Everything about the game is militant: most notably the colors, green and red and black with various splatters. The type: sans-serif and uppercase mostly, without any of the curves or swirls or softnesses of the more traditionally feminine serifs, italics or even lowercase. Think of a body: a woman with hips and thickness of skin; with wind in her hair; a smile. A man with more rigidity and reservation; the interior obscured by flatness. It occurs to me here that I have to indulge stereotypes to even talk about this. The game of course comes in a box and on its cover are what I presume to be men, nameless and ready, with stakes held high and battered flags awake in the setting red sun. There is so much red.
I am preoccupied with the design. I keep thinking in my head: made by a 19-year-old male. Again, stereotyping. But there is something about the overtness of the masculinity; the rampant arrows and phallic cities; the uninformed stencil font of the title; the attempt to represent camouflage, attempt to reference both modern and antique without choosing: there is simply something so oblivious about it. For example, the rules. The rules are formatted interestingly in a folder with tabs; one has the impressions of having received a mission, an order or set or orders. But when the folder is opened no hierarchy is apparent; the order of things is obscured, mangled, unreadable almost. The tabs jump from A to X without any indication of why or how. My father spends 45 minutes reading and sorting and citing the rules to us.
And the rules have changed. The game Risk was invented in 1959, less than two decades after the second world war. (Are our memories really that short?) My dad remembers playing as a kid in the sixties: to start, he and his friends would simply place their troops wherever they wished and begin their safe attempts at world domination. For instance, my dad would say, “I’d like China” and would then place troops there. The next kid would say, “I’d like Russia” and place troops there. And so on. It is different now. The placement of troops is assigned. World domination, we’re told, is not the goal. Instead, there are “objectives” and achieving them is how the game is won. There are minor and major objectives. Minor objectives: control Europe; control Asia; take over four cities in one turn; control North America. Major objectives: control two continents; control eleven cities; take over a continent in one turn; control two enemy capitals. I can’t tell the difference, exactly.
Before a recent game started, I browsed the headlines on my cell phone, pausing briefly on a New Yorker article involving the Syrian dictator, President Bashar al-Assad. Journalists were estimating 20 to 30 murders a day by the government since March. Peaceful demonstrators carrying olive branches are being sprayed (sprayed?) with bullets, raped and bled out. I write this without even being able to properly imagine it: the bloating, the tearing, the screams, children, decapitations, torsos unattached, how one might even return home after such devastation. Home? For the past two months, I’ve switched off the news in the morning, too sad to listen to it. This is unforgivable, me in my warm apartment. Just today, I tried to explain to my friend about how the reports depressed me and so I stopped listening. He went silent; he, a captain of the Navy for thirty years, a member of Common Cause, listener of NPR: he is deeply concerned. It’s easy to silence the things we don’t want to know about. That night, I turned the news back on.
But before the news: we played Risk. During the game, phone switched off, we said things like, “Egypt is now attacking India.” And: “Stand down, sir.” And: “Hold your fire! Retreat!” And: “I wish to withdraw my troops.” And: “There’s been a massacre.” And: “Russia has been compromised.” And: “The airfield is impossible to overcome.” And: “Blood will be shed.” And: “It was worth it.” And: “Troops must be sacrificed.” We found ourselves funny, too. Laughing and yelling and reciting whatever we’ve heard in movies. During our second game, my sister Tweeted, “That’s right. I own all of Europe and Africa.” I should’ve said something about how problematic the Tweet was, but to acknowledge reality would be to break our suspension of disbelief, I suppose; to leak the private, simple, manufactured reality of the game with facts of real Reality. I went silent.
We also said, “Remember: never start a land war in Asia.” This, family lore. Or maybe its cultural: from the Princess Bride, a movie we must have watched two hundred times. To quote portions of the movie to one another is to laugh, to remember, to feel the fabric of the old couch we sat on while watching. What I like about games with my family is the way all of our history rises up and emerges in the periphery, connecting and reminding. Age has taught us to distance, to not say, to omit certain pieces of reality. It’s not totally easy to talk anymore, if it ever was.
And I think too of the word risk and when it is deployed. Not often, certainly. Lately I have used the word when thinking of a heart: this or that would be a kind of risk. To love is a risk. To be loved, to be vulnerable is a risk. Or: a risk was taken and failure occurred: failure of the heart, of the mind and our bodies and attentions. Risk as related to physical danger is something else: something our bodies enter into for reasons other than love, mostly. To make something is a risk, an induction of fear and the possibility of failure or exposure. Death and hearts are not exactly on the line. Kind of but not exactly. There is, after all, always the possibility of making something else. Not so with humans whose hearts are delicate and in need of certain care.