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War. Games.

The story of a man and his life told through coffee and checkers.

It is a land where gods still roam the earth. Wild stallions race against the morning sun which rises, as it has for millennia, over sloping hills cupping sleeping villages where tiny women in faded, battered scarves watch over their families with the might of hard earned knowledge and, if one believes, witchcraft. The men are an odd, wiry lot, necks tilted as if buffeted by the winds of modernity to which they will not kneel nor yield. Amongst the children there is the suggestion of steel and violence. This land of magic and mystery is not Hyrule. It is not found in any MMORPG, is not a virtual reality borne of the Oculus Rift.

This land is accessible to outsiders only through a game of checkers.

As a writer, my bread and butter is the art of storytelling. Video games are naturally something I am drawn towards, as a way to experience and tell stories that Homer, Hawthorne, and Howells could never imagine. I am used to finding the bizarre, the fantastic, the surreal and the sublime in the stories told through video games: however, there is only one story told through gaming that I have found to be fundamentally inscrutable, and that is the one told by an old man and a game of checkers.

If I were anything but a writer what I do would be called indecent. I don't just watch people, I sort them by shape, size, accent, color, nationality and attractiveness. I savor their emotions that they are so careless to display in public and listen to their darkest secrets and judge whether or not anyone else would give a damn before writing the sordid details down. So it is rather surprising, to me anyways, as to how I never took notice of Player Two. Or maybe I was too busy trying to pick up the college girls who sometimes wandered in the place and fussed about the music and how they couldn't order a mojito, I will not lie and anyways I don't give a damn because this story is not about me. Perhaps I just couldn't place him. Player Two wasn't grandfatherly; he didn't have the homespun sense of civility and slight stupidity we like to think of our elders as having, of being dusty relics of some period in our national history when gumption and elbow grease were all that was needed to fight the worlds evils and put bread on the table. Nor was he that sort of pitiable creature which inspires poets to rail against a society which could make men bend and break and hobble through life as living sacrifices to Mammon and the gospel of greed. And perhaps because I was so annoyed that I couldn't place him, couldn't use him, I gave his habitual checkers partner (a slightly taller elder with a large corduroy cap who was surely spending his grandchild's tuition money on the shops' rather expensive and bitter black coffee) the title Player one, and he the title Player Two. I wasn't going to give him the honor of being a Mario; to me he was just another Luigi.

Some of the other regulars at the coffee shop are a group of political science students from the nearby university. Their politics and their naivete are that special sort of the first generation born in America of parents who fled famine or the sort of Lilliputian Napoleons who exist into the 21st century due to the general apathy of the world community and their usefulness to multinational corporations: however it is somewhat notable that these pupils of politics are currently only slinging words at one another and not missiles, unless they are so inclined out of rebelling against the world of their parents, as youth are wont to do, and thus return to the mud and the sand and the heat their parents left behind to put their college degrees to use in perpetuating the centuries of conflict borne out of addressing half-forgotten tribal grievances which tend to be the general application of politics and democracy in the land of their fathers.

Such sentiments of youth after all led to the talk of revolution which became all they ever spoke of and all the world wondered about. "Spring" had finally come to a part of the planet which had only known a winter of discontent. Thankfully during this period, the coffee shop did not become a migratory stop for the stubble-bearded stoners trading in their fedoras for berets, wandering from their Philosophy 101 courses in search of the heard of stupidly sympathetic sorority girls who, amazed by the wise and wizardly beards of their worldly professors, were guilted out of their pennies and their wet T-shirt contest earnings and sought to shame a few dollars out of everyone else for the sake of "the babies being orphaned in the war in Syracuse."

No, the spectacle during this period came to be as the political science students, debating which was needed more in the region, American money or American forces or American values, when Player Two slammed a checker piece onto the board hard enough to rattle the delicate teacups of the political science students, shouting in broken English:

"America cannot fix stupid people, god above you are prove of that!"

It was then that I took notice of Player Two, as I think did everyone else in the coffee shop and several people walking by outside. The political science students, rattled but being who they are, inclined to be debate anyone and anything willing to speak to them, inquired, "Do you prefer a multinational approach?" A coalition-----," but Player Two simply, wordlessly carried out the checkers game with Player One, who himself had his bottomless cup of coffee at his lips, a suitable barrier against any further discourse.

