On the train ride into work this morning, I wasn’t able to get a seat. The train was running just late enough to pick up enough stragglers to sell all the seats just before Downtown Berkeley. I had to stand and observe instead of read and recede.
Almost immediately, I noticed the middle-aged man two rows up and to the left with a laptop. I noticed him not because of his balding head or tall stature, but because he was playing Civilization III on his laptop. It took me a few minutes to determine, from my vantage, which version of Civilization he was playing, but the menu screens gave it away.
Before I could definitively determine that it was Civ III, it occurred to me the man may work for Sid Meier in some capacity and that he may just be heading into the office early by loading up the laptop. But realizing the version confirmed my actual suspicion, that this man was simply trying to prolong the delay before his workday really began and he had no time for games.
There was something profoundly resonant about this man’s experience and the fact that it occurred to me fairly soon after this that I should try to get a closer view so as to vicariously play and thus get some leftover utility from his game to make up for what I was losing in not being able to read. Then the question: would trying to closely follow a Civ game over the shoulder of a stranger give me the same headache I would otherwise get from reading while standing in a moving BART car? Sigh. It simply wasn’t worth it.
But watch I did, from long range, just enough to determine the man’s general approach to gameplay – he seemed to espouse the quick expansion and massive city-building that has always been a hallmark of my own approach through ownership of all four Civilization editions, plus the esoteric unsanctioned alternative Civ 3 that came out about a year or so before Sid Meier’s actual release of same. My vision isn’t what it used to be, so I could only make out terrain and general unit types, but nothing too specific (or headache-inducing).
Back when my vision was more like 20/12, my friends and I infiltrated the brand-new computer lab at the Albuquerque Academy library with freshly minted pirated diskettes of the original Civilization. The librarians were about to get an extended lesson in the first rule of computer lab setup: always face the computer monitors (screens) toward where the lab monitors (people) are going to be. One’s initial inclination is the opposite, because one thinks of a computer lab like a classroom. Students should face the front and the teacher and the monitor all at the same time. And for a full-time classroom, it might work, but not for a free-range computer lab.
It was of course forbidden to play games (let alone install them on the hard drive) in the library lab, perhaps even more evocatively so than it was illegal to copy the game in the first place. But the librarians there were all too stereotypical: lonely overweight women pushing sixty with all the technical savvy of John McCain. They were slow and lumbering and suspicious and you could see them coming in plenty of time to save your game and quit and open a Word document while trying to feign that ponderous, vaguely constipated look that signifies being stumped in the first paragraph of a paper.
It should be noted that this was just before the Internet age, about 1994-1995, so there was none of the alt-tabbing and massive multitasking and assumption of illicit Internet activity that pervades modern education with computers. Hence the naivete to set up the monitors facing the back wall and the incredible innocence of allowing students write-access to the hard drive. The computers were immensely expensive pretty new toys with capabilities entirely unknown to their adult overseers. Keep in mind that this is the school where, about this same time, I would join with a co-conspirator and a classroom full of willing amused accomplices to successfully convince a teacher that she was using a voice-activated VCR.
Eventually, out of sheer boredom or a truly teenage desire to constantly push the envelope, we got less diligent about saving and closing games every time a librarian would pop their head in (can you believe they only came by once every 20 minutes or so?). We would line up in the back row, sometimes four of us in the back and two more in the next-to-last, all playing our various games (my kingdom for network multiplayer in those days!). We would often laugh too loud or curse too much and draw more frequent visits from the stern gray-hairs. And look up innocently, making eye-contact only with that perfect blend of “I-have-nothing-to-hide” and “what-are-you-so-suspicious-of?”
I forget how it all ended exactly – a couple people got busted from time to time, but they really never punished them much (it was outside of school time, after all), sometimes suspending them from coming to the library for a couple days. They didn’t really comprehend the depths of Civ’s infiltration on the computers until much later, maybe after a year and a half or so of our reign over the lab. They locked up the hard drives from student access and we moved on to the Mac labs and text-based Internet (!) RPG’s that were harder to detect as anything other than scrolling word processing.
On the return trip on BART today, I got a seat and chose, since I was getting off early, one in a four-plex of facing seats. Next stop, at Montgomery, two noticeably overweight young women, just on the border of high school and college, piled in diagonally across from each other, each flanking me laterally (one across, one next to). The third empty seat they reserved for… their shopping bags. And they more than occupied the seat. The instigator of the dump-bags-on-seat plan kept having to tamp down the pile of colorful plastic.
Now I don’t know if you’ve ever been on BART in rush hour out of the City, but it is no place for bags on a seat. Not that people don’t try this occasionally, with luggage or their feet or a bike. But the withering peer pressure and angst of so many crammed unseated passengers coveting one rest-worthy surface that isn’t even being occupied by a sentient being – let’s just say it’s not something one generally wants to subject oneself to. Inevitably when confronted, people’s reactions for overtaking this space are huffy, defensive, and entitled, as though they know such a front is the only reasonable-seeming response to being called on being so downright unreasonable.
In any event, these did not exactly strike as BART neophytes, but bag-tamping was underway. And despite the Walmart-on-Black-Friday throng of boarders at Embarcadero, the last SF stop, not one person asked that the six (yes, 6!) bags be removed from the seat in their favor. Perhaps because it looked like it would take the length of the Transbay Tube to even undertake such extrication.
It was only midway through my incredulity at their audacity and selfishness that another amazement struck: what person age 16-20 is buying six bags worth of stuff? Who are these debutantes with their obliviousness and their functioning credit cards?
Being wedged very much into the center of their conversation, I was able to learn a few answers. They were very involved in a health or science class of some kind, where they’d each just completed a final project on a different disease. Indeed, the non-tamper was waving around a 10-pager with a cover sheet that simply read “Herpes” in eighty-point font. (I mean, really, did I imagine these people could have a lick of self-consciousness when one of them is animatedly waving the word “Herpes” in the air?) Amazement at the ease of transmission methods of a particular disease whose name eluded me (perhaps the aforementioned manifest on text). Mutual reassurance at the virtual lock on securing an A in this class. Detailed analysis on how to adjust double-spacing and margins to reach 10 pages.
Just before my stop, the non-tamper hauled out a cell phone and started calling home (a good indication that they were pre-collegiate). She rolled her eyes and half-gasped and mused on why she ever calls home in the first place, since everyone has cell phones. She informed her comrade that she had, in fact, just cancelled caller ID and call waiting on the home line, since no one ever used the phone anyway. She was waiting for someone to notice.
With savings like that, you could bring home a whole extra quarter of a bag. But who would notice that either?
They were overly gracious in moving their legs aside so I could pass out of the train, up the escalator, and into the night.