Once upon a time, we thought Neopets was the most exciting development in gaming history. 17 years later, we have Pokemon Go.
I look back at my childhood and marvel at how primitive our modes of play were. Even before Pokemon cards, we had hopscotch and catching and Country Erasers.
For the uninitiated, Country Erasers was a highly competitive sport involving the cooption of other players’ rectangular rubber erasers. Each eraser had a country flag printed on it, hence the name of the game, and the aim was to flick your eraser on top of your opponent’s. The winner got to keep the loser’s eraser as his prize. So, as you can imagine, players with poor skills spent a big proportion of their weekly allowance just to stay in the game. Skilled players could show off their collections of flags from Spain and Argentina and China, Indonesia and South Africa and Venezuela, without having to spend an additional cent.
So what if we had no idea where these places were or who lived there or what they stood for. They all had colourful flags that looked impressive when arranged neatly in a little paper box.
(Wai Choong tells me that he recognised Ben right away when I introduced them in Junior College because they’d played country erasers when they were six, which is testament to the power of pointless children’s games, able to bring two of my best friends together long before I’d met either of them.)
Honestly, it’s hard to imagine how Country Eraser and the other games we used to devote our recesses and after-school hours to were all that fun. Surely, Cat’s Cradle and Heart Attack and Pepsi-Cola must have gotten boring pretty quickly right? They were mindless and repetitive. Yet, these are games we skipped our meals and hung around long after the final bell had rung for.
Were we just easily amused idiots, back then?
While brainstorming for fun holiday activities for children, my editor raises the question: “Where can we dump our kids without feeling guilty for boring them out of their minds? In other words, no Chinese or Math camps, no enrichment classes. Things that are actually fun.”
I think back to when we were kids and those childish games were the most fun we’d ever had. I want to point this out. Parents don’t need to sign their kids up for anything. Just give them erasers. Kids are easily amused. They’re idiots. But of course I keep quiet and the meeting carries on.
Part of me wonders if children these days are more sophisticated, if they require more stimulating or intellectual activities than we, the 90’s kids, did. I see my young cousins huddled over their iPads and junior scientist kits and discuss the detailed story arcs of trending cartoons and think that they must be way more intelligent than I ever was at that age. I think of all the kids enrolled in coding school (which I talked a bit about in last week’s post), learning to make their own apps before the age of 12. Do they still derive pleasure from the dumb, childish games of my childhood?
The answer, surprisingly, is yes. The very same cousins who are glued to their iPads while indoors will go absolutely ape when they see a floor fountain or a temporary bubble-blowing fixture outside a mall. They chase each other around crowded Chinese restaurants and scream and tickle one another, just as the older cousins and I did when we were young. It’s a relief to know that the primal element of rough-and-tumble and physical play still exists in today’s children’s games.
Another part of children’s play that won’t change is the delight of pretend. Becca once described her experience bringing her nine year old sister Rowena to Kidzania, an ‘indoor kid-sized city’ located in Sentosa:
“They get to ‘work’ different jobs, but honestly what Singaporean parent wants their child to aspire to be a fry-cook at a fast food restaurant, or a window-washer or a delivery man? Do you know what Rowena’s favourite part was? Product quality assurance at a candy store- essentially packing sweets into little bags and taking the deformed ones out, over and over. She loved it because she got to eat all the rejected sweets. Seriously, talk about career goals.”
When your older sister is a lawyer, I guess she expects you to aim a little higher.
The point, though, isn’t that the kids necessarily want to wash windows or make candy for a living. They just want to play dress up, to act the part of a grown up and do things that they imagine other people with lives that are not their own would do. They want to emulate the characters in their cartoons and on the Disney Channel.
We adults secretly love doing that too: it’s called escapism. Every time you settle into bed with a Nicholas Sparks novel, or put on the latest episode of Descendents of the Sun (Are you proud of me? I know the name of this year’s hottest Korean drama!!!), you’re swapping out your boring life for an hour of a fictitious world of your choice.
I think we never truly stop wanting to play. Even though it might not take on the form of Country Erasers, play still remains an aspect of life that we can’t do without.
These days, the ideal state of adulthood is busyness. If your schedule isn’t packed to the brim with appointments crowding the margins of your planner, you aren’t living life to the fullest. But at the end of the day, all we yearn for is to do something fun.
I’m lucky. My work is great fun. But a lot of people don’t get to engage that part of their brains that experiences joy in their day jobs. In the workforce, stress is our biggest motivator.
So when games like Pokemon Go emerge, they take our generation by storm because we are so desperate to feel like kids again. Hopefully, it will be socially acceptable to wander about the streets in business formal, smartphone in hand, hurling virtual poke balls at the critters we became acquainted with in our childhoods. Though rubber erasers might not entertain us the way they did some 20 years ago, with any luck, we’ll find in the technology of today new games to take their place.