Thus, on a cynical Saturday afternoon, I wrote a description of ten of my childhood games:
- Dodge Ball: Reinforces social hierarchies and lets kids know that bullying is generally a good idea if it is done in competition.
- Simon Says: Helps kids learn the importance of social conformity (especially to the authority figures).
- Hide and Seek: Helps kids learn that the social isolation of suburbia is a valuable asset.
- Chutes and Ladders: Reinforces the belief that one’s positive and negative status is based upon morality / decision making
- Candy Land: Recognizes that Chutes and Ladders is wrong, but that one should still take credit for the role of luck in deciding status in life
- Trivial Pursuit: Teaches children that what they learn in school is both trivial and still worth the pursuit – if nothing else, at least for the sake of competition and the ability to look more important than others
- Monopoly: It is not only acceptable, but actually a moral imperative to use up all resources, put others out of business and build a vast empire for oneself. It’s what America does best.
- Risk: Designed to teach children the rationale behind America’s imperialist foreign policy while also teaching them that geographic accuracy is less important than sheer conquest.
- Jenga: Reminds us that architecture is not meant to last and that if, God forbid, we try and keep it intact, we must constantly rennovate it – not unlike the mini-mall around the corner that gets a new facade and stucco job every five years or so.
- Sorry: Harming others is great, but only if it is done in one’s self-interest and it is followed up by a quick apology. As in, “Yeah, I keyed your car. Sorry!”
Pretty depressing list, I suppose. And yet . . .
I am drawn to games. Some of my fondest memories revolve around sitting around in footsie pajamas and learning to play Connect Four or Uno for the first time. And the beauty of these games is that they teach us to prepare for the reality of life. True, Simon Says teaches conformity, but it also teaches us to listen. Hide and seek teaches us that if we run, eventually we will be found. Perhaps there is no better lesson for my children to learn than the idea that their dad will never quit looking for them if they are ever lost.
* * *
With images of Banana Grahams and Bejeweled status updates running through my mind, I head over to the game closet with Joel and Micah.
“Let’s play Candyland,” Micah says. Then, picking up a tiny toy soldier, he says, “We’ll make it harder for you to get to the top of the candy mountain.” Nice. My four year-old has just militarized one of the most innocent board games imaginable.
So, we agree on house rules. It’s something we can’t do on Facebook or the Wii or PBS Kids. We’re abandoning the framework and setting up our own local norms. We’re the rebels of Candyland, a resistance movement of multicolored gingerbread men who do not believe in regressing to a former location or buying into the lie that licorice is evil.
We move from Candyland to Uno. Micah struggles to remain calm after his first two losses. It’s unpredictable. I want to guard him somehow. Stack the deck. Set it up so that he can create a run of colors, but I’m helpless as I watch him lose the fourth game as well.
Micah screams, “Uno!”
He plays it on the second to last turn, knowing that it’s his only chance to keep the color blue. I play an eight and then watch Joel staring at his cards. He can change it to yellow and play the final two cards in his deck. He stares at the yellow eight and then draws one from the deck.
No one says anything, but I’ve just caught a glimpse into Joel’s soul and it’s beautiful.
Finally they decide we need to play a game of soccer shootout in the backyard.
In a moment of excitement, Joel yells across the fence, “Carson, I beat my dad twice in Uno and now in soccer. Seven to four!”
Nobody answers. Perhaps it is closer to a Facebook status update than I had first imagined.
One of the major criticisms of competition is that it pulls people away from one another. However, in this afternoon, I am fully present, growing more intimate with my sons, despite the lack of verbal interaction. And perhaps that’s the beauty of games and the power of play. It’s in the practice of paradox: competition and cooperation, following the rules and forming your own, winning and losing, being stingy and being gracious.
So, it has me thinking about the times that I play Solitaire or Tetris on my computer. It has me thinking that games shouldn’t be done in solitary confinement. And more importantly, life shouldn’t be done in isolation. Even as adult, I could use more games, more play, more water fights and Scrabble matches and Apples to Apples, because of the intimacy that occurs as a result.
Just yesterday, my friend Jabiz reminded me not to take things so seriously. I took this initially as a vague, unexpected call to be shallow. Now I’m seeing his point. I want to embrace the notion of play, of games, of dance, of goofing off, because ultimately those things reveal a deeper side of who we are than simply sitting around with a chai tea and talking politics.