Miércoles 12 de Julio de 2006, Ip nº 161

Four square for grown-ups?
Por Christopher Noxon

I had a plan. It was a good plan, a solid plan, one I felt sure would outfox and overwhelm the champion. When the time came for our big match, I'd step forward timidly, my expression and stance a picture of submission. Maybe I'd twitch. Then with a go-ahead from the ref, I'd unleash a devastating assault.

Rock, rock, rock.

The mighty fist of rock, thrown three times to the exclusion of a single peaceful paper or crafty scissors -- it was a reckless move, aggressive and obnoxious and sure to rattle the battle-hardened winner of the first annual $50,000 USA Rock Paper Scissors League championship.

That's right: They're now giving 50 grand to players of rock paper scissors, a kids game that's mostly played to settle such high-stakes disputes as who rides shotgun. Ridiculous, I know. But I can't help it -- I feel an irrational attachment to any game that poses a negligible risk of injury and allows me to drink margaritas while playing it. So even though I hadn't qualified for the tournament and had no chance of actually taking home the big money, I did the next-best thing: I worked out a deal to fly to Vegas and play the winner in a best-of-three showdown.

I'd always thought of rock paper scissors as a game of pure chance, so I was puzzled at the discovery of what is called "advanced RPS strategy." Along with a bestselling strategy guide, self-styled RPS experts claim to possess mathematical and even spiritual techniques that can be used to read an opponent and beat the odds. "It's like any great sport," explained tournament promoter Matti Leshem. "When you're well prepared and in the zone and totally focused, you can feel what your opponent is going to throw."

Lacking the time or patience to develop the sort of Jedi oneness with the universe Leshem described, I settled for a quick primer on basic "combination moves" like the Scissor Sandwich (paper, scissor, paper) and the Fistful of Dollars (rock, paper, paper), before deciding on the balls-out gambit known as the Avalanche (rock, rock rock). He'd never know what hit him.

All that pre-game confidence was shaken, however, just before the match when I fell into a conversation with an RPS veteran who'd made it to the final eight from a field of 500. "If all your moves are set in advance, you're fried," advised Kristina Hartman, a 29-year-old pharmaceutical sales rep in a fetching white cowboy hat. Hartman claimed her IQ had been tested at 172, all the better for employing "profiling strategies" and "pattern algorithms." Now the Mensa Cowgirl let me in on a secret: Any experienced RPS player would see my all-rock routine coming a mile away. My genius plan, it turned out, was a total rookie move.


The specter of 500 adults competing in a televised rock paper scissors tournament may be disturbing -- one local columnist took it as proof that "the apocalypse is here" -- but it's not, in fact, all that unusual. Rock paper scissors is just one of many childhood pastimes that have been enthusiastically reclaimed in recent years by adults who should have, by any traditional standard, outgrown such juvenile nonsense eons ago.

Remember four square? That recess favorite in which you bounce a red playground ball around a blacktop grid? More than a dozen teams now compete in a New England adults-only league. New Yorkers now relive the glories of their window-smashing youth in one of three adult stickball leagues. Jump-rope is the specialty of Double Duchess, a California group whose members do acrobatic routines dressed in Catholic schoolgirl uniforms. Then there's dodgeball, the gladiator contest of the schoolyard set that has, in a strange sort of media feedback loop, become a near-exact reproduction of the semipro fringe sport depicted as absurd comedy in the 2005 Ben Stiller-Vince Vaughn comedy "Dodgeball." There's now an International Dodgeball Federation, an annual championship tournament and talk about introducing dodgeball as an Olympic event.

Easy to mock, absolutely. What's next: Candyland endorsement deals, ESPN hopscotch, skipping footwear by Nike? Regarded in passing, such games look kooky at best, and at worst pathetic. I mean, really: Have we become so desperate to recapture some remnant of our carefree childhoods that we'll ditch all vestiges of dignity the moment some geek in a SpongeBob shirt calls out, Olley olley oxen free?

But I'm not sure it's as sad as all that. To be perfectly honest, I was weirdly thrilled to learn that adults were reclaiming games I remembered from childhood, even if not all my memories were fond. One never quite recovers from the exquisite pain of waiting to be picked for P.E. and realizing it's just you, the chubby kids and the scab-eaters.

