Playing Games

Back in 2012, I was asked to write an essay for the Spirit & Place Festival, an eclectic mix of programs presented each year in Indy by a variety of arts, culture, religious and social groups under one thematic umbrella. The theme that year was “Play” and I took that as an opportunity to get evangelical about my love of games.

Playing Games

Confession: In high school, I used to play a little Dungeons and Dragons—but I never really knew what I was doing. Luckily, my friends knew less. So I, as Dungeonmaster, would simply make rules up until there was only one young woman left playing and everyone else went home. (Is that so wrong?)

Another confession: When my brother and his cronies used to play poker and drink, I’d play poker and not drink. I’d inevitably win big (Okay, maybe that was wrong).

I like to think that those were the last two times I was deceptive in my game playing. Since then, I’ve been a staunch believer in playing games by the rules, letting the dice fall where they may.

And I’ve played a lot of games. From elementary school marathon Risk sessions with my pal Frank to testing out the latest board and card games for my annual post-GenCon for IBJ, I’ve been practically evangelical about my passion for board games. If I can round up some people this weekend, I’ll be playing games. I’ve organized game lunches at work before the holidays to introduce co-workers to games they’ve never heard of (which, for many, is most games that don’t sell at Target). And some of the most joyful moments with my kids have been spent around our dining room table playing Speed Scrabble (which newbies know, commercially, as Bananagrams).

To be clear, I’m talking about face-to-face games. Computers are all well and good. The Wii is great. But when I play, my first choice is to play without screens and with other real human beings in the room.

These days, my first choice game is Dominion. That’s a card game that, at first, looks like an offshoot of Magic: The Gathering, but it’s actually a strategy shopping game, where what you buy impacts your future choices. I also like Pandemic, a cooperative game in which you and your fellow players trying cure a quartet of diseases before epidemics and outbreaks overwhelm you. And then there’s Guillotine…

I could go on. But that wouldn’t leave me with room to write about the huge benefits—besides pure fun—that I believe are inherent in game play.

First, there’s the math. I truly believe that my son is as quick in math as he is because he’s counted up a lot of dice rolls, calculated odds for Texas Hold ‘em, and figured profits and losses in Monopoly. (Don’t get me started on the evil Monopoly update that does that calculating for you. That, my friend, is the work of the devil.

There’s the sense of discovery. There’s a huge kick for me to learning a new game—especially when an experienced player is at the table. I love getting a feel for the mechanics of a game, especially when the beginning, middle, and end games involved different strategic choices. So much of what we do in life is based on repetition: It’s fun to enter a new world, whether it’s the murderous mansion of Kill Dr. Lucky, the art auction house of Masterpiece, or the Pacific islands of Tongiaki.

Then there’s the social component. Game players learn how to win. They learn how to lose. And they learn how to learn from losing.

The biggest frustration for me re: my kids and games is that they evolve in and out of interest in specific ones. Parcheesi had a great vogue in my house for a while—and I was thrilled with that. But for the last five years, I haven’t been able to get anyone, let alone the optimal four players, to compete in that underrated classic with me. (To be fair, my son is equally frustrated with me because I won’t play Pokemon.)

Honestly, it’s hard for me to fully respect someone who isn’t open to the idea of playing games. One of the reasons I knew I’d like working at the Indianapolis Business Journal is because I heard that co-owner Mickey Maurer is an avid Scrabble and Boggle player. Soon after starting my tenure there, I was thrilled to learn that my favorite co-worker is a vicious poker player. Years later, I still can’t figure out her game. Few things made this papa prouder than when he heard his eldest daughter introduced her boyfriend’s family in Mississippi to our house card game, Nurtz—which they played all night. And while my wife is no fan of strategy games, she’ll dive headfirst into a round of Boggle, Word on the Street, or Apples to Apples.

Plus, you have to love a woman who will let us fill a few shelves in the living room with board games. After all, they are too much a part of my life to all be stored in the garage.

The biggest lesson, though, is honesty. While my high school D&D dalliances and poker adventures may have had their upsides, neither beats the pure pleasure of a well-played game with friends and/or family.

Just no snacking on Cheetos while you play, okay? House rule.

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UTB: a short story

This afternoon, 9/21/12, I entered the Masterpiece in a Day writing contest at the Art Squared festival in Fountain Square, Indianapolis. At 11 a.m., I was told the three elements that needed to be in my under-1000-word story: A police officer, a spotlight, and a boardwalk. Here’s what I turned in at 2 p.m. The story won first place.

