Wednesday, September 13, 2017

THE COLLAPSE OF THE AMERICAN ATTENTION SPAN ~ Guest Post

It is yer old pal Jerky's distinct pleasure, as always, to present an essay by one of the smartest people ever to dip his quill into an inkpot: our old pal A.C. Doyle! In this thought-provoking slice of melancholy memoir-cum-manifesto, Ace aptly expresses what we've lost now that games and gaming culture have all but completed their migration from the tactile, pencil-and-paper, cards-and-dice domain of the analog, and into the insubstantial pseudo-void of pixelated digital ephemerality. - Yer Old Pal Jerky

My parents sent me away to boarding school when I was in 9th grade, fearing that at 4’11” and 95 pounds I’d have had a tough go of it at what was then the biggest high school East of the Mississippi (6300 in 1975, built for 4800), overcrowded, lots of racial strife, and a culture that abhorred intellect. I believe it was one of the first in the country to install metal detectors at the front doors.

I enjoyed prep school, mostly, though as a scrawny little Catholic kid at a very WASPy establishment, I felt a bit out of it. My better friends were mostly day students, scholarship students, and minorities, and I felt a bit scorned by the scions of the Codfish Aristocracy. But one thing I vastly enjoyed, with the rich and well-heeled down to the most gormless nerds and poor kids, on a near nightly basis, after study hours ended at 10, but before lights-out at 11, was playing board games and card games. Oh sure, you could go down to the Common Room and watch a show, but unless Charlie’s Angels or Saturday Night Live was on, few of us bothered very often. The action was up in the hallways.

Everybody knew poker. The formalists played five-card-stud or five-card draw, nothing wild. None of this Texas Hold‘em, that is the only thing people ever play nowadays. Then the lesser players would play Baseball, because nearly everyone is guaranteed a good hand, when there are so many wild cards, and six Jacks would beat five Kings. Then the tricky kids would play the ones that leveraged the betting into bigger pools, such as Up The River Down The Creek. We played penny and nickel ante, quarter the maximum raise, and nobody won or lost more than ten dollars, but it was lively, with lots of talking smack and bad bluffing – “hey, does a hand where all the cards are in order beat one where all the cards have the same symbol on them?”

Not a single kid didn’t know gin, gin rummy, hearts, and spades. Most also knew hi-lo-jack, Oh Hell!, and cribbage. Bridge was a bit more esoteric, not in how it’s played, but in how it’s played well. You never wanted to be saddled with a bad partner. Also, even the best players would go home for summer vacation and would get asked to fill in on their silly mother’s Friday night bridge games with her silly friends, only to get their asses kicked… almost as if experience was more important than brilliance. Kinda like when Michael Jordan thought he could hit a baseball pretty well – emmm, but, not if it was a Pedro Martinez or Greg Maddux curveball. “Yes dear, you got 1500 on the PSATs, and now Mommy’s gonna hand you your ass at bridge.”

Nearly everyone knew backgammon, and had a board. Sometimes rolling those double sixes would get you out of a jam, or you’d roll the 3 you needed to get your piece back to the starting gate, but over five games, the better players invariably prevailed for at least three.


Some of the smarter kids had MasterMind boards, and I truly enjoyed that rather tricky combination of logic and lucky guesswork, with a finite limit of ten guesses. Risk was quite popular among some, as was Diplomacy, but they could drag on forever, particularly the latter (I stormed out on a few games when I was clearly winning, just because we were on the third or fourth night).

Stratego was somewhat popular, but I think by midway through sophomore year or so, the Stratego kids would realize they had to mature toward chess. I well remember the gleam in my eye when a boy would claim he was a Stratego master, but didn’t know chess. I’d inwardly lick my lips, and think “you’re my meat”. And he’d look stunned when eight or ten moves in my Spy had killed his Field Marshall. A good chess player just thinks farther ahead, through a greater number of permutations, than a kid who only plays Stratego. A few kids had Battleship boards, but those also grew to represent a “little kid’s game” by 10th grade, so they fell by the wayside.

Monopoly and Clue still had their occasional charm, as did some equivalent of Wheel Of Fortune, whose name escapes me know, but everyone tried to guess the letters of the cards laid upside-down in the other person’s word tray. Scrabble, de rigueur. Where the kids who were good at statistics and probability invariably beat the ones with great vocabularies. Hitting a triple letter score with the J in JAM would destroy a kid who thought he was being clever by adding “ELABO” to an already existing “RATE”.