Still, I hadn't actually played most of these games since I was a kid, and the fact that they've been simultaneously revived by adults mostly left me mystified. What was going on here? What were so many otherwise reasonable adults getting out of games designed to satisfy the pint-size capabilities of children? Weren't these games mind-numbingly easy, or else so dependent on luck that winners were mostly arbitrary? And so I set out on a mission: to fan out across the country and go head-to-head with the most dedicated adult players of a few choice kid games.


StreetWars is the latest, adult-geared incarnation of Assassin, a role-playing game that combines the strategy of hide-and-seek with the soft-core violence of paintball, and which has long been popular in summer camps and on college campuses. After studying my mark's profile, I now had three days to track down this total stranger and use the water-based weapon of my choice to take him out. I was entering the game late, admitted as a "rogue assassin" to help thin a field that had started three weeks earlier with 200 players. As such, I had the luxury of not being a target myself. But I had to abide by the same ground rules that applied to all players -- I couldn't attack my target at work, on public transportation or in a bar; among their many other charms, kid games played by adults offer a fine excuse to hook up with a bunch of like-minded adults and get loaded.


I may be a terrible assassin, but it just so happens I'm an outstanding zombie. This I learned one balmy evening a few days later, charging through a public park with my eyes rolled back in my head and arms outstretched in the classic zombie pose, picking off one competitor after another. The game was Zombie Tag, a variation of the venerable kid game in which "it" is recast as a zombie who turns everyone he touches into fellow members of the undead.

As dorky and dignity-stripping as it sounds, tag is also, it turns out, a hell of a lot of fun. Yes, there's some cringe-inducing make-believe involved, but once all traces of self-consciousness are stripped away, all that's left is the engrossing, primal thrill of chasing down packs of other people and dodging pursuers hot on your heels. It can even get pretty rough. After my early triumph as a Zombie, I got reckless in a game of Octopus Tag, in which tagged players sit on the ground and flail at free players. Dashing away from a 40-something videographer, I wheeled into the path of a fellow Octopus, who snagged my passing foot and sent me skidding to the turf. A short while later, in the final stages of Caramel Corn Tag, in which the "its" link arms in a giant chain, I found myself cornered by a phalanx of advancing players, all my possible routes of escape suddenly cut off. So I did what came naturally: I crumpled down into a fetal position and let out what I hoped was a mature, manly whimper.


The Titans are one of 30 teams in the Norfolk area and one of 1,000 in the World Adult Kickball Association, an international league with an official line of merchandise, a lineup of corporate sponsors (Miller Lite: the official beer of kickball!) and, in a final sign of its maturity, legal troubles. (WAKA filed a copyright infringement suit in February against DCKickball, one of several upstart leagues attempting to muscle into the booming adult kickball market.)

This was kickball as I'd never imagined. There were pre-game drills, rosters, umpires, team chants and a fellow on the sidelines introduced as a "kicking strategist." My other new teammates included a scrappy car customizer, a maternal real estate investor and an earnest cub reporter for a local newspaper. Others were classic jocks and military types, but looking around at the pitcher in the yellow afro wig and the girl at first base with the feather boa, I got the sense that most were the sorts of theatrical geeks and hipsters who never much cared for high school athletics but who still had a thing or two to prove on the field. "Three up!" hollered the 6-foot-7 team captain, an airline manager named Jeff. "Three down!" came the team's thunderous reply. It was all very gung-ho, but also decidedly goofy. This was a team, after all, that competed in the national championships with matching purple Mohawks. In a misguided attempt to fit in, my pre-game warmup included the application of a thick coat of purple fluorescent hair spray.


Nursing a beer while my teammates got down to a serious night of partying and flirting, it struck me that I'd learned what I needed to know about the appeal of kid games to adults. Of course kid games are ridiculous; they can also be incredibly involving and competitive, as evidenced by the number of RPS Bobby Fishers and kickball Wilt Chamberlains, die-hards whose obsessions have driven them far through the looking glass, long past any trace of irony or nostalgia. But all in all, fun is the only real point of these games. Remember fun? That's that engrossing, anarchic thing that began seeping out of most professional sports around the time of free agent drafts, merchandise tie-ins and doping scandals, the thing that comes so naturally to kids and that adults lost sight of the moment recreation became all about competition, self-improvement and status-accrual. After all, no matter how much money and meaning we invest in our tennis serve or whether the Patriots make the playoffs, we all know that none of it actually matters. All sports are ultimately ridiculous. The beauty of kid games is how they make a mockery of all attempts to take any of this shit too seriously.

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  28/06/2006. Salon.com.