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February 2013

Why baseball is better than democracy

Empires team

I don't often stray from video games on this blog, but sometimes my interest in games and my work as a stage director converge. My production of Richard Greenberg's Take Me Out opens tomorrow night, and throughout the rehearsal process I've been struck by the play's analytical, yet lyrical take on baseball as a game that's more than a game. 

Take Me Out (winner of the 2003 Tony Award for Best Play) tells the story of a Major League Baseball player named Darren Lemming who suddenly announces he's gay. The play explores the powerful aftermath of his decision and its consequences on him and the players around him.

It is also a love story. Darren's openly gay business manager Mason discovers the game of baseball and comes to embrace it as "this...astonishment! ...This...abundance." For the first time in his life, Mason learns to feel part of something bigger and greater than himself, and the experience fills him with gratitude.

Greenberg is hardly the first writer to wax philosophical on baseball as metaphor, but I find his argument especially persuasive. Those of us who understand the restorative nature of play and its transformative possibilities may resonate with Mason's observation that baseball achieves a "tragic vision" that other organized activities avoid. In a beautifully crafted soliloquy, he explains why baseball is better than democracy:

I have come (with no little excitement) to understand that baseball is a perfect metaphor for hope in a democratic society.

It has to do with the rules of play. It has to do with the mode of enforcement of these rules. It has to do with certain nuances and grace notes of the game.

First, it’s the remarkable symmetry of everything.

All those threes and multiples of three – calling attention to – virtually making a fetish of the game’s noble equality. Equality, that is, of opportunity.

Everyone is given exactly the same chance. And the opportunity to exercise that chance at his own pace.

There’s none of the scurry, none of that relentlessness that marks other games – basketball, football or hockey. I’ve never watched basketball, football or hockey, but I’m sure I wouldn’t like them. Or maybe I would but it wouldn’t be the same.

What I mean is, in baseball there’s no clock.

What could be more generous than to give everyone all these opportunities and the time to seize them in, as well? And with each turn at the plate, there’s the possibility of turning the situation to your favor. Down to the very last try.

And then, to insure that everything remains fair, justices are ranged around the park to witness and assess the play. And if the justice errs, an appeal can be made.

It’s invariably turned down, but that’s part of what makes the metaphor so right.

Because even in the most well-meant systems, error is inevitable. Even within the fairest of paradigms, unfairness will creep in.

And baseball is better than democracy – or at least democracy as it’s practiced in this country – because unlike democracy, baseball acknowledges loss.

While conservatives tell you, ‘‘leave things alone and no one will lose,’’ and liberals tell you, ‘‘interfere a lot and no one will lose,’’ baseball says, ‘‘Someone will lose.’’ Not only says it – insists upon it!

So that baseball achieves the tragic vision that democracy evades. Evades and embodies. Democracy is lovely, but baseball’s more mature.

I've loved baseball my whole life. Greenberg's words help me understand why.

I'm immensely proud of the work our students have devoted to this powerful play. If you live nearby (we're an hour west of Indianapolis), I invite you to attend our production of Take Me Out. The production runs Feb. 20-23 at 8:00 PM each night. Tickets are free.

Take Me Out contains adult language, themes, and partial nudity. It is intended for mature audiences.

Vintage Game Club: System Shock 2


When we discuss great games, we often cite particular moments burned into our brains: seeing Hyrule Field for the first time in Ocarina; the chainsaw zombie in Resident Evil 4; the death of Aeris; "Would you kindly..."; "The cake is a lie"; emerging from the sewers to gaze on Cyradil for the first time;  insult sword fighting; the final ascent in Journey; "Kick, punch, it's all in the mind." Those are a few of mine.

System Shock 2 has many such moments, perhaps more than any other game. When devoted players discuss storytelling in games, someone inevitably declares System Shock 2 one of the best ever, and rightly so. Its canny mix of FPS, RPG and survival horror elements remains among the most thoughtful and well-balanced in video game history. Today, nearly every game is a mash-up of familiar genres. System Shock 2 was the first to do it right.

And if you're an audio nut like me, SS2 remains one of the most affecting sound designs ever created for a game. Critics routinely describe SS2 as "atmospheric," and it certainly is, but more of that feeling creeps into your ears than your eyes. Wear headphones for this one, and don't ignore the audio logs.

Let's play it!
Today is a day to celebrate because Good Old Games (coming soon to Steam) has released System Shock 2 for all of us to revisit...or play for the first time. Along with the game, optimized for modern systems, players will receive the soundtrack, artwork, concept maps, an interview with Lead Designer Ken Levine, and the original pitch document, which is a fascinating read for anyone interested in the history and evolution of games.

So is System Shock 2 the great game many claim it to be? Are we wistfully clinging to a critic's darling that's fashionable to talk about, but no longer fun to play? Can a 14-year-old game with primitive graphics speak to modern players? Is it possible for a game to improve with age?

Now is your chance to answer those questions for yourself, in the company of friendly folks who enjoy playing and discussing older games together. You're invited to join us at the Vintage Game Club for our collective playthrough, which begins Monday, February 18.

Good Old Games has released SS2 in a DRM-free version that runs well on modern PCs. If you already own a boxed version of the game that works on your system, that's great. Players on GOG's forums report that community mods (Hi-Res, widescreen, etc.) appear to work with the GOG version too. 

We all have busy lives, so the VGC is a no-pressure environment. If you decide to start a game with us, but can't continue it, or if you post a comment but can't return to follow up, no big deal. The club is just a framework for bringing us together. We're here to have fun and broaden our knowledge and awareness of important games. All are welcome!

The Vintage Game Club