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ESSAY: The Pictionary Phenomenon

Introduced in the mid-1980s, Pictionary was called the “game of quick draw” — and for good reason. The basic premise of the game was to read the clue on a game card, then draw out pictures that would allow your team to guess that clue. Each player’s turn was timed, therefore encouraging the drawer to move quickly, especially when the clue had more than one part. There is a high probability that we’ve each played this game or one similar to it, but what can it teach us about collaboration?

While the game centers around rapidly drawing pictures of clues to be guessed, digging deeper we find that it also amplifies what we’ve discussed about group dynamics, team cohesion, and common language.

Pictionary's inherent roughness forcibly distills abstract concepts down to their most basic representations.

In the game, having a talented artist on your team is seen as an advantage, however it is not a necessity. In fact, this overload of talent could be detrimental to the success of the team if the artist gets caught up in resembling rather than representing the clue and time runs out. What is necessary for group success is a drawer that understands how to connect with all members of the team. If the group members’ backgrounds are diverse for example, the artist must utilize a low-context form of drawing and make all her moves explicit; if all members of the group are familiar with each other and are from similar backgrounds, the artist’s approach may become high-context and rely more on metaphorical representations that require little supplemental explanation. What is most advantageous is not merely a talented artist, but an artist that can empathize with her team and create drawings that speak the appropriate language that corresponds with the makeup of the group.

As for group dynamics and team cohesion, in a simple game of Pictionary the goal is clear: guess the word. Having this unambiguous understanding allows members to focus on the task at hand rather than on their specific role in the group. In the excitement of playing a round in Pictionary, we are more consumed with shouting guesses, watching the reaction of the artist, and remaining attentive to the corrections or additions to the drawing on the board than we are at speculating whether or not the artist is fully qualified to be using a marker to draw a picture of “spilling” or “circus monkeys.” In addition, as the game progresses teams begin to become more integrated, growing accustomed to the way each team member tends to interpret the game drawings and how they themselves approach their responsibilities as “drawer.” If the game lasts long enough, it is possible to see the emergence of an exclusive, inner-group language (be it as drawn images or spoken guesses).

Pictionary is also a prime example of the impact of dynamic visual information on visual attention. We are captivated by watching what the drawing will become and our attention is targeted toward each mark in an attempt to gather ever bit of information to form a guess. This same anticipation can be found in an example of television advertising: for a time, UPS built upon the Pictionary formula in a series of advertisements wherein the main character of the commercial stood before a white board and, while explaining exactly how UPS services worked, drew images on the board. These images typically began as a recognizable object or scene (a delivery truck, perhaps) and through a series of manipulations were transformed into another, different object representing the benefits of shipping with UPS. In an article discussing the effectiveness of creative television advertising, Set Stevenson explains the attraction of these commercials: “But more than the eye-catching set design or those killer whiteboard chops, I think it’s the power of narrative that holds us entranced. There’s something primal in our urge to listen when someone stands before us and tells us a story. This isn’t the tensionless narrative of a lame testimonial ad...where we know precisely how the story will end. There’s an element of uncertainty here. We know the initial drawing will turn into something new -- but we’re not sure what this end product will be, or how the marker guy will pull it off. And...we can’t pull ourselves away until we reach a resolution.” |Stevenson, 2007|

Let us recreate this example, taken from a recent game of Pictionary:


(squiggly line)


“Water! Ocean!”


This last utterance was met with frantic pointing; so it was “ocean”...!

(line curving down into “ocean” line)

“Shore! Beach! Sand!”

More excited pointing and smiling.


(curved line coming from “ocean” to “sand”)


“Beached Whale!”




One of the beauties of Pictionary is its inherent roughness, its time-crunched importance that forceably distills abstract concepts down to their most basic representations. As M.C. Escher, author of mindbending hand-drawn images, once said of trying to depict our imaginations, “A mental image is something completely different from a visual image, and however much one exerts oneself, one can never manage to capture the fullness of that perfection which hovers in the mind and which one thinks of, quite falsely, as something that is ‘seen’.” |Pylyshyn, 2003| Escher makes the point that one could spend an infinite amount of time and attention to making a drawing resemble a mental image, but Pictionary forces us to perform visual triage; with only 60 seconds to score a point for our team, we have no choice but to “cut to the chase” and get the job done — prettiness be damned.

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