Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Games of Youth

by Conroy
"Play is the highest expression of human development in childhood, for it alone is the free expression of what is in a child's soul."
Chess - one of the first "adult" games I learned to play
This quote is from Friedrich Frobel, one of the fathers of modern education and inventor of the concept of kindergarten. While the language is grandiloquent it must contain some truth. What I'm sure of is that the word play is synonymous with childhood as the word work is with adulthood. As a child I would play; as an adult I work. This is a reality so firmly ingrained that until just recently I had given little thought to the matter.

The truth is I'm not prone to sentimentalism of nostalgia, no more than the next man anyway, but I do have a sharp memory. That memory was jolted the other day as I was searching through some storage bins in my basement - the common repository for forgotten possessions - and came across my classic board game Axis & Allies. Like Proust's response to the madeleine, my mind whirled over all those games I played in my youth. As I thought further I realized that play, that games, must be one of the defining features of my younger years. Games of all forms and varieties. Games of skill, of intellect, of speed and strength.

Today, my adult years, I rarely play games, and I thought of why that might be. I had to go back to the games I played as a child to understand.

World Domination
"No human being is innocent, but there is a class of innocent actions called games." - W.H. Auden
I thought of my dad teaching me chess as a young boy. I wasn't the next Bobby Fisher, but I had a knack for strategy and other games beckoned. I thought of playing Stratego and Risk, imagining myself as the youthful Napoleon as I led my triumphant armies to glorious victories. I thought of Axis & Allies and how even as a young teenager I was aware that the game makers made it palatable to play as the Germans by showing the Iron Cross on the game pieces instead of the Nazi swastika. But I thought most about Empire Deluxe.

A sample of the Empire Deluxe world
Empire Deluxe was a simple, straightforward computer strategy game from the 90s that required you to build a military force and conquer a computer generated world, seen only as a stylized map of land and sea. Or if you desired, play one of the game's scenarios, like Operation Sea Lion, with forces already deployed. Simple in presentation, but good. I don't know how many hours I played Empire Deluxe, but I remember weekday nights and winter weekends spent leading my forces from one side of the game plane to the other; envisioning the lands I conquered and the armies I defeated along the way. I even had my dad take me to the library  to check out a copy of Jane's Fighting Ships, just so I could give my battleships, cruisers, and aircraft carriers authentic names (this was a few years before the internet became big). Eventually, I built my own map of Europe and created a scenario of a great European war, a free-for-all struggle that somehow differed from the countless actual wars fought on that continent (and not only because no one was actually killed and no cities actually destroyed). War as a game. What can I say? It was great fun.

Apparently I wasn't the only one who loved this game. You can download an enhanced version (here) and play for yourself. I discovered this recently and decided to play again just to see if it would be as engrossing as it was fifteen years ago. It was everything I had remembered, enhanced as promised, but one critical thing was missing - the fun of losing myself in the game world.

The Great Builder
A Sim City 4 cityscape
Lest you think all my games were war and fighting, know that I was also one of the great builders in history. I mastered SimCity, SimCity 2000, SimCity 3000, and SimCity 4. I built cities that rivaled the beauty of San Francisco and Sydney. Cities that emulated (as best I could) the majesty of Paris, skyline of Hong Kong, and industry of Houston. I built towns tucked into narrow coastal strips, and cities that sprawled over large plains. I built planned cities that Haussmann would have admired, and unplanned cities with a chaotic laissez faire beauty. I loved it, but I never built the perfect city that I wanted. There was always a better place to be made.

Now I can't play SimCity. I design and build for a living. The reality of being an engineer, the complexity of how things really work, undermines the pleasure to be had from the simplified models in the Sim world. I know now what I didn't know then - there is no perfect city to be made.

Simulated Action
"Video games are bad for you? That's what they said about rock n roll." - Shigeru Miyamoto
Of course not all games need to apply grand strategies and long-term planning. That's where Sega and Nintendo come in. I was the only person I knew in the late 80s who had a Sega Master System and not Nintendo. It kind of made me feel like a weirdo. No matter how good I got at Altered Beast (and I wasn't that good), it would never be as good as beating Mario Bros. (whatever that entailed). Of course the world turned. When I upgraded to a Sega Genesis it was in vogue. Street Fighter II and Madden NFL '95 were my games. However, my real shining moment came when Nintendo 64 emerged in the mid 90s. I played Goldeneye like everyone else in my freshman year of college, and I took my MLB '99 Orioles to a World Series title (led by my MVP-winning avatar), but it was with Mario Kart 64 that I made my gaming reputation.