And then of course chess...


Every boy knew HOW to play it, how the pieces moved, what the rules were (though occasionally there’d be howls of protest from someone who had never seen a pawn en passant capture, and you’d have to pull out your copy of Hoyle’s and show him that indeed it was legal – oh, and three quarters of us had a copy of Hoyle’s). And in freshman year, everybody played everybody. But by the end of sophomore year, it became a smaller circle, because it’s the only game you cannot cheat in, and there’s no luck involved, so better players started beating lesser players with greater frequency and ease. Eventually you get sick and tired of playing a guy who is regularly leading you into traps and mating you within 12 or 15 moves, or who just grinds you down relentlessly in 30, you knowing full well that from about move 15 onwards your only hope is a dreadful mistake on your opponent’s behalf. Eventually two of the boys could find almost nobody outside of the Chess Club to give them a game. One is now the CTO of Hewlett-Packard and the other runs the Quantum Physics department at MIT.

Recently I was with two middle school chums on a Scandinavian vacation, and we stayed on a boat in three of the four cities we visited. One rainy afternoon in Copenhagen, with no television available, the lad staying in the wheelhouse bedroom found a chessboard. He brought it down and said “Ace, I haven’t played since Andover, and I know you played well into college, and have taken it up again recently, so you’re gonna kick my ass, but it will bring back fond memories of rainy afternoons.” I kicked his ass, but it took a while longer than I expected, he drew me out to about 35 moves, even though the game had been decided ten moves earlier.



“Feed the fish!”, I cried, when he toppled his king in recognition of upcoming mate. He howled with nostalgic laughter. I had made a cribbage board for my 7th grade wood shop project, in the shape of a fish. Originally, any boy who won the cribbage game had the right to jab the loser in the balls with it, shouting “Feed The Fish!” Eventually this evolved into whenever any pair of boys were locked in any tight game, they would come to my room, grab the fish, and have it the ready for their victory dance. Fish in the groin – it works at so many levels!

So, where am I going with this rosy nostalgia for cards and board games with the boys? Well, as Hurricane Earl was bearing down on the New England coastline in late August of 2010, my girlfriend’s coastal community was evacuated, and she drove up from Rhode Island with her two adolescent sons to where I was renting a room from a friend in Metro West Boston, as I awaited surgery at a nearby specialty hospital. The storm hit there pretty hard too, a few trees came down, the roads were flooded, and the electricity went out for nearly three days. He had a generator, with two outlets. One was dedicated to the fridge, the other to a boombox or maybe the stove. There would be no outlets available for television, nor certainly cable boxes and routers and X-boxes and servers and Kiwis and Lulus and all the other things you would need for a home entertainment center. Even if we let all the meat and dairy rot, there would be insufficient connections to get a cable system up and running, nor any likelihood that we could access it.

So for three days there was no Internet, no cable TV, and no gaming. The teenage boys were beside themselves, literally pacing and pulling their hair and groaning. We had storm lanterns going, the three grown-ups were happily reading books, and the house was stocked with lots of board games, a chess set, cards, poker chips, but these were all arcane mysteries to them. Both spent their post-homework afternoons and nights doing online gaming, mostly involving shooting at people, often your friends who were talking to you through your earbuds. Except for a couple of afternoons spent down at my sister’s home on the Cape Cod coast, I had literally never seen either of them venture out of doors, not a single friend ever come by to toss a football or ride a bike around the neighborhood. They were literally addicted to gaming. The elder was once over an hour late to pick his mother and me up at the airport, which he justified with complete smugness by claiming he had a shot at his personal best high score. Another time he got his mother’s car towed by getting into a videogame with the kid he’d stopped off to buy pot from. He couldn’t help himself, the X-box came first, over all other responsibilities in life, like heroin.


Fifteen or twenty times over our five years together, I had recommend withdrawing one or the other boy’s gaming privileges for a week, change her Internet password, confiscate their X-box, as punishment for some really egregious behavior, completely inappropriate stuff. Each time she would harshly rebuke me with the retort, “it’s what they do, they’ll be lost without the X-box.”

