I'm now convinced the claw machine reappearing in Miracles was no coincidence! I loved all the analysis, you rock! :)
Jamie: coming alongjamie55 on November 16th, 2008 03:07 am (UTC)
your analysises rock; also never notice how both Robin and Barney have secret pasts, ie: Robin Sparkles and hippy Barney.

Also, again, the writers are genius!
Tjammytjammy on November 16th, 2008 03:47 pm (UTC)
The possible similarity between the purple giraffe and Robin is that a giraffe is usually considered to be yellow (which is the color of the mother's yellow umbrella). Purple and yellow are opposites, so either Robin's not the mother, or she just hasn't transformed yet (into the mother).
Tjammytjammy on November 16th, 2008 03:48 pm (UTC)
Really enjoyed reading your analysis btw. I really love this kind of thing. Glad to see someone else thinking deeply about himym :)
ef a dumb mel is a dumb: Papel and Timlin dance the day awaypiney61 on November 20th, 2008 04:12 am (UTC)
This is a rather delayed comment but I have to say that this is entirely brilliant of an analysis and it makes so much sense. I have no idea if the creators had intended it to be like that at first but it's pretty amazing how much it is.

Also, since you somewhat brought it up with the use of the crane game and the purple giraffe and orange kangaroo, you just made me think of the usage of color in the show as well. Robin was purple and Stella was orange. And well we all know about the yellow umbrella. I'm not entirely good at this analysis game like you are but I just found it pretty interesting.

EDIT: Well that shows me not to take a look at other people's comments before I go and write up because it seems like the person above me had the same idea.

Edited at 2008-11-20 04:13 am (UTC)
One Lab Accident Away From Becoming a Supervillain: How I Met Your Motheroffbalance on November 20th, 2008 04:42 pm (UTC)
This is fantastically insightful, and I think you really make a good case for how the games reflect the different places in the lives of the characters.

I read the part about Zitch dog wrong, but it really does fit your thesis well, Especially since it shows Ted, who is fighting/broke up with his girlfriend, is constantly one step behind Marshall, who declares at a later point in the episode that he is going to marry Lily someday. I am so tempted to go back and rewatch the show now!

Edited at 2008-11-20 04:44 pm (UTC)
Mellysquoctobird on November 24th, 2008 11:28 pm (UTC)
greatest thing I have ever read- seriously
deansgirl4evadeansgirl4eva on December 27th, 2008 11:05 pm (UTC)
this was unbelievably awesome and well put together. Kudos for working this all out...I'm totally in awe of your awesomeness with this analysis...XD

and Battleship was actually the game I never lost...mostly because I would cheat too...XD...but I ended up becoming referee because I won too often to "keep it fun"...what sore losers...XD
Donnedonteatacowman on April 10th, 2009 04:32 am (UTC)
Ahaha, legendary! And I'm not even just saying it because it's Barney's catchphrase! Maybe just because I've crammed first-time viewing of at least three HIMYM seasons into the past week and it's almost midnight! Woo!

But seriously, it's scary that this makes sense. I don't know if this was purposeful or not on the part of the writers, but it definitely seems to work. Thanks for spending 3 hours on it. ^^;
vimtasticvimtastic on April 20th, 2009 05:12 pm (UTC)
This is old, but it is still very awesome! =D I've actually never seen all of the Purple Giraffe ep, but it sounds like those connections might have been implied. All the other game/relationship connections just fit so well though! It's great.

Another thing, I've heard about your robot theory, but I don't know where it is in your journal and I'd love to read it. (Yes, this is proof that your analyses are in fact quite legendary XD)
Phoenixda_phoenix13 on April 22nd, 2009 04:26 am (UTC)
Oh, thank you!! I actually just finished rewatching season 1 and we got through all those episodes, and I kept going in my head, "It's relationships!! ZOMG!"

I'm truly the biggest dork of all time. XD

And the robot theory was actually originally posted on barneyrobin, which is probably why you didn't see it on here. Here's the link... enjoy! =D


I'm flattered that my analyses are as legendary as you say. =)
angeli_meyala on November 12th, 2009 09:00 am (UTC)
Hey, this is really cool. Nicely thought out. Are there other games that you can fit into this?

Also, when I have pancakes or waffles, they have very different ingredients.
Phoenix: barney equationsda_phoenix13 on November 12th, 2009 06:40 pm (UTC)
Thank you so much! As far as more games go... Since I first published this, they came out with the Front Porch test, which features bridge, of course. I'm sure that has some significance, but since I haven't watched that episode in quite some time (and have never played bridge, ever) I haven't quite been able to work out what it's supposed to be yet.

And wow, really? Because it's generally more or less the same batter for me. Waffle batter is a bit thicker, I think; but the main difference for me is usually the way they're shaped.

Thanks for reading! =)

(And I see you've commented on my journal quite a lot today... out of random curiosity, how did you come across my wacky little journal?)
angeli_meyala on November 12th, 2009 11:12 pm (UTC)
Idioticonion's ffnet page.