The prelude to victory - my victory
I still maintain that I was as good at Mario Kart as anyone in the western hemisphere. My college roommates and I would play versus matches (two, three, four players), seemingly every day. We would play each of the games 16 widely varying race tracks. Wario was my driver, and I didn't lose - not once - for weeks and then months on end. When new challengers arrived, I took them on and sent them away well-beaten. Where did this seemingly preternatural skill come from? I have no idea, but I rode it like a wave to one dominating victory after another. Maybe there was some Japanese teenager in some Tokyo arcade that could have taken me down, but make no doubt that I would have accepted any Mario Kart challenge in those days and fancied my chances of coming out the winner.

I'd move on to Playstation 2 and the wonderful racing simulation of the Gran Turismo series. But by then college was over and the dedication to finish these games vanished. I'd like to play Mario Kart again, but I don't have a Nintendo 64. Plus, and more importantly, I know I could never recreate those past glories.

Physical Education
"...His head is tucked, his left leg is clearing the bars. And in one prolonged and aloof and discontinuous instant he sees precisely where he'll land and which way he'll run...He comes down lightly and goes easy-gaiting past the ticket taker groping for his fallen cap and knows absolutely-knows it all the way, deep as knowing goes, he feels the knowledge start to hammer in his runner's heart-that he is uncatchable." -Cotter Martin, a kid playing (and winning) a dangerous game in Don Delillo's Underworld.
I don't want the previous paragraphs to lead you to think that I was stuck inside playing games all day long. No, I also played games outside. In fact I was quite a good athlete, in my own mind anyway. I played baseball throughout my youth. And if it wasn't real baseball then I was playing catch or some modified neighborhood version of home run derby. To mix it up my friends and I would have kickball games. There were several epic, high scoring contests that would last until the light failed deep on summer evenings. And then there was the frequent driveway basketball games, which must have been pretty ugly to watch.

In the winter, as I got a little older, we would play never-ending games of football. I remember one impromptu game that we started just as as snow began to fall on our field (my neighbor's expansive backyard). I caught 13 touchdowns as the snow covered the ground and a hushed awe overtook my neighborhood friends. Okay, it was hushed awe in my mind, but more likely un-realizing indifference on their part. Regardless, it was a transcendent performance (and that's the way I'm going to continue to remember it).

I picked up tennis after watching Andre Agassi win the 1992 Wimbledon title. I played some hack-filled four and five set matches with my friends on warm nights under the lights at our local community college. I never took a lesson, but I ended up getting to be pretty good.

Even in gym class all we really did was play games: basketball, badminton (very intense in my high school), volleyball, tennis, soccer, softball, and of course the rainy days where we stuck inside to play some form of dodge ball.

Wiffle ball - a kid's game?
I still play tennis. And I'm better now than when I was younger, but no one has the time or patience for four or five sets. But more often instead of playing games, I workout. Run, lift weights, etc. Not nearly as fun, certainly more work than play, but the only way I can see to stay in shape as the years go by. Interestingly, one game I do play now is Wiffleball as part of a Baltimore social league. Maybe it's filling a surprising lacuna from my youth. Is it any surprise that I feel the joy of a kid with every hit I get and every run my team scores?

Academic Competition
When I was younger I even made a competition out of learning. I competed in geography bees (successfully) and captained my high school's Academic (Quiz) Team. We were good. We won some tournaments. We had fun and I even got a high school letter for my efforts.

If only knowing a lot of general information could get you somewhere in this world.

"Games lubricate the body and the mind." - Benjamin Franklin
So to use Frobel's words, was my childhood play the free expression of what was in my soul? Going over these memories and re-living them as best I can in my mind, I'd like to think yes. My mind was engaged and my body was active. I played my various games for fun and I played them because it's what I was driven to do.

Now, I'm far more likely to watch games (sports) as I am to play them. There is just too much going on to play many games. I've got my work, a couple dozen close personal realtionships to maintain, a house, car, and plenty of other responsibilities, not to mention this blog. My free time is directed at other interests. But I hope, like the wiffleball games I mentioned, that every once and a while when I do play, I get to experience the joy and glories of the games of youth.


In writing this post I realized that one could probably write a Bildungsroman centered on games and play. Perhaps someone already has. Can anyone provide an example of a novel or short story that focuses on a protagonists growth through childhood and adolescence with games as a central theme?

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