Well, she was right. They didn’t know a single card game, not even Go Fish or Crazy Eights or Concentration. They didn’t know backgammon or chess. They had no interest in some simple ways to kill time, such as Clue or Monopoly. And they lacked all curiosity about throwing on foul weather gear and venturing out for a stroll in the tempest. Eventually we grown-ups took a walk with the dogs and saw that a local pub by the lake was open, and letting kids and dogs in, assuming the State Liquor Commission would be unlikely to object. They had storm lanterns all around, board games, decks of cards, and if you paid cash, you could get a drink. I ran back to tell the boys. “Do they have Internet access or any TV?”

“Em, no.”

“Not interested, sounds lame”.

Of course it was impossibly charming and warm and brimming with community good cheer. I went back and the dogs and the grow-ups and I had a lovely three hours of stormy near-darkness in a bustling little pub on the water. I played a few strangers in chess, my inamorata and landlord played gin and gin rummy, you could hear the occasional cry of Yahtzee! There were even slap-dash ham-and-cheese sandwiches offered around for three bucks apiece or so.


The next day we grown-ups read, walked the dogs, surveyed the storm damage, played a few rounds of hearts, then cribbage, then spades, then Oh Hell!, then hi-lo-jack, while the boys moaned and groaned and paced and said “I’m soooooo bored” forty times. 

Which is a bit sad, for two reasons. First, I recall with great nostalgic pleasure rainy Saturday afternoons where my family had a weekend/summer place down by the coast of Buzzards Bay. There were only three television stations anyway, two of them blurry, but when it rained, you couldn’t get any reception at all, no matter how you twirled the rabbit ears. Whether it was just me and my youngest sister, or a gang of boys we’d transported down for the weekend, we’d all go to the bookcase in the back hallway and pick from one of umpteen Hardy Boys or Nancy Drews, at an older age The Count Of Monte Cristo or The Red Badge Of Courage or Kidnapped sort of boys’ fare, and neighbor boys might stop by, and there would be twelve kids lying prone, or supine, according to their wont, nibbling at a bag of rapidly humidifying Wise potato chips and reading away, in complete contentment.

And during the rare hurricane, or occasional gale, or fairly common strong nor’easter, the electricity would go out. And I found it so adventurous to get out the kerosene and the storm lanterns, try to find a few wooden stick matches that weren’t too damp from constant exposure to the sea air, finally get the lanterns lit, strategically place a dozen candles, check the phone to see if by any chance… naw, it was always out if the electricity was out, not even that beep-beep-beep tone, just nuthin’. There was such romance, we were castaways, we were disconnected, we were old-time pioneers reading and playing cards by candle-light. I found it very enchanting, and when any given storm turned fierce, I inevitably pleaded silently for a black-out.

That the collapse of the American attention span has led to children (and lots of grown-ups… my landlord got a little bit stir-crazy after 48 hours of Earl with no juice) not having even a small fraction of the patience to deal with an electrical outage is a cultural malaise. I’m sure you’ve all read some of the back and forth about TXTing addicts, the jeremiads over watching a table of six young women at a restaurant table not say a single thing to each other for minutes on end, until one giggles, and tells the others they have to see the meme that Sheila just sent her, they all pass the cellphone around, agree that it’s funny, then go back to their private conversations.

One side claims that the lives of GenX and Millennials are richer than ours, with a greater flow of communication and a deeper level of connectivity. They have a point. And clearly some rather lonely people take great solace from Facebook and Twitter and e-mail, that they never would have enjoyed until the turn of the millennium.

The other side argues why bother going out to dinner if you’re not going to interact with the people you’re with? Why not just stay at home and TXT them? You’re not actually more connected, you’re self-isolating from the real live people who are with you. They have a point too, and it’s certainly an excellent reason to say “cheque please” ten minutes into a Match date. Any woman who has her Android right next to her place setting and responds to more than two TXTs never get a call back, especially if neither of those two were about her son in the ER or a gas explosion on her street. The only other more immediate rejection in my dating experience is denigrating minorities. Gosh, look at the time, nice to meet you, gotta scoot.

The second sad result of our collective e-addiction comes to mind in the wake of Harvey and the approach of Irma. We have lost a sense of priorities, in terms of disasters and disaster relief. Nearly all the press reports dwell on “electrical outages”. Frequently they also lament the Internet being down, no cable, cellphone connectivity diminished, cellular towers collapsed. Or else it’s adorable YouTubes of hicks rescuing possums and armadillos.

