Jim Kahan Oral History Transcript

James Kahan, 1964

November 20 and December 8, 2006
Donna Sinclair, Interviewer
Location: Portland, Oregon

© The Reed Institute. Electronic Oral History project mate­ri­als and tran­scripts are intended for use by trained project par­tic­i­pants and rep­re­sen­ta­tives of Reed College. Do not dis­trib­ute or dis­play with­out permission.

[This inter­view excerpt was con­tributed by Jim Kahan, and is used with his express permission.]

Kahan: They did away with Davis, because they didn’t like what was hap­pen­ing. Anna Mann was my social room junior and senior years. Freshman and sopho­more years I mainly hung out in Winch. The Winch social room was the card room. A lot of peo­ple played bridge there. It was also where the Empires game was. The Empires game was started by J.D. Eveland, who was the ring­leader and Alan Arey, Class of ’65. I remem­ber them as being instru­men­tal. It started out by peo­ple play­ing Monopoly and because these were cre­ative peo­ple, they went beyond just hav­ing indi­vid­u­als to start­ing hav­ing hold­ing com­pa­nies for prop­er­ties, and they could col­lab­o­rate and have hold­ing com­pa­nies and other kinds of deals. So, you could cre­ate a monop­oly by hav­ing the hold­ing com­pany with­out you, phys­i­cally, per­son­ally hav­ing to have all three properties.

And it sort of got out of hand, where if you could do this suc­cess­fully, it would be to your advan­tage to just remain in jail all the time, because then you weren’t mov­ing and every­body pass­ing through had to pay your share of the hold­ing com­pany and they’d go broke. And you’d be hap­pily in jail, earn­ing lots and lots of money, sort of pre-​​figuring the cur­rent polit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion, I guess. That merged with a cou­ple of other games that were being played, one was a game called Risk, which was all about diplo­macy and things like that. And another game was called Tactics II, which was a bat­tle­field game. In Tactics II, there were all the pieces of armor, infantry, and things like that, and it was a mil­i­tary strate­gic game. And so what hap­pened is, some­body got the bright idea, I think it was J.D., I’m not a hun­dred per­cent sure—of com­bin­ing the best fea­tures of Monopoly, Tactics, Risk, diplo­macy and other things, and basi­cally play­ing this game. And they started off with a flat map of the world and peo­ple would pick a cap­i­tal, and they would have a cer­tain num­ber of the pop­u­la­tion and they would have to have a cer­tain per­cent­age of their pop­u­la­tion engaged in agri­cul­ture, to feed peo­ple. Then they would have to cre­ate fac­to­ries and indus­try, and if you wanted a bat­tle­ship, you had to build a bat­tle­ship fac­tory and then you had to put the raw mate­ri­als for this bat­tle­ship in this fac­tory, and two moves after, you got a bat­tle­ship, unless some­body bombed your fac­tory, or—

Sinclair: And why was this called Empires?

Kahan: It was called Empires, because each of the play­ers was try­ing to build an empire and the object was to con­quer the world. And in the early ver­sions of this game, the resources were based on the real world, so coal was where coal was, iron was where iron was, and power was where big rivers were, and alu­minum was where alu­minum was, et cetera. In the first early games, it turns out that the per­son who started with a cap­i­tal in North America won, because the resources of North America are so huge com­pared to the rest of the world. This just hap­pened, and then this led me to decide about pol­i­tics that—a lot of Americans think it’s about man­i­fest des­tiny and because our polit­i­cal sys­tem is supe­rior, America is a world power. (laugh­ing) It’s because we’re in the right place. It has noth­ing to do with our polit­i­cal sys­tem. We’ve got all the resources.

Sinclair: So, through the games, you—

Kahan: We learned that! So, then the next ver­sion of it was, okay, you can’t have your cap­i­tal in North America. So, everybody’s cap­i­tals were in other places, and then the game was a race to col­o­nize North America. So, that wasn’t really what we were after. Then J.D. had the bril­liant idea of cre­at­ing an arti­fi­cial world. And the arti­fi­cial world was orig­i­nally in squares, but became hexa­gons on a table that was six-​​by-​​twelve feet, and half-​​inch hexa­gons. So, that was our world, in which con­ti­nents were drawn strate­gi­cally, and resources were sort of ran­domly spread out so that there was no North America effect. And J.D. built lit­tle icons, oil cans and ships and things like that. It had about ten thou­sand pieces. I’m given to under­stand that the box that J.D. built with all those pieces exists some place on cam­pus. I haven’t found it yet, but I haven’t looked hard. But it’s still sup­posed to be there. And the game evolved to being played in the Winch social room, so I had come full cir­cle to Winch.

Sinclair: So, this was your senior year?

