Grounders as Satirical Metaphor?

Grounders: Is it a game or something more sinister?

Hamilton Spectator, April 28, 2015

By Randy Kay

When I was a kid, the playground had impossibly steep slides, with shiny metal surfaces to speed down in skin-searing heat. Falling off the top of the near vertical ladder would certainly result in a concussion, and maybe a broken collarbone to boot. For a little kid the danger was palpable, yet thrilling. In this environment we learned focus.

We had “monkey bars” shaped like Apollo rocket ships with the hard dirt launch pad passively waiting to alert you to the pain of aborted missions. A concussion, too, was likely after a lung-emptying free fall to earth. Here is where we fought through fear, and to recognize the balancing act of our relationship with ever-present gravity.

Teeter-totters? The place to learn trust and judgment. Sitting opposite the wrong person could mean a truncated tailbone as the traitor bailed on her/his end of the balancing act. There’s a life lesson right there.

And of course the spinning, nausea-inducing roundabout — usually powered by someone’s older sibling who certainly took pathological delight in terrifying the little ones into tear — and, in the likelihood of churning passenger panic, a possible concussion to complete the dizzy adventure. You needed to be able to size up the group, make character judgments.

Fast forward to my kids’ early park-playing years. We existed in a transitional time, watching the playgrounds transform over a period of months. Altered by safety conscious legal experts advising the recreation department, new style red, blue and yellow plastic and steel units replaced the metallic, munchkin-mashing equipment. Everything was built as one comprehensive safety certified structure standing astride a wood-chip filled pit, built to soften any terrestrial landings.

And this is where things started to get strange. The potential of serious harm to muscle and bone was vastly diminished. Bumps and bruises were still a lingering threat, of course, but dizzied, limping, shocked-into-a-pale-gaze kids were almost a thing of the past.

Playgrounds had existed as a place where we got away from our parents, and figured things out for ourselves. You got to know who you could count on. When your friend was injured you had to figure out how to help them without adults, cellphones or first-aid training.

My kids now teach a game to their younger cousins that I can only assume was built as a function of the new playground’s form. The game is Grounders. The rules are basic in some regards, but this cross between tag and a landlocked version of Marco Polo has one flaw that precludes an honest soul a chance:

You have to cheat to win.

Wikipedia says: “Played on large complicated playground sets, the point of this game is to never touch the ground. Normal rules apply while on the set, but if a non-it player touches the ground, “it” can shout “Grounders” to tag the person. The “it” person can touch the ground, and in some games may have to close their eyes. This is similar to the game Marco Polo played in a pool, however children should have previous experience on the play structure/know the layout of the structure to prevent injuries.”

I mistakenly thought the game had been invented by my imaginative children.

For about a year I carried on with my delusion: This game that everyone must cheat to play is the idiosyncratic creation of my daughters. But when by chance I overheard kids at a different playground (built with the ubiquitous safety-conscious structures, of course) call out for a game of Grounders, I had to admit I was confused. Had my kids’ invention spread like a cultural virus to infect other neighbourhoods with their flawed game?

I’m certain we have a deep-seated need to flirt with danger, perhaps based on an evolutionary necessity to give shape to our capabilities and our limits. But Grounders seems to reflect something more sinister. As governments increasingly play games of naked power to maintain position, is Grounders a reflection of corporatist nihilism pervading our culture? Robocalls; mayoral candidates guilty of accepting campaign contributions over the legal limit; prime ministers proroguing parliament to avoid facing a scandal; non-“loyal opposition” predictably interested only in making the other parties look bad — these and other political erosions of democracy come from somewhere.

My kids still love to play Grounders with their younger cousins. They usually — despite my perfect track record of refusals — ask me to play. I remain steadfast. A game that requires cheating to win is better as a satirical metaphor than a process for developing the kind of minds required to navigate our way into a beautiful future. I’ll be keeping at least one eye open on this one, if only to see how it plays out.

By Randy Kay

Experienced not-for-profit communications and citizen engagement professional

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