My grandfather is a complete scoundrel. He smells of trickery and deceit. If he were a Norse god, he'd be Loki; if he were a Final Fantasy character, he'd be Cait Sith. He is a rogue, a rapscallion, a villain, a knave, and all the other Shakespearean insults combined. He is a man who, when playing a game of Boggle against his seven-year old granddaughter, cheats shamelessly and mercilessly - only to lie when he is caught. (Just so you know, "fazumy" is not a real word, and certainly not some African bush bird - no matter what he says).
Don't get me wrong: I love my grandfather, even when - especially when - he tries to cheat. He is a good man, though he doesn't sound like it; he only cheats when playing games with his family, and only then when the odds are overwhelmingly in his favor. He thinks it's funny, which, I suppose, it is - just not when he's doing it to me.
When I was younger, I lived with my father in a Baltimore suburb, and on alternate weekends I'd visit my grandparents, who lived an hour away. Every Friday the script would be the same. Grandmom, a Jewish stereotype incarnate, would spend the night at the auction house scavenging bargains, leaving Grandpop and me to amuse ourselves. Inevitably, ritualistically, we'd descend to the basement, where waiting on a wobbly bureau was an Atari 2600, painfully obsolete but treasured beyond compare.
Near the TV was an industrial-sized trashcan filled with musty stuffed animals. One by one, I'd take them out, and for several minutes I'd meticulously place them around the room: on bookshelves, in armchairs, on ottomans and coat-racks. Sometimes, Grandpop would help me, but usually he'd set up the Atari and our favorite game, Breakout, instead. When we both finished, he'd plop into a green chair absent of stuffed residents, pull down an imaginary microphone, and announce in his best Howard Cosell voice:
"Welcome! Thank you all for coming!" The stuffed animal audience, voiced by my clumsy ventriloquism, would cheer loudly.
"It's time for the rumble in the jungle"… the battle to end all battles"… the Video Game Championship-'' He'd pause dramatically, "- of the WORLD!"
The crowd would go wild.
"In this corner, the lass with sass... Lara!" The crowd would cheer so wildly that one or two of them would fall over in wildness.
"In the other corner, the defending Atari champion"… Grandpop!" Abruptly, the audience would fall silent. He'd continue unfazed, "Tonight, it will all be decided: who is the Champion of the World, and who is just a sad, little fazumy"…"
And then, we'd play.
Surprisingly, my grandfather is rather good at video games. In addition to the Atari, my grandparents owned an NES, upon which Grandpop unleashed his true gaming fury: Second Quest Gannon fell before his dexterity; Samus removed her Varia Suit in honor of his speed; he even managed to navigate the mountain level in Ninja Gaiden (goddamn birds). When playing a mere Atari game, he could have schooled me blind-folded. But he wasn't about to let talent get in the way of his fun.
It's hard to cheat at video games, because, unless you can telepathically fiddle with circuitry, the high score displayed is generally correct. Ataris do not lie; it isn't in their programming. Although you can always declare, "I wasn't doing it right, lemme go again", at some point, you are either good at a game or not.
Nevertheless, Grandpop would find his ways. If I had to go to the bathroom, he'd play my round without telling me. Or he'd launch into a funny story about dinosaurs living in the sewers, so distracting me with laughter that I'd lose track of the ball. Sometimes he would body-check me. Once, he even pretended the stuffed animals were heckling me, but that made me cry, so he never did it again.
He would always win, of course. I never once beat him. I remember a time when I came close, but conveniently the power went out. He cackled, exclaiming, "Honey-pot, even God's on my side."
Yet, still I tried. Like Sisyphus with his boulder, still I tried.
All of those Friday nights accumulated have crafted me into a gamer of staggering tenacity, especially in the face of defeat. Shutting a game off before I've beaten the level, mission, or boss seems to me an act of despair and failure. Countless nights I've sacrificed, endlessly seeking that one last gold coin, that one last mini-boss, that one last power-up, clinging to my quest like a dog to a bone, refusing to just do the sensible thing and just quit already.
Eventually, I got better and started beating the games I played; now, I too can beat the mountain level in Ninja Gaiden. However, success is not the reason I continue. On some subconscious level, I see nearly every game I play as a competition against my memories. More than fifteen years later, I am still driven to absolve my defeat at the hand of my trickster grandfather.
Do I expect that one day, I will hear his voice in the back of my head, congratulating me on a game well played? If that is the case, I'm sorely mistaken; he'd never do anything so gracious as that.
More likely, I play so that if ever there is another Video Game Championship, I'll beat him whether he plays fair or not. Although, just between you and me, I hope he cheats. Indeed, I hope he'll continue to cheat forever.
Though, if there is a rematch, I'm going to cheat right back. Scoundrel's rules.