Kahan: No, no, this was my sopho­more year it started, with this inten­sity. And there were two games a year. One game started in the fall and ended at Christmas break. The sec­ond game started after Christmas break and ended near grad­u­a­tion at the end of the year. There were about six to eight play­ers and each player had a piece of this world that they were devel­op­ing, and it was still—in the­ory, con­quer the world—but nobody could ever really do that. You had twenty-​​four hours to move. And nobody ever dropped out while play­ing the game. There were some peo­ple who played the game and then the next year they didn’t play because they had to study and they wound up drop­ping out. But nobody ever left Reed while play­ing the game. J.D. started the phe­nom­ena of “balka­niza­tion,” which might be a syn­onym for mas­tur­ba­tion, I don’t know. But basi­cally, J.D. took his coun­try and split it up into smaller coun­tries and they played with each other, rather than engag­ing with the rest of the play­ers. So, J.D. was hav­ing fun all by him­self. And, to earn [game, not real] money, one of the things he did in one of the coun­tries, was he built a casino. So other play­ers could come visit his casino and gam­ble and they might earn more money that way.

I played once and I balka­nized, too. I had the fed­er­a­tion of Stratford. My coun­tries were Hamlet and Othello and Macbeth, and Henry IV, Part I, and Henry IV, Part II, which was sort of an India-​​Pakistan kind of thing, where Pakistan, before Bangladesh came around, was West Pakistan and East Pakistan. So I had my two Henrys, and Henry IV, Part II, which was ruled by Falstaff, was a coun­try whose sole indus­try was the brew­ing of beer. So, peo­ple could come buy [game, not real] alco­hol at Henry IV, Part II if they wanted.

Sinclair: Well, what con­sti­tuted winning?

Kahan: Winning would be defeat­ing other coun­tries. If you cap­tured the head of state, you would beat their coun­try, or if you over­whelmed and then occu­pied a whole new ter­ri­tory. The year I played, a weird thing hap­pened. At one point some­body threw open the door of Winch and it was windy out­side. A gust of wind blew in and upset all the pieces on the board, and so we declared this an act of nature and peo­ple put the pieces back as best they could. And it just so hap­pened that one of the other player’s pieces wound up in my coun­try, so it was his color. So what I did was I deter­mined that I had brain­washed that piece, turned the marker over and put a stripe on it that would indi­cate that it was my piece, and I hid it by putting it under my own pieces so that nobody could see it and I put it on a ship. During one of my moves, because you could do this dur­ing a sin­gle move, I snuck the ship over to his land, unloaded my piece and then got the ship back, because I could move that num­ber of hexa­gons in one move. And then over the course of the num­ber of moves, my piece grad­u­ally wound its way up to his cap­i­tal, where I assas­si­nated his head of state. And, so there was some dis­cus­sion as to whether or not this was fair and whether or not if I’d run across any of his mil­i­tary pieces on my ver­sion, whether they would have detected him. But we didn’t really care. We had fun.

Sinclair: It’s inter­est­ing, because it sounds like it was all competition—were there any efforts toward cooperation?

Kahan: Yes. Just as in Risk, you can form coali­tions and team up against peo­ple, if some­body is act­ing as though they are going to really be aggres­sive, other peo­ple will team up against them. And J.D. avoided this by balka­niz­ing. “I’m just play­ing by myself. Don’t bother me.”

Sinclair: Were the rules writ­ten down?

Kahan: No.

Sinclair: No. So, there were just certain—he was in charge?

Kahan: Well, no. The rules were just sort of known. It wasn’t writ­ten down, it wasn’t dis­cussed. There was no arbi­tra­tor. There was no per­son. Any con­tentious deci­sion had to be nego­ti­ated. If there was a bat­tle, it had to be pub­licly wit­nessed because the tac­tics, the out­comes of bat­tles were deter­mined by the roll of a douse. So, here you had this piece against this piece and you roll it, and if it’s a one they have to retreat and if it’s a two you have to retreat, and if it’s a three, they’re destroyed. And if it’s a four, equal sides are destroyed and have to be taken off the board, depend­ing. Those were tac­tics to the rules for bat­tles. But then, because it involved rolling the dice, it had to be pub­licly witnessed.

Sinclair: So, do you have any idea how long this game was played?

Kahan: You mean in terms of calendar?

Sinclair: No. That went on through graduation?

Kahan: Yes. The Empires game, it was def­i­nitely played in Winch my sopho­more, junior and senior years.

Sinclair: Mm-​​hmm.

Kahan: I believe it went on for the next year, and after that I don’t know.

Sinclair: It sounds like it was pretty interesting.

Kahan: It was.

Sinclair: A con­ver­gence of hav­ing fun and the ideas you learned in school.

Kahan: Yes. It could be viewed as a les­son in polit­i­cal sci­ence, because in many ways it was that.

Sinclair: What was his major?

Kahan: J.D., I believe, was a poli sci major, or history.

Sinclair: Either one would work. (laughs)

Kahan: Yes.

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