I shall take a moment here and describe the checkerboard that Player Two was fond of. I do not mean the dollar store travesty that was left out for the patrons by the owners of the coffee shop. Instead I speak of the one he that he must have played as a small boy in the village of his youth. It was probably wooden of a fairly sturdy sort, strong enough for the transport across oceans and mountains in the possession of whatever missionary was possessed with seeking Lost Peoples by throwing away his or her compass and walking out into the desert and hinterlands of places they had only heard of through songs and psalms from over two thousand years ago. Or perhaps it was received by some GI in a care package, and it was left behind as he sought cover from a bombing raid or traded it along with a piece of chocolate to spend a night in the arms of a girl no older than the young perky sock-hopping sister he left behind along with the cows and the fields on a farm somewhere in Iowa. From whatever original source it was issued it must have found its way amongst spices and silks in colorful outdoor bazaars, jumbled together with heaps of hemp and opium on the backs of braying mules as it traded hands legally or through subtler means until it found its way to a small hardscrabble village where a group of young boys got their first glimpse of Western Civilization. Perhaps they treated it like a treasure or some sacred object, some other worldly object from a land they could not and did not know about. Or perhaps they were like children everywhere, and when they lost a piece they would replace it with a pebble, a piece of cloth, or a stray beetle. Because what I learned about Player Two was that he was someone who must have learned from those lessons about improvising when his opponents' beetle crawled its way towards his side even though it wasn't his opponents' turn, to be able to go from a boy to the man who escaped the nights of shelling and the air raids and the bandits to cross mountains and oceans and scale over language barriers to make a home in a country where at first all he could do was wander around without a compass in the desert and hinterlands sprawling before the shadows of man-made mountains scraping at the heavens in a world two thousand years ahead of the one he had fled with only the songs and psalms of his people and maybe, just maybe, a small well-worn checker piece in his back pocket.

Perhaps it was the knowledge that his homeland was becoming a place he could not return to. Even if his village still stood. For some immigrants home is like an anchor, something which can steady them, something which can also weigh them down. Player Two became surly, taking to drinking the bitter coffee favored by Player One and setting and moving his pieces on the board as if it were a battlefield. The talk of the political science students one day was how America declared it would not send in ground forces nor lead the international coalition seeking to intervene in the civil war. Player Two didn't turn around, but swung his coffee cup like a mace as he moved a piece on the board with the other, saying aloud, "You forgot we exist long before America. You forgot much, did your parents never teach?" No one in the group of students had to inquire who he was talking to. There was only one who shared ancestry with Player Two, and who had increasingly become the subject of his ire.

"Madonna. That is all America teach you."

Player One marched his pieces across the board.

"Father teach me. When come war."

Player Two retreats with his pieces, across a gulley and down the slope of a hill. The wrinkles on his face become a deep ravine, in their shadows hiding a young boy barely in his teens trying to avoid the stench of dung as he keeps watch for the bandits or deserters that have been raiding nearby villages.

Player One is spotted. It seems unfathomable the number under his command.

"We could not ask help from Americans. Might as well talk to goats and sheep."

Player Two carefully, slowly brings the pieces held in reserve towards the rear of Player Ones' forces as they march into the narrow ravine single file.

"Rules? What rules," he asks as Player One starts to protest.


Brusquely Player Two sweeps the pieces off the board with a fist.

"But forgetting is for the young," Player Two says as he orders another coffee for his compatriot and slowly, but forcefully puts the scrambled pieces back onto the board, no doubt remembering perfectly.

It wasn't until several of the regular weekly games were missed that I noticed Player Two no longer came to the coffee shop. Perhaps the events going on in his homeland had become too much. Perhaps he had returned there. Perhaps he moved to the Starbucks down the road for his coffee and checkers. But should I ever stare at the forlorn checkerboard sitting on the empty table, I wonder what, if any, difference there is between the preteens playing the latest Call of Duty, the young men playing at politics in coffee shops and in makeshift armed camps around the globe, and between entire countries and if they ever think about those caught in the middle as they go about playing their war games.
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Code Name Crono   



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About Code Name Cronoone of us since 12:37 PM on 05.28.2014

Author. Philosopher. Video Game Scholar.

My latest book, Dreams Of A Distant Planet: Chrono Trigger and the World Revolution of Video Games is now available through the Amazon Kindle store, and the Amazon Kindle App for smartphones, tablets, PCs, and other devices at an introductory price of $4.99 in North America, and for an equivalent amount in other territories.

Buy it here!