Friday, December 09, 2005

In Search of Lost Time, Part 1

I often wonder to myself what it was that led me down the road to gamerism. Is it a genetic predisposition? Social conditioning? A pathological anomaly? Sometimes I worry that the hobby is a prolonged state of morbid nostalgia, or the mollycoddling of a Freudian desire to return to an oceanic moment, and maybe it's so: one of my earliest memories of playing a board game is at heart a memory of family harmony; it was a dark Christmas night in the mid- to late seventies, the lights were low, a fire crackled in the fireplace, and my parents, brother and I sat together at a card table in the middle of the living room; something about the moment in time had me under a spell, and the orthogonal boundaries of the game table seemed to encompass all that was significant in the known world, like a flat earth drifting in space. The game of the night was Dungeon Dice, and my two main recollections of the experience are that I was disappointed at losing and that there was an argument over who had to be the old man with the spoon. Nonetheless, this memory remains while others fade, and the fire is still warm in that room somewhere in the back of my mind. Why is that, I wonder?

Strangely, though, I don't remember board games as being a particular favorite among our various childhood toys; certainly they weren't in the same league as Smash-Up Derby cars, Legos or Star Wars figures. Of course, it didn't help that many of the games were flat-out terrible. Among our collection were the dreary, TV-spawned Emergency! and The Starsky and Hutch Detective Game, the cool-looking but insanely frustrating Haunted Mansion Game which our parents refused to play a second time, and the paranormally pedestrian Bermuda Triangle Game with its magnetized doom cloud that picked up your game pieces at random and gave them back when it damn well felt like it. The bottom of the barrel was an ugly, boring, sadistic game about identifying and collecting license plates; the idea of memorizing the color schemes of the license plates of the fifty states seemed as idiotic a pastime back then as it does to me today, and I feel a certain sense of satisfaction in knowing that this vile bit of nonsense is absent from the Boardgamegeek DB.

Not all the games were bad, though. Careers was certainly tolerable, even if I never won. The goofy humor of the wacky (if overlong) Mad Magazine Game was right up my alley for sure. We also enjoyed a few plays of 10-Four, Good Buddy, a game produced to cash in on the CB radio craze, of which my father was an enthusiastic participant (though not a trucker). We kids could also relate to the theme because we had seen the movie Convoy. However, our favorite board game of the time was, no doubt, The Sinking of the Titanic, a game in which the ship part of the board pivoted on a wheel so that it could actually submerge itself beneath the waves. It's true that the aimless second half really does convey the feeling of being adrift at sea, but this was made up for by the exciting first half in which players raced against the rising water levels to hit the lifeboats or collect useful castaway-type items like water and rations and magazines. For some crazy reason, getting this game was a real event for us; perhaps it was the first deluxe board game that my brother or I ever received as a present, and so there was a certain mystique about it.

However, what truly pointed me down the path of The Gamer Way was a good old deck of playing cards. Aces and spades were definitely in our blood; my parents' bridge groups (ladies' and couples') have plodded along without blinking for nearly my entire lifetime. I have no explanation for their unswerving devotion for the game, as they would never call themselves gamers, but my childhood memories of the rooms full of serious, contemplative, silent faces color the endeavor as being some kind of religious ritual: solemn, unquestioning, inescapable. However, at one point my mother did turn heretic and try to organize a mah-jongg club, though this faltered, perhaps because she was more enamored of the little bakelite blocks than she was of the game itself.

As a family we played Rummy 500, and lots of it, and there was always an argument between my mother and father over the rules of the game; my father insisted that in order to take a card off the draw pile, the player had to be able to immediately meld that card using cards in the player's hand—in other words, if there were three sevens in the draw pile, you could not simply pick them all up and put them down in front of you. My mother was of the opposite opinion, and Dad typically characterized her version of the rules as being a degeneration typical of her morally questionable hometown of Brooklyn (my Dad having grown up over the border in Queens). Now, as an adult with his own copy of Hoyle's, I finally can pronounce my mother correct in this ancient family feud. Sorry Pop.

We played the game many, many times, much more than it perhaps deserved, and I think it is this reiteration of the game, the transformation of a simple set of rules into a code through which reality is refined into patterns of logic and luck, that unlocked that weird little door of rampant gamerism. When a game is played often enough that it ceases to be a hiatus from reality and becomes instead another form of reality, and that, I think, is the essence of gaming. The game is no longer a postcard, but becomes a place in the world that you can visit.

Next week: Nerdiness in the 1980s


Coldfoot said...

"The game is no longer a postcard, but becomes a place in the world that you can visit."

Great metaphor, Joe. Right up there with my "take a vacation into a cardboard landscape."

Joe Gola said...

Thanks GG.

Ryan B. said...

Emegrgency! was the bomb on TV. Do you still have the game?

Joe Gola said...

Oh hell no. I think that one disappeared even before I became a teenager.

I actually hated that show. Somehow it managed to be boring and traumatic at the same time. I still remember one episode where some kids were trapped inside a collapsing culvert under a highway. I think there was another one where a kid got trapped at the bottom of a swimming pool. Who needs that kind of stress? Now, The Dukes of Hazzard, there was a TV show. Go get 'em, Flash! I'm in hot pursuit!