Dumb Games, or “Why I Sometimes Yearn To Punch You”

or "the steady self-destruction of an irish boy" take your pick
[Brendan returns! The author of Rooky Errors: A Story of Chess and The Correct Way to Scratch is back, this time talking about Dumb Games. Enjoy, everyone.]

“Did you ever play ‘Butt Comin’ at Ye’?” said Colly. We were walking through Lurgan, my hometown, and we had begun to talk about some of the more esoteric memories of our shared childhood. Fifty metres away, the town’s police station rose like a fortress out of the street, surrounded in green sheets of amoured metal, steel grates and breezeblock walls the colour of the Irish sky. We walked on past it.

“Butt comin’ at ye?” I said.

“Dave and I used to play it. You finish smoking your cigarette and you say ‘here Dave, butt comin’ at ye’ and then you just…”

He mimed flicking a cigarette. I laughed.

“How fucking dangerous, like,” he said, laughing. “Just flicking glowing cigarette butts at your mates.”

I never played this game, if it can be called a ‘game’. But I know where and when it was played. It was mostly enjoyed at the Gaeltacht (pronounced “Gail-tawkt”), a summer camp for learning the Irish language. For three weeks school children from all over the North descend on areas of Ireland where the locals speak predominantly in the old tongue. They stay with families, as many as a dozen girls or boys to a single house, and you go to class for three hours every day before doing some more activities. Sports, crafts, drama, ceili dancing. (No, really, there’s a dedicated time for learning how to dance the Waves of Tory, which is fun in its own way. But mostly, it is just a good excuse to hold somebody’s hand). If the headmaster of the school hears you speaking English, he will give you a comprehensive dressing-down as Gaelige. Speaking English is frowned upon.

But there’s another side to the Gaeltacht, which I attended myself for four confusing years in a row. A culture that is mirrored in playgrounds and residential streets around the world. The subculture of dumb games. ‘Butt Comin’ at Ye’ is just one of the pastimes this global mob of children has created. As a group, the hallions of the Gaeltacht represented the cutting edge of idiotic gaming. Too impatient to invent complex rules and too young to care about the consequence of violent objectives, we cradled that weird, obscure culture of childhood to our bosom and sought solace, as if we needed it, in the ambiguous rulesets of increasingly aggressive classics.

Slapsies was a firm favourite – the game of slapping and avoiding your opponents hands until they are raw, the ultimate loser being the first to give in to the pain. Or Knuckles (the coinless variant) which is the same principle only instead of slapping, you are cracking the top of your opponent’s fist with your knuckles. (The coin variant, aka ‘Bloody Knuckles’, involves taking turns to keep a spinning coin from falling by flicking it onwards. If the coin falls, or is pinged from the playing surface by an overzealous middle finger, the player responsible has to put their fist on the table and submit to the coin being slid into their knuckles at speed. This too is classified as an endurance sport).

Yet ‘Butt Comin’ at Ye’ was new to me, even in my mid-twenties. I pondered why it had passed me by. I didn’t smoke, that was one reason. But it also straddled the line between a game and a custom, a unpredictable and fundamentally violent childish ritual. Like holding your hand beneath your waist and making a circle with your fingers, and if your friend looks at it, you get to punch them once “for free”. These were the proto-games. Expressions of an aggressive energy too mundane or instinctive to redirect into anything productive. In the testosterone-infused hallways of my all-boys school these half-games were proliferated to extreme levels and they mutated, like cyberweapons, as they passed from class to class.

The ‘Free Hit’ was a phenomenon known to many of us. There are panels on the ground in the UK that lead to water valves for the fire services to use in an emergency. In America, these are the small, iconic red pillars that famously serve as dog toilets. In Britain and Northern Ireland, they are simple metal panels that read “FH”, for fire hydrant. One day, in a time and place we may never know, an equally unknown inventor decided that “FH” did not stand for “fire hydrant” but for “free hit”. Meaning that if you witness your friend accidentally stepping on one of these “FH” panels, you receive the automatic and irrevocable bonus of being able to punch them as hard as you are physically able, without any recourse, reprimand or retaliation. This is enshrined in the unwritten constitution of children and teenagers, which normally states that if one is struck, one may strike back just as hard BUT NO HARDER. I do not know if the practice of the ‘Free Hit’ has spread beyond the confines of my homeland and I have mixed feelings about resurrecting its memory here, in the contagious form of “journalism”.

