send Email  copyright 2013

 

copyright 1999, Lois June Wickstrom

It’s How You Play the Game



flying saucers copyright by Tom at http://www.foothill.net/~awesome1/

 

by Lois June Wickstrom

“Hey man, gimme some toast,’’ cajoled the gruff young beggar, wearing an embroidered Turkish leather coat.

Manfred, his pocket full of quarters for the vid-games, gazed questioningly at the young man. What did he think? That people walking down the street carried toast in their pockets? Little old ladies might have bread for the pigeons...

“You know, man, bread,’’ said the beggar, stepping forward. In the closeness, Manfred cringed at the sour smell of unwash. But he thought, I mustn’t let my disgust show, and he held his face muscles calm.

Manfred remembered the peanut butter and raisin sandwich he’d left in the fridge at work, and wished he’d brought it with him. The young man must be hungry. Maybe if he gave him some money...

“You know man,’’ the beggar continued, “dough, dinero.’’ He rubbed his grimy fingers together.

A truck rumbled by as Manfred reached into his pocket, enjoying the smooth feel of clean cotton, and pulled out a handful of warm quarters. He gave eight of them to the beggar, and didn’t even flinch when the man’s rough skin grazed his own. “Have a good dinner,’’ he said, nodding a slight bow.

“Much weed,’’ said the beggar and walked off.

Hey, I solved it., thought Manfred. That augers well for my games today. Life held just too many puzzles for him to ever hope to solve them all. Manfred saw computer games as a metaphor for life. He hadn’t ever finished a game, but he had learned to drop the rod so he could catch the bird, and once he had killed a dragon with his bare hands. Somewhere in his heart, he knew that computer games did end with a more satisfying formality than death -- that somewhere along the line you solved the last problem, and the machine called you a winner.

#

Manfred turned the corner, past the drug stare with the blaring radio and spinning barber pole and realized that he was in an unfamiliar neighborhood. Had the beggar upset him that much? Other people’s discomfort always gave him a queasy feeling, but by now he thought his feet knew the way home. Still there was always a reason for the cryptic directions in computer games. Therefore there was probably a purpose for this.

“Hey Manfred,’’ called a voice that Manfred vaguely recognized.

Manfred felt his stomach tighten and he wondered if he needed a shave. Something in that voice made him feel inadequate, and yet he knew he could not refuse its demands.

I can face it, Manfred told himself. He looked around, but saw no one familiar. Then he turn another corner and crossed the alley, hoping to avoid whoever it was.

“Hey, Manfred. Over here,’’ called the voice again. This time he saw a short grey-haired man standing in the entryway of one of those non-descript smoky shops with BB-gunned windows that he passed every day. There was nothing distinguishing about the old man’s face; the only word Manfred could think of to describe it was forgettable unless maybe it resembled the beggar’s Manfred never looked closely at beggars.

“Hi,’’ said Manfred, noncommittally, not looking closely at this man either. And not admitting to his nose muscles that he noticed the alley-side wall of this shop was a popular urinal. He’d certainly walked into this one. He just hoped he could avoid whatever puzzle the old man presented, and then hurry on tot he vid-shop

“You probably don’t remember me,’’ said the grey-haired man, “but I remember that you like computer games, and I’ve got just the one for you.’’

As Manfred looked, he realized that the old man was indeed standing in front of a vid-shop with incongruously old looking neon lights in red cursive script.

Why hadn’t he noticed that before? In fact, since he knew this neighborhood, why hadn’t he tried it out already? He had no loyalty to his regular shop, where young punks always got the high scores and scoffed at him. And when he determined to do especially well, just to prove he had a right to be there, he inevitably blew it. The fact is, Manfred admitted to himself, I’m not very observant. I let my emotions get in the way of paying attention to details.

Maybe in this new shop, with a new game, he could learn to finally finish a game. Suddenly, the irrational wish hit him: I wish a game would make me finish it, not let me quit, not let me be a loser forever.

Something about the old man made him uneasy, but Manfred determined to go through with this. Maybe the reason I’ve never finished a game is my fears, he told himself. And after all, it’s only a game.

Manfred looked the old man in the eyes and said, “Yes, I’d like to try a new vid-game.’’ He hoped his voice sounded nonchalant, rather than revealing his desperation. Deep down in himself, he felt something he’d been suppressing. He wanted to win!

The old man opened the heavy wooden door to the shop, letting out a whiff of grandma’s livingroom, parted a maroon velvet curtain, and ushered Manfred inside. Fluorescent lights buzzed and flickered over his head, but the furnishings looked old and comfortable. The plush overstuffed chairs seemed to ooze the message: People who won have sat here. You can too.

The old man steered Manfred to a tan console in the center back of the shop, and slid a coral upholstered chair up behind him. The springs were still firm, yet the chair seemed to ease some tension from his thighs and lower back. Manfred hadn’t even realized those muscles had been tight, and he looked up curiously into the old man’s face. It seemed now to have taken on some distinctive wrinkles, yet it smelled clayey, like pancake makeup.

