From ornery Old English to Nasty Middle English all the way through happy-go-lucky contemporary English, the word "game" has traditionally meant amusement, pleasure, fun. Sure, maybe you didn't exactly have the time of your life getting whomped in marathon Monopoly games, but then its the thought that counts, isn't it.
All this, however, may soon change. From out of California, where everything surely even the end of the world, inevitably happens first, new kinds of games are advancing on an unsuspecting world.
Instead of mere enjoyment, they offer nothing less than "a new way of life for both of you." Instead of guaranteeing entertainment, they guarantee to "improve your relationship - or your money refunded." Instead of letting you have some fun, whatever that is these days, they offer "meaningful pleasurable interpersonal adventures," plus sober advice on how to live life to the hilt. It's certainly a long way from Parchesi.
What is one to make of intimacy, whose ads, featuring a terribly happy couple laughing themselves silly on a Naugahide souch, promise "IN JUST A FEW HOURS, you will experience and closeness that could have taken years!" This, the ad promises, is hardly "one of those toy store board-and-dice deals to amuse your friends on Saturday night." It's enough to make you want to hide under the nearest pinball machine.
And then there's the Ungame, which dares to ask the question, "Can a game save a life? Prevent a bad marriage? Bring a father and son closer together? No promises are made, but the Ungame does claim to have "improved the quality of life for thousands of people."
In truth thousands of people, some 180,000 at last count, have purchased the Ungame in the short time it's been professionally marketed and its pleased promoters feel that sales approaching 1 million per year are a reasonable expectation. If a recent article in Human Behavior magazine is to be believed, games never were all that innocent anyhow. The first American board games had squares labeled truth, honor, disgrace and poverty and unerringly mirrored the cheerless 19th-century society they sprang from: "plous, preachy and about as entertaining as an hour with a Presbyterian hymnal" and "even poor was simply propaganda for the free enterprise system.
In fact, games as a whole, argues Brian Sutton-Smith, professor of psychology and education at Columbia University's Teacher's College and a world authority on the subject, are nothing more than "model of power, its tactics and relationships. Through them, people learn social strategies - not what schools teach but, as one of the new games suggests, how to lie, cheat and steal."
Who knows what people are learning from Intimacy, "America's provocative new adult communication game," which is so far from a board game it doesn't have a borad, let alone little houses, hotels, dice or minature motor cars. All it has is one tape cassette and a warning on the package: "Not fecommended for persons under 18 years old."
On that tape are a series of 14 "episodes." Your guide is a terribly mellow male voice which lets you know right off that nothing less than a "greater feeling of awareness and closeness" is in store for the plucky couple capable of making it through all 14.
The episodes start off rather timidly: Number One has you explaining to your partner the ways you are not the person you would like to be, Number Two has you ask a question to which "you really want a completely honest answer." Pretty tame stuff, right, but wait till you hit Number Six.
There are some benighted folks, the voice woefully informs us at that point, for whom the human body represents, "sadly, a vehicle of fear." So please be prepared to "caress the part of your body of which you are the most proud, while simultaneously explaining to your partner why you are proud of it" And "please remember laughter can often serve to inhibit others."
Naturally, it's all downhill from there, with succeeding episodes requiring you to "stand before the other and specify the part of your body you would most like your partner to touch . . . approach your partner and hold him in a way you would like him to hold you . . . massgae the part of your partner's body which you believe he most dislikes . . . touch him in, a way that will please both of you," and soon.
It will come as no surprise to people who have gotten this far that the ultimate episode involves removing "that ond final barrier all highly socialized members of our society use to some extent," You guessed it, off come the clothes.
Richard Fife, the man who thought all this up, turns out to be a behavorial scientist and professor of manpower management at Cal State Long Beach as well as the owner of that melifluous taped voice. The audience for his game, he says, is not the swinging singles crowd, but "the people who go to Esalen, who are into sensitivity training, that kind of experience."
And yet, and yet, Fife weell knows - because his students tell him - that his game is being used as a kind of "sexual icebreaker. It's replaced "Come up and see my etchings," he says, adding in a moments of pleased excitement, "My game!" In fact, once they finish Intimacy, lots of peoplee seem to like to replay it in the nude. Which is okay by Fife, who says, "I think sex is legitimate function. It's as meaningful sa anything else."
None of this hanky-panky goes on with the Ungame, which is a much more serious afair all around. It even has a board any playing pieces, but the key to the experience are its two decks of "Tell It Likes It Is" cards.
First comes the yellow or "lighthearted fun" deck, which asks questions like "What would you do if you were invisible" and "Name two famous people you'd like to have for parents." And then, for heavier hitters, there's the deck intended "to gain deeper understanding," which asks "What four things are most important in your life" and "If you could hang a motto or saying in every home in the world, what would it be." Sitting around in a group and pondering these questions is what the Ungame is all about.
Rhea Zakich, the California woman who created the Ungame, says it all happened back in 1969 when she was ordered not to say word one for three months following throat surgery.
"When I thought that I would never talk again I wondered why it was so frustrating, why did it hurt so much to be silent," she says now. "So I put into the game as best I could what I would say if I could talk things I wanted to say to the world."
And friends, the world answered back. It's those letters. the letters from the little people that have made it all worthwhile.
In fact, Zalich gets 40 to 50 notes per day from satisfied players who "usually say the game has changed a relationship. I get many letters from fathers who say they learned more about their teen-agers in half an hour than in a year of normal relationships. This game can help people zero in on each other and go beyond superficial exchanges of conversation. It gets people into their feelings."
Zakich is quite aware that this is not the traditionl aim of games, but then she "never enjoyed competition. I came from a family of three brothers and I always lost. The Ungame isn't fun like rip-roaring, its fun like contentment. It's a new kind of fun."
Call it what you will, there is inevitably something strange about what games like Intimacy and the Ungame are about. Have people really reached the point where they can't enjoy closeness, can't relate to each other, can't even talk to each other, without a game telling them how to do it? Apparently so.
Richard Fife, Mr. Intimacy, says its his feeling that "the old protestant ethic has finally struck: Please for its own sake is not legitimate, even our games have to be functional. Even the athletes I met on camps get their bodies in shape and stay healthy not for fun, but in the hopes of getting a job."
And Ira Manson, president of Manson Western Corp., one of America's largest producers of professional psychological tests and also a retailer of Intimacy and the Ungame, thinks its all part of the current mania with having "a peak performance life."
"Our sense of fun has atrophled, people just can't entertain themselves anymore," he says. "I think we've had so much fun packaged for us maybe we're getting so we can't make our own fun anymore."
Yet Manson knows a trend when he sees one, and his company is getting ready to sell still other games in the same study vein. Take for instance Roll-a-Role described as a life-changing experience," sand Society Security, "not to be confused with any government agency, bureau or program," where one is promised "dividends of harmony, humor and a sense of being socially secure."
Tennis, anyone? Please.