It is perhaps unsurprising that teachers and headmasters fought a constant battle against such creations. There is an arms race that exists between children and adults. The comparison with cyberweapons development is not made for comic effect. The boys of my school fulfilled the role of hackers, constantly inventing or adopting new ways to self-destruct far faster than the adults could “patch” their wards with the instructions and rules that would surely one day, according to their mandate, result in an orderly and civilised student body. The ‘Riots’ were one example of such a development. But to talk about the ‘Riots’ I first need to talk about handball.

Dumb Games, or "Why I Sometimes Yearn To Punch You"

Handball is a Gaelic sport, different from the game of Olympic handball. It is essentially squash but against three walls and instead of using a racket, you use your palm or a balled fist. It is played in a concrete court known as a handball alley. There were three such alleys in my school. Two large alleys, set back to back plus a smaller alley to one side, with stone seating for observers. During my incarceration, some enterprising individual, I do not know who, discovered that if he threw a Coca-Cola can half-filled with cola (or water) over the wall at one side of the alley, the unseen denizens of the handball alley opposite would launch it back. Thus, the ‘Riots’ were born. The purpose of being in the alleys was transformed from the noble game of handball into a game of avoiding cans, plastic bottles, footballs and other hard objects as they rained down upon you, while simultaneously finding enough time to scramble to the water fountains in order to refill your ordinance with the weight they needed to mount a successful offensive volley of your own. The teachers were not yet aware of this development.

One day, I was walking toward the alleys, mostly ignoring the sounds of jovial rioting, when I heard a particularly chilling cry of pain. This was not the cry of a rioter struck down by the blow of a Fanta can to the sternum. It was the cry, I discovered, of a senior boy who had dislocated his shoulder because of his own particularly fierce throw. The school nurse was quickly on the scene and within days the ‘Riots’ were top of the administration’s anti-dumbgames agenda. Teachers were instructed to observe the alleys. The boys lost their appetite.

But the War on Dumb cannot be won. The junior boys, many of them classmates of mine, relocated to a narrow passage that ran, like a trench, below the sightlines of the structures above. This was an alley that was meant as an actual alleyway, as opposed to one built for an archaic Irish sport. Here they happened upon a more streamlined variant of ‘Riots’ which was never given, as far as I know, any actual name. There was no wall between “sides”, so the aim was simply to throw and strike. But because a can or bottle reaching out of the trench and into the sky would be too obvious, and because the lack of an obstructing wall made it seem unsporting, the boys resorted to only using a tennis ball, bouncing ball, or even a handball to take turns launching it at the opposition. It should be obvious that a handball, thrown at high speed, and impacting your body with the force of a baseball pitch, is a sensation none of the boys on either “team” wanted to experience. But the space of the alleyway was so narrow, and the volume of players so high, that total avoidance was not possible. This led to wild scrambles, jostles and mercenary human shield tactics which would inevitably leave players suffering cuts, grazes and injuries to the groin, universally regarded as lamentable and inevitable. In time, this unnamed game was also shut down and the fervour for ‘Riots’ styled activities dissipated among my year group. But I was surprised, even encouraged, to discover, in the year of my release, a small cell of junior boys blasting a football at one another from either end of the same trench. They had independently recreated a spin-off of the dumb game that we, years before, had been forced to abandon.

It is easy, given all this backstory, to conclude that the dumbness of games is a realm exclusive to children. Yet, as we aged into universityhood, the stupid violence of our games simply took on another form. Gone was the overt aggressiveness, gone the mandatory inducement of pain. There was no more thirst for blood, only a thirst for alcohol.