The old man was no longer staring at him, but was concentratedly tapping some keys on the terminal, with rough-skinned hands. I have met this man before, Manfred found himself thinking, and he watched the face instead of the terminal.

The old man spoke, showing perfect pearly teeth. “This game is special. The program is highly variable, with myriads of conditional trees or if-branches. So far, no two people have played exactly the same way. It sort of depends on personality.’’

“Oh dear,’’ said Manfred.

“What I mean is that unlike some games, there are no right and wrong answers. You don’t get stuck forever at a barrier if you can’t figure out what was in the author’s mind. You might say the game is open-ended.’’

“But does it end?’’ asked Manfred, starting to feel nervous. Maybe just this once, he cold stick it out and finish a game. Sweat was building up under his collar. His fingers reached for the key, even before he had read the screen. No, he told himself. I will not let my emotions get in the way of my perceptions. He looked up at the old man.

“Of course it ends,’’ said the old man. “I told you, you’d like it.’’

#

YOU ARE BEING ATTACKED BY DWARVES said the computer.

Manfred knew that in games like this you are supposed to kill the dwarves. He had just killed a vermicious knicht and gotten its treasure. He didn’t know why, but after a 20-move battle, that treasure felt good, almost like a big paycheck, or a pocketful of green stuff. Still, he wondered if he could have avoided that battle. He knew these games only allowed you a limited number of moves, and perhaps more worthwhile treasures remained undiscovered. Still, the man had said this game was open-ended. What would happen if he didn’t kill the dwarves? He’d tried that in one other game, and the dwarves had killed him. The next thing he knew he was reincarnated back at the well without his lantern or his treasure. It was obvious he couldn’t just ignore them. But maybe he didn’t have to hurt them.

“Make friends.’’typed Manfred.

HOW? asked the computer.

Manfred felt suddenly mischievous, and typed, “Give them foreign aid.’’

Suddenly the screen went blank. Guess I’ve given it something to think about, thought Manfred. He waited. He tapped the top of the terminal with his fingers. He waited. He tapped the screen with his fingernails. He waited. He thought; quitting this game before it ends wouldn’t be really like quitting. After all, it has quit on me. He reached for the DELETE button.

THANK YOU FOR WAITING flashed the screen. THIS GAME WAS DESIGNED AS A TEST FOR SPECIFIC PERSONALITY PROFILES. YOU ARE ONE OF THOSE WHOM WE ARE SEEKING. WE ARE LITTLE GREEN MEN FROM ANOTHER GALAXY, SEEKING SUPPORTERS ON EARTH. WE ARE OF SUPERIOR INTELLIGENCE AND COULD RUN YOUR GOVERNMENT FAR MORE EFFICIENTLY AND PEACEFULLY THAN YOU HUMANS RUN IT.

“Now you wait,’’ typed Manfred, his sweaty fingertips almost slipping off the keys. A typo right now could ruin everything.

The computer waited, the console emitting warm radiations.

Manfred wanted to do the moral thing. Sweat beads trickled down his nose, and his heart sped. He would like to meet some aliens. He would like to live without the threat of war. Still, these aliens wanted to take over Earth. If after talking with them, he thought they were dangerous, he could report them to his own government. Still, if they were really smarter than humans they might be able to brainwash him.

He felt an instant’s doubt that the aliens were real, but then he knew that he didn’t know what really constituted reality anyway. He’d better say, “No,’’ but be polite about it.

He wiped his hands on his trousers and typed, “No thank you,’’ his fingers firm against the keys.

The computer went blank again.

Manfred waited again, feeling nervous. What if he’d made the aliens angry? And he felt a sense of loss that he might never meet them. The screen remained blank. Feeling deserted and angry, Manfred reached again for the DELETE button.

The computer screen flashed, THANK YOU FOR WAITING.

“You’re welcome,’’ typed Manfred, his sweat returning.

YOU HAVE PASSED THE TEST said the computer. YOU HAVE SHOWN YOURSELFTO BE A TRUE AND LOYAL CITIZEN, AND ARE HEREBY ASKED TO JOIN YOUR GOVERNMENT IN A HIGHLY PAID AND RESPECTED POSITION, HELPING TO DEFEND THE CITIZENRY AGAINST ALIEN ATTACK. YOUR SECRET CODE NUMBER IS 43621980. YOU ARE EXPECTED TO REPORT TO ROOM 42C OF THE CIA BUILDING IN LANGLEY NEXT MONDAY AT 9 A.M. SHARP.

Manfred typed, “Let me think.’’

He thought. He liked money. He like prestige. He didn’t like his current job, or he wouldn’t be here playing games of escape. Still, he believed in live and let live. He could not morally accept that job.

With sweaty fingertips, he typed, “No thank you.’’ His stomach tightened, feeling his loss. He knew he must not succumb to greed.

