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GAMES PEOPLE PLAY
October 1, 2012
 
Get the app for 'Hanging With Friends' and we can play.

That was my daughter. I texted back laboriously -- I am a slow texter because I do it with one finger. Young people use both thumbs.

Okay.

Getting an app isn't as speedy a process for me as it is for some, but I did find it and eventually got it installed on my phone, remembering as I did so how my father used to speak on the telephone: slowly, carefully, a little loudly, in honor of the great physical distance separating him from the person on the other end of the call. I wondered what he would make of the fact that we play games with each other on our phones.

Hanging With Friends is an electronic version of Hangman, which we used to play with pencil and paper when I was a child and when my girls were little. I was good at it then, but no more: both my daughter and my granddaughter whip me soundly at the game, and I keep forgetting how to play. Your defeat in Hanging With Friends is a fearsome thing: the chubby little character you have chosen as your avatar descends slowly into a a red-hot lake of lava flowing from a nearby volcano, her happy grin morphing into a frozen grimace of terror as she does so.

I'm going to get better at Hanging With Friends, though. I know this because I'm getting better at Words With Friends, which is an electronic version of Scrabble. Better, but not great: "great" is a word better applied to Marguerite, who creams me every time. Can Marguerite really be that much smarter than I am? Maybe. But I think I've located the problem: my approach is far too literary. I succumb to the lure of cool words -- like "addle" or "ibex", unable to resist stringing them across the board tethered to only one letter. Or I become dazzled by the solo firepower of "x" or "q". I need to read less and count more: often, more points can be scored by assembling a line of uninteresting two-letter words, like "id" and "no" and "so". Words With Friends teaches you humility, if you let it.

My phone chirps. My daughter is texting me.

Your turn.

Like everybody else, my daughter is beating me, although I don't always check the score. I believe we have five games going, and I have another five with my granddaughter. I am at my limit: the game won't allow me to begin any more matches until I've completed a few.

I have heard that I can ward off senility by playing these games. But that may also not be so: word games exercise a faculty I already possess in good working order, and the games that grow your brain are the ones that break new ground, not the ones that offer you familiar challenges over and over again. Probably I should turn to Sudoku, a game with numbers that people keep telling me is nonetheless not about math but about logic. Whatever. I have yet to succeed at it, even once; even the ones marked "SIMPLE," the Sudoku games probably intended for newborns, are beyond me. And really: Soduku would probably grow my brain, but at what price? How much humiliation do I want to experience for a few new synapses?

I used to play "Angry Birds,"but I stopped. The object of the game is to launch various kinds of birds --each with a different flight pattern -- at a scaffold made of cement blocks, under which sweet-faced pigs are hiding. You're trying to knock down the scaffolding and crush the pigs. I liked it at first, the way I used to like murder mysteries before 9/11. But soon I came to see them both in the same light: something in me just can't be part of knocking down a building, not even a cartoon one. The pigs are innocent. They don't deserve to die.

I hear that young people in the military are acquitting themselves well in the current state-of-the-art form of warfare, the launching of drones. I hear that this is because they have played these games since childhood, and they've gotten really good at it. They can sit in a room somewhere in Utah and kill people half a world away. They can pinpoint their targets with great precision: this car, on this block of this street, at this time. But people who aren't targets die in these attacks, too, not just the bad guys: women and children and old people. Often Good Samaritans die in them, having rushed to the scene of a strike only to be felled by a second one. They seem bloodless from an installation in Utah, but they are bloodless only for us. They feel safe to us, because no Americans die in drone attacks. But how safe is it, really, if we cause a foreign sky to bristle daily with death, death which may at any moment dive to the ground and slaughter the innocent along with the guilty? Will any amount of simultaneous kindly nation-building gestures make up for consistently having authored that terror? Judging from the monthly rise in "green on blue" casualties, it appears not.

People say our electronic devices endanger us by changing our brains, teaching them to prefer visual reality to real life. That may be; I used to have an amazing memory for phone numbers, and now I can barely tell you my own. But that's not a very dangerous danger. No, the real danger isn't when game life feels real. It's when real life feels like a game.
Copyright © 2018 Barbara Crafton
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