Quinns has covered drinking games before. These are inevitably an extension of our childhood. The very combination of an 18 (or 21) plus activity with a playful and ridiculous nature suggests that drinking games are the preserve of an in-between culture. Old enough to indulge in adult activities, young enough to still want to play. The dumbness of our childhood follows us into this seam. As a household, my university mates and I invented ‘Big Card Rumble’, a simple card game in which highest and lowest card always drink but anyone who picks up a particular royal card (say, the Jack) must invent a rule. It is ‘Kings’ or ‘Ring of Fire’ stripped down to its essential format. The idea is that you play through the deck multiple times, sometimes introducing other royals as newly appointed ‘make-up-a-rule’ cards. Rules therefore keep accumulating, they topple over one another and interact, in such a way that allocating drinks becomes a type of sentencing that must be calculated, by interpreting the increasingly intertwining decrees. Arguments over which rule takes precedence or which rules cancel out the others are frequent. It is a game of legality, of case law and formal appeals processes. We called it ‘Big Card Rumble’ because the only deck of cards we had at the time was a set of giant novelty ones. To this day, if we were to assemble and play again, with a standard-sized deck of cards, the game would be called by its alternate title: ‘Little Card Rumble’.

Yet even by the standards of drinking games, Big Card Rumble is intelligent. The drinking games I am most fond of, even now, are the dumbest. They are more accurately described as jokes. One night, at the gathering of a tribe of student housemates we had allied ourselves with, the host inserted the DVD of the Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring and instructed us on the LotR drinking game, the aim of which is to drink every time you hear the word “ring” or “rings” or see the image of a ring or rings. Here is the first five minutes of the movie.

There are other similar games. The Withnail and I drinking game is famous for suggesting that the viewer take a drink every time the main characters take one. And if you are feeling brave, you can even try to match the types of drink they take. This is a particularly dumb game. It almost certainly includes enough units of alcohol to poison and kill a human.

a particularly dumb game

On another occasion, Quinns and I sat down to watch the original Mad Max (seen above), which neither of us had seen. We postulated, as we lay on our comfortable sofas and turned the volume up, that a Mad Max drinking game was possible. The rules would be simple: Drink every time Max gets Mad. But fans of the post-apocalyptic romp will point out that Max, contrary to the title, does not get mad very often, in neither sense of the word. Not until the last half hour does he even show any signs of mental instability or irritability. “Max,” as our friend Tom later pointed out to me, “is actually quite a reasonable man.”

Quinns and I did not get drunk that night. And on some level that is symbolic of a sobering that has been occurring to me as the more youthful years of my life pass. Not in any literal sense. I’m drunk right now. But a metaphorical sobering out of the dumbness of childhood and into the sensible world of grown-up games. The chaos and violence of childhood has steadily been replaced with the passive-aggressive to-ing and fro-ing of wood, coal and workers on a colourful representation of europe. Gone are the days when, upon seeing a yellow car, I can freely punch whoever is nearby in the arm, according to the legislation of the playground. Now, I simply have to let it pass, and nod my head vacantly at whatever the ignoramus next to me is saying. Probably something about the rain, or the raindrops, or why does it always rain in Britain, chalice of Christ, I do not care.

We are in an era of incredible games, both video and board. The intelligence with which board games in particular are crafted consistently astounds me. From the intricately complex and constantly expanding asymmetry of Netrunner, to the deceptive simplicity and hidden ingenuity of Hive. Even the social manipulation of Resistance, Werewolf, and Two Rooms and a Boom suggests an sharpness that can’t be rivalled by current videogames developers. All these games are, by design, the result of intellectual heroics, but they also reward acuity in their players. And I love that. But there are times when I want to feel the flow of my own primitive idiocy. Or simply forget that I have a brain at all. I do not think that I am alone in this. I know I am not the only one here with memories of dumb games.

In my hometown, Colly walks alongside me. Mercifully, he is not currently smoking.

“And ‘My Leg’s Achin’” he says.

“Your what?”

“That was another one,” he says. “‘My Leg’s Achin’. You just punch each other in the leg.”

“Until someone gives up?”

“Aye. Just like…”

He mimes hitting someone in the thigh, with a clandestine, low swing of his knuckles. He laughs.

When I get back to London, I will go to a birthday party. My journalistic colleague Alice O’Connor, of RPS fame, will be there. By the time I leave the party I shall have been defeated in my first game of My Leg’s Achin. I will leave bruised. I will leave happy. But most importantly, I will leave dumb.