YOU PASSED THE TEST flashed on the screen.

“What?’’typed Manfred. YOU ARE THE VERY PERSONALITY WE ARE LOOKING FOR. YOU HAVE REFUSED TO BETRAY YOUR OWN GOVERNMENT, AND YOU HAVE REFUSED TO GO ON AN ALIEN WITCH HUNT. WE ARE INDEED ALIENS, AS WE TOLD YOU, BUT ACTUALLY WE ARE NO SMARTER THAN ANYONE ELSE, AND ALL WE WANT TO DO IS MAKE FRIENDS.

“Hold on,’’ typed Manfred. His head was reeling. Even the fluorescent lights seemed to slow their flickering. He could barely feel the chair around him.

He was feeling confused. It was as if he were being tugged in three directions at once. He felt tricked. Any alien who really wanted to be friends would make a person costume and learn English and do it the right way. Manfred didn’t like the idea of a clandestine friendship. Again, he wondered if this game were real. Again he questioned reality.

He looked over at the grey-haired man, who was sitting behind the cash register obviously daydreaming. Did the old man know what was happening? Would he be disappointed if Manfred didn’t follow through? Obviously other players had told him how their games had come out. Maybe this had never happened before. Still, Manfred couldn’t bring himself to meet a slimy green alien on the sly. This computer program wasn’t as if he was meeting one and shunning it to its face. This was officially a game, even though, deep down he knew it wasn’t. Someday someone else with a different personality would come along. Maybe even himself, after he controlled some of his fears...

“I’ll pass.’’ he typed.

CONGRATULATIONS! flashed the screen. YOU ARE THE LUCKY WINNER! TOMORROW AT FIVE A.M. YOU WILL GO TO THE PHONE BOOTH AT THE END OF THIS BLOCK AND YOU WILL DIAL THE NUMBER YOU FIND SCRAWLED IN THE DIRT BESIDE THE FIRE HYDRANT. YOUR CONTACT WILL BE MONIQUE, A FIVE-FOOT FIVE-INCH BLONDE, 120 POUNDS, 20 YEARS OLD, WHO WILL ARRANGE TO MEET YOU ON THE FOURTHFLOOR OF THE TELEPHONE BUILDING WHERE YOU WILL RECOGNIZE HER BY THE YELLOW ROSE IN THE BUTTON HOLE OF HER RED V-NECKED DRESS. YOU MUST TAKE THIS ROSE AND DRAW BLOOD FROM YOUR FINGER WITH ITS THORN THUS SHOWING YOUR SOLIDARITY WITH OUR CAUSE. YOUR GOVERNMENT AND OURS ARE ENEMIES, BUT WE THE PEOPLE HAVE COMMON GOALS AND CAN WORK FOR COMMON PEACE. PUT A DROP OF YOUR BLOOD ON MONIQUE’S FOREHEAD AND SHE WILL FOLLOW YOU WHEREVER YOU CHOOSE FOR A MONTH. THEN YOU MUST RETURN TO THIS SHOP FOR FURTHER INSTRUCTIONS OR MONIQUE WILL LEAVE YOU AND YOUR LIFE WILL BE IN DANGER. WE ARE COUNTING ON YOU. A PERSON OF YOUR PROVEN MORALITY IS WORTHY OF FAR MORE THAN THE PALTRY LUXURIES WE CAN BESTOW. WELCOME TO THE BROTHERHOOD! PLEASE ENTER YOUR NAME ON THE WINNERS’ LIST.

The screen shifted into input mode and displayed a totally blank winners box. All Manfred had to do was type his name and he would achieve immortality. Just like those punks at his regular vid-shop. But this game wasn’t over. If he put his name here, he’d be real and being real carried responsibilities, like making that phonecall and making love to Monique.

What was moral? He had to admit that in this case, he didn’t know. Why wasn’t this game like the others? In them, if you made a mistake, you got killed and you knew never to do that again. He was suffering from overload, the way he always did when he played computer games.

With real life, he could walk away from his problems. Therefore, this must be a game -- the sort of thing he could quit now and come back to whenever he felt like it. That was why he preferred computer games to life. Computer puzzles would wait until he was ready for them. And they didn’t change when he wasn’t looking. He was tired of making decisions. He pushed DELETE, took a deep breath, and noticed for the first time since entering the shop that the walls were painted pale yellow. It felt good, even though the air was smoky.

His moral duty right now was to pay for this game, get out of here, and clear his head. He needed to question his basic assumptions about where computer games fit into his life. He looked around for the old man, but the shop was deserted. He left two dollars worth of quarters on the counter, parted the heavy velvet curtain, and opened the deeply grained wooden exit door.

A fortyish man in a blue serge suit, whose face Manfred couldn’t recognize in the sunlight, walked up to him. Manfred squinted and saw the man smile with perfect pearly teeth. The man stuck out his rough-skinned hand and said, “You are just the personality we’ve been looking for ... a man who can walk away from a computer game.’’

#