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Battleship!

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When I was a child with seven siblings, we used to play a paper-and-pencil version of Battleship, the strategic guessing game. We didn’t have home computers, copiers, or printers, so we laboriously drew our own Battleship grids on notebook paper. We usually played at the dining room table with hardback books shielding our papers from one another’s view. It was fun.

When I was twelve in 1967, Milton Bradley introduced a version of the game played with plastic ships and little plastic pegs on a plastic pegboard. My parents bought us the game one year for Christmas. We played with it, but somehow it wasn’t as much fun as the paper-and-pencil version.

There is a certain pressure in American culture to turn every activity into entertainment and to commercialize it so someone profits from it. What distinguishes entertainment from other forms of leisure? The pleasure in entertainment comes primarily from experiencing an activity rather than performing or participating in it. For most Americans, nearly all their leisure time is spent in entertainment—watching videos, listening to music, posting on social media platforms, viewing sporting events. Even activities that require participation, such as shopping, are pushed toward entertainment. In shopping malls, most of the pleasure to be derived comes from the experience of being in the mall, and there are amusement rides, theaters, food courts, and other attractions that have no intrinsic connection to shopping, right in the mall.

Reading is another form of entertainment that requires participation. Reading is more active than watching a video or listening to a podcast. So it is unsurprising that many Americans never read another book after graduating college or high school, and reading is in decline across all demographics.

Entertainment is often commercialized. The experiences entertainment delivers often require special equipment or a location devoted to a particular activity. The technology required to deliver your favorite streaming shows is much greater than that required to deliver a book. The plastic Battleship game required a plastic game board and pieces. The apparent upside was convenience. I didn’t have to draw my own Battleship grids any more. But that convenience also reduced my enjoyment. I put less effort into the game, so I got less enjoyment from it. Enjoyment requires effort. Entertainment is a trap because it separates pleasure in an activity from effort. We end up comforting ourselves for a hard day at work with effortless (for us) programming from our favorite streaming service.

Not that mindless pleasures are always bad. We all need a break sometimes from effort of every kind. But if we want to be happy, we need to recognize the seductive nature of entertainment and refuse to make it our default. Plan more participatory activities. Turn off Netflix and read a book. Build something. Play Battleship with paper and pencil.

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about me children competition cooperation family fighting fun games memory violence

Childhood Games

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Somewhere in the middle of the last century when children played outside with little or no adult supervision, my brothers and sisters and I played a variety of games whose origins I have forgotten. Here for posterity I will recall and explain them as best I can.

The earliest game I played with my older sister, Marsha, is one I don’t even remember. It became family legend, though, because of how Marsha described what we were doing. I was maybe 2 or 3 years old, and Marsha was a year and a half older. We had an imaginary playmate we called James John Willum. We had recently been to a cookout that my mom and dad called a weeny roast. A few days later while Mom was doing dishes she noticed Marsha and me carrying armloads of sticks and dead leaves past the kitchen window. Wondering what we were up to and perhaps fearing we were making a mess, she came outside and saw us holding sticks over a pile of brush. She asked what we were doing, and Marsha replied, “We’re weesting roanies with James John Willium.”

Like many children in the early sixties, we had tricycles. Perhaps unlike most children, however, we did not merely ride them. Sometimes we flipped them over and used the pedals to spin the wheel as fast as we could. Somehow, this activity led to imagining that we were making ice cream. We would hold an imaginary cone close to the spinning wheel to collect the ice cream and then hand it to a playmate who would carefully lick it, checking for drips as they did so. I never heard of anyone else turning a tricycle into an ice cream maker, but we did.

As our family grew, we added games that required forming teams. Two of our favorite games were Red Rover and Lemonade. I don’t recall ever learning these games. They were not games we played at school as far as I can remember. Our parents may have started them with us. I don’t know.

For Red Rover, there were two teams. One team would hold hands and form a line facing the other team. Then they would call out, “Red Rover, Red Rover, send [name] right over.” The named person would then run headlong into the line and try to break through it. If they managed to break through, they could select one of the opposing team members to join their team. If not, they had to join the opposing team themselves. Play would continue until everyone was too tired to keep it up, it got too dark, or we were called in to supper. There was never a clear winner, and, despite the inherent violence of the game, few injuries. Each team had a captain who would advise other players where the weakest point in the opposing line was or whose name they should call. If two smaller kids were holding hands and saw a bigger kid barreling down on them, they would offer very little resistance. Nobody wanted to get hurt, and nobody wanted to let anyone get hurt.

The other team game was Lemonade. It was a kind of combination of charades and tag. Two teams faced each other. The first team would decide on a profession to mime, then they would approach the other team. On seeing them approach, the other team would yell, “What’s your trade?” To which the first team would respond, “Lemonade.” Then the second team would say, “Go to work and show your profession1We might have used a different word. My memory of this is hazy..”

The first team would begin miming the profession they had chosen while the other team would yell out guesses. As soon as someone yelled out the correct guess, the whole first team would run away with the other team in hot pursuit. Anyone tagged before they reached the predetermined safe boundary would have to join the other team. Then play would begin again with the other team becoming the first team.

As with Red Rover, there was usually no clear winner, although sometimes the game would end with only one team. I can imagine adults would have found it highly entertaining to see children miming occupations such as bus driver or postal carrier, to say nothing of accountant or project manager.

One game I played with my brother Mark, I will call Ketchup Wars. I’m not sure how it started. Mark was always good at miming or playing a part. I’ve written before about how good he was at dying. He was also good at throwing gobs of ketchup. We always started small, with just a dollop of ketchup, maybe less than a teaspoon. He would toss it to me, and I would catch it and throw it back. With each pass the amount of ketchup would grow until we were lobbing huge masses of the stuff and getting splattered from head to toe with imaginary ketchup. I would throw a baseball-sized gob, and he would catch it like a baseball catcher with his hand in front of his chest. He would stagger backwards a step from the impact, and return the throw with imaginary ketchup that was now the size of a bowling ball. We played until the ketchup grew to such a quantity neither of us could lift it any more.

When I think back, I realize that most of the games we played required no equipment of any kind. Sure, it was a bonus playing Good Guys and Bad Guys with soft pellet guns. There was never any argument about whether or where you had been shot. But when we didn’t have guns, we just used our fingers and had just as much fun. Most of the games were more about cooperating in imagining a world rather than competing for some prize or achieving a goal. Fun was the goal, and we had plenty of it.

Footnotes

  • 1
    We might have used a different word. My memory of this is hazy.
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