Whereas I bet those 16 million homeless and displaced flood refugees in Pakistan and Bangladesh and India don’t give a rat’s ass about how quickly they can get back to playing Dogs Of War v. 4.0: The Killzone. Nor that their cellphone has only intermittent bars showing. They’re thinking about potable water. Electrical outages are what happen during storms. They are a by-product, not the main damage. Lives and homes are the main issue, not how pissed your teenage girl is that she can’t watch Orange Is The New Black tonight. Yet I’m am confidently certain than 90 percent of the households impacted by Harvey and Irma will have, as their main source of pain, their children being disconnected from electronic amusement and unable to exchange 40 TXTs per hour with their besties.

And so it is with a mixture of despair and wry cynicism that I regard the fate of the victims, real and exaggerated, of Harvey and Irma. During Hurricane Bob my friends and nieces and nephews rowed around the neighborhood, did swan dives into the community tennis court, and, once the rains receded, moved all our living room furniture onto the front lawn, where we set up a generator, and welcomed the neighbors by to watch the Barcelona Olympics – back when TVs could work without 14 boxes and 17 remotes, just an electrical charge and some rabbit ears. The roads were washed out, we couldn’t get any more gas for several days, so we apportioned out the generator time to gymnastics, boxing, and track and field. When the salvage operations began, helicopters removing boats from trees, the entire community dragging up all the sunken ones still in the harbor, there was the community, everyone lined up along the shore, ready to dive in or row out, once a boat got dropped from the air, and three boys would lasso it, and swim it along into the dock, or to its mooring. No complaints about electricity or phones, and a certainty that there’d be books to read and card games to play for the foreseeable future.


Not to say this is not happening in Texas. Nor that it’s not a lot more serious than us having fun in a flood, though several houses were permanently damaged, and a lot of the teenage girls got genital infections from whatever was bubbling out of the ground in their floodwater frolic. It’s the sense of community that is overpowering, heartwarming. And of course in Texas, some of the bravery of those solo men in a life-jacket getting tossed down a rampaging flood in pursuit of a panicked horse is literally breathtaking. THAT’s what community is about, not Internet connectivity.

It would be nice if you could call Grandma and make sure she’s alright. Which is much easier now than it was in the pre-cellphone era. But it’s not necessary. Grandma is Schrodinger’s Cat, and your inability to contact her is something you have no control over. Somebody in her neighborhood, if they understand walking out of doors and being in a community, rather than sulking inside until their router lights turn green, will check in on Grandma. Your teens need to do the same, get out there and help people, and then come indoors and play cards or chess, with an acknowledgment that life and the Internet are two different things.

With all due respect to the pain and suffering underway, I hope a few whiny teens get crisp backhand across the kisser from their grandfathers, who managed to survive 15 minutes during past crises without TXTing Britney or Tyler about what Jordan just said. In Bangladesh, I rather suspect they would be even less tolerant of teen spleen.

 “I’m sooooooo bored.”

“Really? Well here, you can carry all our remaining possessions for the next neck-deep ten kilometres of filthy flood water.”


- Our old pal A.C. Doyle can be reached at acd@acdoyle.com.

11 comments:

  1. You seriously need to do some research before you write.

    https://www.cnbc.com/2016/12/22/millennials-the-board-games-revival-catan-pandemic.html http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/games/2017/01/how-board-games-became-billion-dollar-business

    https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/sep/25/board-games-back-tabletop-gaming-boom-pandemic-flash-point

    https://www.economist.com/news/business/21669930-table-top-games-are-booming-video-game-age-not-twilight-sunrise

    http://www.adweek.com/brand-marketing/from-monopoly-to-exploding-kittens-board-games-are-making-a-comeback/

    ReplyDelete
  2. @TurboCooler- in his defence, Dogs of War is a fantastic boardgame by Paolo Mori... I mean... that's what he's referencing right? Not taking some half-assed jab at video gamers?

    I always read things like this and wonder if the author sees the irony in (quite likely) being criticised for a new form of entertainment (here, I presume the author is old enough that the criticism would be for liking... Elvis?) as a child, but not having the capacity to see that video games are simply the progression of that.

    For what it's worth; I've played cribbage and chess... though never thought to challenge my mother at bridge (I'm not a masochist). Modern board games beat them both, hands down.

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