Friday, May 11, 2012

It's Go Time!

In the Spring of 1978, as I was preparing to depart MIT, degree in hand, a new game craze had begun to sweep the coffeehouses of Boston (or maybe just the Coffeehouse in the Student Center). It was called Go! and it consisted of a grid on a board and two sets of round flat stones (which meant it was a game for two players). MIT had seen its share of games prior to that (and we're not counting the strategic gamers). A lot of us were pinball fanatics, but that was a game of skill and coordination. Go! was a more cerebral game of strategy, in which players try to surround each others' pieces by placing stones on a grid; whoever captured the most stones when the board was filled up was the winner. Go! was not a novel game; a similar board game called Othello had been kicking around for a couple of years. But Go! was Japanese, and Japanese things were all the rage in the '70s (what else could explain the fascination with Pachinko machines?).

In addition, there were few gaming options that were compatible with the Coffeehouse milieu, which tended to be dark and given over to butcher block. It would be a few years before the first electronic games would show up, and at least a generation before gaming apps for iPhone would give us Angry Birds. Nintendo Wii did not exist, which contributed to the ennui of those late night hours. And there was no Farmville, which was something of a blessing. But there was Go! And there was coffee, which contributed to many a spirited game around the coffeehouse tables. Go! playing was as serious as chess was to chess enthusiasts, and many of the strategies that were used to avoid losing chess matches went into a typical game of Go!
The Go! craze probably lasted longer at MIT than it did in other parts of the country, and when it subsided (about a year later), students went back to playing backgammon, which was two sets of stones on a racetrack and was always popular. These days you can play these games and many others on your phone or your iPad, which is nothing like the real thing. You can always spot gamers (and texters) by the extreme calluses that have built up on their thumbs. And by the general unwillingness of most auto insurance companies to sell them a policy.

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