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In the last year, my life-long habit of playing games has diminished greatly. I am vaguely disturbed by this turn of events, because I can’t decide whether it is a mark of maturity or of having lost something.

So far as I can remember, the habit began with playing chequers with my maternal grandfather. He was never condescending enough to let me win, but held back enough that I always hoped I could win next time. Early in elementary school, I started chess, usually winning although I never systematically learned opening moves or defenses – in fact, I felt that doing so was next to cheating.

Then, some time around the age of ten, I discovered Avalon Hill Games. Nowadays, the imprint seems given over largely to variations of Axis and Allies, but, at the time, they had games based on everything from the Battle of Jutland and The Battle of Britain to the American attack on Guadacanal and the street-fighting during the German invasion of the Soviet Union, all on such an abstract level that I could forget about the implied bloodshed and concentrate on the strategy, as well as ignoring the implied American jingoism I sensed in some of the games

An Avalon Hill Game could take hours to set up, hunting for the right units. It could take hours to play, too, which made it perfect for a long afternoon under a tree with whatever friend I could convince to try the game. But ending the game wasn’t the point to me. What mattered was learning the lay of the land, and the names on the little squares and rectangles. To this day, I can still remember many of the names of the unit leaders on both sides at Gettysburg, and the names of Caesar’s commanders during the siege of Alesia (although I now wonder if some of those were false). In some ways, they were as good as reading.

I never could find many who would play with me, so I often played against myself, taking each side in turn, a practice that may have helped me to write impartially about complex issues. Often, I played against myself when I should have been doing homework, or my own writing.

When the first arcades came out, they were very nearly my downfall – especially the closest one to where I was living. I spent far more quarters than I should have, totally fascinated at the same time I was aware of the banality of most of the games.

Computer games were safe, although in the early days I was inevitably disappointed in the graphics. The best, like the various releases of Civilization, were like extended versions of the Avalon Hill games – ones that I didn’t need to set up. For a couple of years, I kept a Windows partition largely to play games, although I practically danced through the living room when Loki started releasing Linux versions of popular games.

Fortunately for my time management, when I switched entirely to Linux, few games were still available, although I occasionally wasted time on Battle of Wesnoth. Even more fortunately, I never quite got started on online roleplaying; from the couple of times I wrote about them, I’m guessing I would have had serious problem.

But in the two and a half years since I was widowed, I haven’t had time for more than few games of solitaire or backgammon each day to get myself thinking in terms of possibility. Increasingly, I’ve had no time at all, and I’m not sure what to make of the fact.

On the one hand, I worry that this change of habits might be a suppression of the imagination. Like any other faculty of the human brain, the imagination seems something that needs to be exercised. Am I growing dull? I wonder. Letting my imagination and perception stagnate for lack of stimulus?

Or is moving away from games a sign that I am overdue for ending my preparation for life, and getting on with the real thing? Maybe, as as I get on with practical things, I don’t need to prepare so much. I might be too busy getting on with my own business.

I suppose a third alternative is that I’ve been running on the enhanced emotions of grief, until no mental stimulus is effective. But I’m being cautious about finding out, because none of the alternatives appeal to me much.

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