UTB

by Lou Harry

They always lie. First thing out of their mouths.
“We weren’t doing anything.”
Well, come on, kid. Everyone is doing something. You may not have been doing that, but you were doing something. Fumbling around. Exploring. Blood racing. You think this is something new? First time the thin strips of light through the boardwalk slats were suddenly washed out by my spotlight? A tradition as entrenched around here on the island as soft-serve ice cream, tram cars, and vomiting off hotel balconies.
Blame “Under the Boardwalk.” The song. Gives the whole thing a got-to-try-it romance. A mythos. Truth is, though, amorous couples would be a lot more comfortable out on the jetty. Or, better yet, on a lifeguard stand. Under the boardwalk means you could get doused at any moment by whatever gets spilled up on the boardwalk. And even in the cleaner spots it’s sand and skin. And friction. Which adds up to sandpaper. Which has minimal erotic value.
Never made an arrest under the boardwalk. Official policy—at least, what I was told when I joined the force: Just get them to move on. Unless she looks young and he doesn’t. That’s another matter. It’s not safe under the boardwalk at night. At least that’s what we have to tell them. So in most circumstances, you just shoo them like stray dogs rooting through your garbage.
I know one rookie who went ahead and made the arrest. He never heard the end of it. Cupid, they started calling him. Cops’ idea of irony. And it stuck. He’s still Cupid. Always will be.
Cupid and I were on overnight boardwalk duty last week, waking up people sleeping on benches, ushering confused drunks back to their rooming houses, keeping the peace when it’s already as peaceful as this town is ever going to be in summer. And while we’re walking, Cupid asked me if there was anything I could do to help him get rid of the nickname. “Tired of it,” he said. “A nickname should say something about who you are. Not just something you did once.”
I said he should just relax about it. Having a nickname means people know who you are. People don’t know me. Not really.
And, you know, Cupid—the mythological one—had a pretty good gig. When you think about it. There are worse jobs.
Hands flying. Clothes clutched. I shut the light off quickly. Always.
“We weren’t doing anything.”
“You’ve got nothing to be afraid of, kid. Just stand up.”
“I’m not a kid.”
A little bravado. Trying to impress his guest. I respect that.
“Kindly stand up, sir,” I say. “And watch your head.”
I told a kid to stand up once and…bam. Right into the crossbeam. Thought I was going to have to get him to the ER.
Girl is already standing. Brushing sand off herself. Looking up.
Jenny’s kid. Fourth time I found her down here this summer. And it’s only July. Tempting to judge. But I’m not a judge. I’m a cop.
First time I shined the spotlight on this girl, back in early June, I immediately saw the resemblance. There was Jenny’s hair, yes, but it was more about her presence. Something grounded. Something right here/right now about her. And I could hear Jenny’s laughter echoing off the water slide plastic.
We were in high school. Between sophomore and junior year. Early November maybe. And we were with a group of other kids down by the beach and some of them walked down toward the water—probably to get high, which I wasn’t into. Instead of going with them, Jenny and I snuck out onto the new water slide on Morey’s Pier. Hopped the fence easily. Scrambled up through the tubes. Laughing. Shushing each other. Making it up to the top where we looked down over the empty boardwalk, the boarded-for-the-winter shops, the Ferris wheel stripped of its baskets for the season.
“Cool isn’t it. Growing up here,” she said.
“I guess so,” I replied. Or said something like that. I don’t know.
I tell Jenny’s kid and this boy to walk out to the beach. Out into the open.
They do. Not that they have much of a choice. I’m a cop.
“What?” demands Jenny’s kid as we clear the boardwalk and head toward the water, crashing—but silently—in the distance.
“Just walk,” I say, staying a few steps behind them on the thick sand. Behind us, the boardwalk sounds—the calliope music muted by the rumble of the crowd accented by the cries of thrill riders in descent—start to fade. Roller coasters make their slow rise, take their twists and turns, and return their riders to where they started.
“Where are we going?” the boy asks. But I don’t say anything. Because Jenny’s laughter echoes from a water slide a long, long time ago. Because a day hasn’t gone by without me reliving that climb, that silly struggle through the tube.
Because while I’d take any nickname, I’m jealous of Cupid’s.
We stop at the lifeguard stand. And before they know I’ve done it, I’ve turned around and am already walking back to the boardwalk.

–end–