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Sun 22 May 2022 by mskala Tags used:

When I was a child I always wanted to invent games. As I got older I became more and more disheartened by the number of my games that were never actually played, and in fact the larger pattern of my work going unused has been an issue for me throughout my life. But Spywar was one of my most successful childhood games.

I'm not sure I remember all the rules or would want to bother trying to recover them today, but I remember clearly that Spywar was basically a variation on Capture the Flag optimized for a small number of players, and especially for an odd number of players - because I had two sisters and it was pretty often the case that we needed a game three children could play. Spywar was barely possible with three, but it worked reasonably well with four or five players, and not many outdoor running-around games do. It worked well enough that it achieved what was for me the holy grail of game popularity: other children occasionally played Spywar even when I wasn't there with them.

Part of being a child is that sometimes you're expected to play with a group of random other children you don't know and didn't choose, because your and their parents are having a meeting or something. I remember one time being in such a group with I think both my sisters and several other kids, some we knew and others who were strangers to us. We had to find something to do. Someone - I think it wasn't even me - said, let's play Spywar! And one of the boys I hadn't met before vetoed the idea.

No, no! We can't do that, because I'm not allowed to play with guns.

Wait, what?

It was such a bizarre statement that for half a second I was confused enough to think he might somehow be talking about real guns, but it didn't take long to connect the dots. After a little bit of discussion, I and probably all the older children present (we the older children being maybe ten to twelve years old; the group also included little sisters and brothers who were younger) had a pretty clear understanding of the way things were in that household. We were dealing with someone who quite reasonably expected that he would be punished if he so much as pointed his finger at another child and said "bang." His parents had ideas about "non-violence." Today they might get to a similar destination by departing from "gender expression" instead, but this was the 1980s.

Of course Spywar doesn't involve "guns," or weapons at all. It's a running-around tag game. I called it "Spywar" because I had to call it something, and from my point of view the important part of the name was spy - I was trying to emphasize the idea of stealth and sneaking onto the opposing team's side undetected (which never actually worked, but never mind). Spywar does have flags in it, and borders between territories. I guess if you really stretch you can say that those things and the letters W-A-R in the name do give it more than zero amount of connection to real-life armed conflict between nation-states and therefore to "guns." But I thought at the time and still think that concluding just from the name in context that something called "Spywar" would obviously and necessarily contravene a prohibition on playing with guns, was a Hell of a stretch.

It was no use explaining that there are no guns in Spywar. We tried, but the boy was adamant that anything named Spywar was out of the question and we had to do something else because he mustn't play with guns. If I'd really been thinking on my feet I might have been able to invent a brand new game on the spot, which would have a name totally different from Spywar and might be basically a variation on Capture the Flag optimized for a small number of players and especially for an odd number of players while certainly not involving any guns... but I didn't think of that at the time, and it would have been hard to carry it off, selling the idea to the group while also ensuring that other kids who already knew how to play Spywar would keep their big mouths shut. We ended up having to play something else entirely, I forget what.

There was no follow-up. I don't think I met that particular child again. I sometimes wonder about him, and in particular, how "guns" may have figured in his subsequent adult life.

In however many years of playing Spywar before and after this incident I never encountered anybody else who thought from the name that it was likely, let alone certain, we would need "guns" to play. Most children just don't think about guns that much. It was striking, even to me as a child myself, that there was only one person present who was thinking about guns, bringing the subject of guns into a conversation where they had not been previously mentioned, making a bizarre logical leap to guess (and subsequently, to insist against evidence) that an unfamiliar game ought to involve guns, and so on.

And it sure didn't seem to be a coincidence that that one person was exactly the one whose parents had ideas about children "playing with guns." The rest of us maybe also had strange parents in other ways because everybody does; many other parents in the 1980s including my own were at least unenthusiastic about encouraging children to play with toy guns; but nobody else present that day laboured under such an absolute prohibition, and nobody else seemed to be fascinated by the very concept of "guns." It was easy to perceive a causal connection there and to guess in which direction it went.

There are those who say all cops are bastards, but I figure the worst bastard is the cop inside your head. This boy's parents were not within earshot. If we had gone ahead and played Spywar, even if it had involved pretend guns, no adults would have needed to know. But he seemed to have the cop in his head telling him what he could and couldn't do even when he'd be unlikely to be caught, and moreover, unlikely to be caught doing something that was not against the rule anyway.

Clinging to the prohibition of playing with guns after being informed that there simply are no guns in Spywar, is pretty hard to justify on grounds of simple conscientiousness. At the very outside margin maybe we could say he was afraid his parents wouldn't understand, and wouldn't believe when told, that Spywar didn't involve guns, and so he didn't want to take the risk of playing a game whose name they might misinterpret. It is true that some parents really are as unreasonable as that.

But it was like he loved the cop inside his head. He didn't seem to want to "play with guns" anyway; what he wanted more was to be prohibited from playing Spywar, with the incidental effect of also preventing the rest of us from playing Spywar. Nearly everything people do is done to prove what kind of person they are, and I think that's what was going on here. He was proud of it as an identity thing that he was not only not allowed to "play with guns" but that he was the kind of person to be not allowed to "play with guns," better than others who were allowed to do so - and I think he couldn't have been more than ten years old at the time. How quickly we learn!

Parental big ideas about "non-violence" and "playing with guns" became more mainstream in the years subsequent to this incident. In particular, the USA passed something called the Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994 originally aimed at the sadly genuine problem of teenagers bringing real guns to school, and by the 2010s that law, combined with the "zero-tolerance" concept popular at the time, and the steady erosion of hypothetical thinking among adults, led to stuff like six-year-olds being suspended from school for literally the "point finger and say 'bang'" act. Link describes one, but there were multiple cases of six-year-olds suspended for that in the USA in the 2010s.

I want to emphasize that the time and place where I encountered the kid who couldn't play Spywar was a semi-rural area of Canada in the 1980s, and in that context "not allowed to play with guns" carried to such an extreme was not a normal or mainstream thing.

But it also wasn't completely outside of our world. Suppose instead he had insisted upon "I'm not allowed to petticoat Worcestershire geranium." That would have made even less sense, and we the other children would have reacted differently to that from how we did react in the event. What he said about playing with guns didn't make much sense to us but it did make more than zero sense. We maybe hadn't met another child with that absolute prohibition. But we kind of had an idea of what he was talking about, and a mental picture of the kind of parents who would be behind it and the fact that such parents really did exist. We had encountered people like that before even if not any others who carried it to such an extreme. Even as 10- and 12-year-olds we knew about the bigger picture that "I'm not allowed to play with guns" would fit into.

The laws enforced by the cop in the child's head are different today from what they were in the 1980s, but not all that much has changed. The tribal signifiers of the adult world were visited upon us even though nobody physically present was older than about twelve, and that still happens to children today, more than 30 years later. This thing is not a new thing and it wasn't created by the Net.


Whereas my kid isn't allowed to misspell Worcestershire by adding an h. I have to take a hard line on these things, because they want to live in Scotland after university, and Hadrian's wall was built to provide protection in the other direction ;P
kiwano - 2022-05-22 19:47
I've made the correction. We have to get the spelling right so that readers will know how to pronounce the word.
Matthew Skala - 2022-05-23 04:28

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