mirthless (worthless) gaming

I got together with friends and played board games a record-breaking three times this weekend. All three with a slightly different group of friends, although there were a few overlapping people at each event, I don’t think anyone else (aside from me) was at all three. All three events were fun, and I got a much needed injection of board gaming into my otherwise game-less life as of late. But I hadn’t planned on spending that much of my three-day weekend on board games.

My good friend Beth was in town, and she prompted yesterday’s game event, or I probably would have stopped after game night number two. Mostly because of the event I’m about to relate in this post. I basically want to talk about an incident that happened at that second game night. Read on for the details.

There was one friend of ours there (he shall remain nameless, although I’m sure he knows who he is, and anyone at this particular event also knows who I’m talking about) who was in a particularly sour mood. (He admitted as much, so this is not a subjective observation.) Unfortunately, I was not very sensitive to this mood, and, honestly, was also a bit out-of-sorts myself, and may have been less than 100% pleasant to be around. Who knows.

So we were in the middle of playing a very simple game (a Domino variant called Mexican Train), which seemed to be just about everyone’s speed, but which was also taking an incredibly long time to finish, (There was also a game of Carcassonne going on elsewhere, and those players had time to finish their game and then play a full game of Ticket To Ride before we were finished.) when there was an incident that I will now relate that ruined the entire night for me. A night which was otherwise a good time, and an event which, from outside of my head, may have appeared to go down quite different from the way I experienced it.

I will preface this story by saying that, at all of these game parties, there is usually a lot of laughter. I do occasionally get together with very “serious” gamers, but these are not them. We laugh, we joke around, there is good-natured ribbing and usually quite innocuous cajoling along with the expected half-joking pissing and moaning when you aren’t winning the game, and equally half-joking bravado when you are.

That is, there was laughter, until this incident.

Here’s how it went down: This friend has it in his head that I laugh every time I’m “screwing” someone in the game. I adamantly think that is not true, but his pointing it out only seemed to make it worse. I am certainly not denying that I do laugh sometimes when this is the case, but I don’t feel like it’s wrong to do so. I think I probably just laugh when I feel like something I’ve done in the game is particularly clever or advantageous, and yes, sometimes that gameplay is also disadvantageous to other players, but I argue that this is definitely not the only time I’m laughing, and that my laughter in that case is not mean-spirited or directed at the person I’m screwing. I definitely don’t feel like I’m laughing AT anybody, and I think I laugh just as much when it’s me that’s getting the brunt of the “screwing”. Again, I still don’t see what’s wrong with laughing. Maybe I could see how laughing would be inappropriate if I was laughing when someone else did something stupid in the game, but I want to make it clear that this is NOT what my friend is saying I do. I’m laughing at my own actions, not those of another player.

Anyway, competition is part of what makes it a game, and I see no reason to pretend that we are not being competitive. I’m certainly not going to apologize for it. (Note: This was Dominos we were playing, and often you didn’t even have a choice but to hurt someone if you had the wrong domino. It wasn’t like I was playing particularly cut-throat or anything, in fact, just the opposite. I think everyone was going out of their way to make it a “friendly” game, probably because after an hour or two, nobody was really having any fun just in the game itself. It was actually quite a bit before the incident that I felt the game was stretching on, and I wasn’t having any fun… In retrospect, I think we were probably all feeling that way. I don’t really know, but at this point I was simply playing out of politeness, which may have contributed to the general tension that led to this incident.)

This particular evening was the second time this friend had brought up this “habit” of mine, and after he mentioned it, he then decided to point it out whenever I laughed, which sort of made me feel “caught in the act”, even though I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong.

The problem was that, rather than tell him I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong, I just tried to “laugh it off”, which I think in my head was meant to point out that I thought his expectation of non-laughter was absurd. What was I supposed to say? “Yes, I will make an effort not to laugh from now on.” Clearly, he doesn’t share my opinion of the absurdity of his request. I am certain that he did want me to say exactly that sort of thing. I guess I really just didn’t want to get into an argument (or even discussion) about it, partially because he was clearly already in a bad mood, and partially because I didn’t want to bring the mood of the game down anymore than it already was. Laughing must have seemed like (perhaps obviously) the most inappropriate response possible, but I didn’t know what else to do.

It happened about two, maybe three times that he pointed it out, before the incident. I think what prompted the incident was that it suddenly became clear to me that everyone at the table was taking his side. He pointed out that I was laughed again, and flat out told me to stop laughing. (Note: It was not him that my actions in the game were “hurting” this time, and suddenly I got a very accusing look from the person my actions were hurting.) A couple of people made additional comments backing up my friend, and then it felt like everyone was looking at me like I was being an asshole for laughing.

I had already been trying to “laugh it off” and thus felt even more like an asshole. I felt guilty, even though somewhere inside I still felt it was not wrong for me to be laughing. I tried to bite my tongue, I tried to hold in my laughter, and what had started as a slight chuckle turned into the kind of belly laughter that makes your cheeks and side ache. My laughter was nervous laughter, uncomfortable laughter, and trying to make it stop, trying to hold it in was only making it worse. I couldn’t stop laughing.

My laughter was out of control.

Tears were streaming down my cheeks, and I felt very much that they were NOT tears of joy. I was holding up the game, and everyone was staring at me. I can vaguely remember perhaps one other time in my life when I laughed this hard and this unpleasantly, and it was in grade school, out of embarrassment when something horrible happened. (I honestly don’t remember what it was that triggered it, and it’s a very hazy memory without concrete details.) Anyway, I laughed, uncontrollably, in horrible agony, for maybe two minutes while everyone stared at me and probably thought I was being an asshole.

I don’t think anyone knew why I was laughing. Hell, I didn’t know why I was laughing. I just couldn’t stop, and it was horrible. I wanted to stop, and I tried to stop. I was trying to stop the entire time I was laughing. Maybe that’s what made it stretch on for so long.

When I finally did stop, after those kinds of breathy gasps that usually follow a heavy cry, I basically wiped my tears and tried to continue playing. Nobody talked about what had happened. Nobody really laughed for the rest of the game, and as near as I can tell, nobody was having any fun playing whatsoever. I know I wasn’t. I didn’t laugh again as far as I know, until later in the evening, when we were watching an incredibly stupid Cartoon Network show that someone put in. Even then, I felt like my laughter was painful, strained, somehow wrong. All mirth had been sucked completely out of the evening.

Incredibly, (only because Beth was in from out of town, and this is what she wanted to do), I agreed to play games again the following evening. I had a good time, and played some fun games. If that next evening hadn’t happened, I would probably be swearing off games right now.

I guess I’m writing this to explain to everyone what happened from my perspective. I feel stupid for not being able to articulate myself at the time, and I guess I still feel like I should be apologizing, even though intellectually, I don’t think I should need to.

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