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.