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Friday, September 26, 2008

The Importance of Games: Avunculitis

My nephew Danny, practically becoming an old man himself these days, was on my mind last week. I was reminiscing about those halcyon days when I lived in Kingston and took my job as an uncle quite seriously.

Dan was a kid possessed with remarkable dexterity. Skateboarding, snowboarding and showboating came naturally to him. As a teen, he could add an acrobatic flair to any mundane activity. Within a week of acquiring a trampoline, he was already bouncing twelve feet in the air and doing double back flips. He was also an aspiring drummer who would pound out a beat on anything nearby: the wall, his pocket full of loose change, the plate you were trying to eat dinner off... anything. He was equal parts maddening and adorable.

I taught him to play hackeysack. It was his kind of game: a test of grace and skillfulness... and not competitive (he shied away from team sports.) He closed the skill gap from my ten-year head start within a few weeks. And within months, he was executing all kinds of tricks I could never get the hang of. But we continued to play regularly anyway. It was fun. It was exercise. It was an excuse to play outside and talk to each other.

Then he made up a game and taught it to me. He dubbed it "bonus mode"... a name swiped from a common component of Nintendo video games. It was similar in concept to hackeysack. It featured the same dynamic of cooperative showmanship and gravity-defying challenge. But in bonus mode, hands were used instead of feet. Instead of deftly bouncing a bean-stuffed sack into the air with your knees and feet, the players try to keep a ball aloft while passing it back and forth with their hands. The challenge came from the game's only real rule: you were never allowed to directly oppose the momentum of the ball. Even the goal of not letting the ball touch the ground stemmed from this rule... after all, if the ball hit the ground, it's momentum would bounce violently back in the other direction. Everything had to be circular. To reroute the ball back to your teammate, you had to employ Tai Chi style swirling motions. Spinning and slinging patterns of movement became our signature moves. It was a silent dance. After all, sound was usually the result of impact... and this game was designed to eliminate any sense of impact. All our efforts went into making these complex circular redirections of energy look effortless.

At the same time, Dan was a master at introducing new techniques... scooping the ball between his legs or behind his back... popping it up into the air and catching it again on the way down, then funneling that momentum into a lob back in my direction. He created illusions by pretending that the density of the ball was so great that it spun him around or dropped him to the ground before he could slingshot it back around to me.

This was the perfect forum for him to shine... and I feel greatly blessed that we were able to share these moments. There were a lot of chips stacked against him as he grew up... but the time we spent playing these games was pure happiness. It was one of the only venues where he got to make the rules, and success was predicated on things he was actually quite good at.

Plus, I think bonus mode was a pretty cool game. I miss playing it.

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At 9/27/2008 03:18:00 AM, Blogger molly said...

Ooh, I like that version!


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