Telephone Game

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The Telephone Game is also known as "Chinese Whispers."

Chinese whispers (or telephone in the United States) is a game played around the world, in which one person whispers a message to another, which is passed through a line of people until the last player announces the message to the entire group. Errors typically accumulate in the retellings, so the statement announced by the last player differs significantly, and often amusingly, from the one uttered by the first. Reasons for changes include anxiousness or impatience, erroneous corrections, and that some players may deliberately alter what is being said to guarantee a changed message by the end of the line.
The game is often played by children as a party game or in the playground. It is often invoked as a metaphor for cumulative error, especially the inaccuracies as rumors or gossip spread, or, more generally, for the unreliability of human recollection.
The game is also known as broken telephone, operator, grapevine, whisper down the lane, gossip, secret message, the messenger game and pass the message.

Notice that the lessons drawn from the "Telephone Game," as illustrated above, depend on us being able to remember the results of playing the game accurately. There cannot be a moral to the story if every story is garbled in the retelling. Only if we are capable of telling the story of the "Telephone Game" accurately can we rely on it to indict the reliability of human recollection. Therefore, invocation of the Telephone Game in the course of an argument provides evidence that we can remember stories accurately, despite the fact that it is easy to get stories wrong. The one who introduces the "Telephone Game" as a reason to doubt tradition demonstrates that the "Telephone Game" can be defeated! The story of the "Telephone Game" is a story just like any other. If we can tell the story correctly and draw the correct moral of the story, then we have proven that it is not an absolute law from which we can make universal deductions.

In order to have fun playing the game, the person transmitting the original message must know what the original message was. People laugh when they see how far apart what they heard or said was from the original. But that action of comparing what was heard or said to an authentic version of the original message points to the kind of methods to be used to overcome garbling: keep on comparing what was heard to the original message; reject what does not match; "hold fast to what is good" (1 Thes 5:21).

The sentence I like to use to play the "Telephone Game" is:

The classroom is "a behavior modification lab, where ... one practices child-centered strategies that optimize the personological variables of interactive relationships, thus producing awareness enhancement."[1]
Telephone Game Catholic Communications Protocol
Whisper in a noisy environment. Boost the signal-to-noise ratio: speak louder, diminish the source of noise, use simpler encoding system (e.g., Morse code vs. voice, binary vs. analogue).
Use unfamiliar language. Use terms that are appropriate to your audience.
Say the sentence only once. Repeat the message as often as necessary.
Allow no questions from the receiver. Allow as many questions as needed.
Don't allow the receiver to repeat the message to the person transmitting the message. Test the receiver to make sure the transmission was received correctly.
Address only one person. Address a group of people who can cross-check, confirm, or correct what they heard.
Demand immediate re-transmission. Do not allow the receiver to re-transmit the message until you are sure of the integrity of the message. Authorized receivers (bishops, priests, deacons) act as guardians of the transmission. Remove (excommunicate) transmitters that habitually distort the message--take them off-line.
Foster conditions that favor random mutation. Foster conditions that conserve/preserve the message.

Hasty Generalizations

The meaning of the Telephone Game is itself garbled in transmission. It does not prove that "all stories decay in transmission." It proves that if you want to preserve a transmission, you need to improve the signal-to-noise ratio.

The Moral of the Story

The reality of garbling in oral transmissions of information shows why we need a magisterium, a living voice that can authoritatively declare what is or is not consistent with the Deposit of Faith. John Henry Newman said that if there is no authority to define what has been revealed, there can be no revelation.

When Jesus ascended into Heaven, He left a Body, not a book. The apostles knew what He meant, not by exegesis of texts and convoluted scripture studies, but by knowing Him personally. They passed on that knowledge to the next generation, and gave the next generation of guardians of the Tradition the authority to protect it from garbling.


  1. "Babel Builders," a review of The Graves of Academe by Richard Mitchell (Akadine Press), Time Magazine, December 7, 1981, p. 104.