My son Justin is obsessed with taking over the world. Last week, when we were on vacation in Denver, he was introduced to Parker Brother’s game Risk. The object of the game is to conquer the world with your military might. You do this by stockpiling forces, strategically placing your armies, and conquering other countries by throwing the “attacking dice.” There is nothing cooperative about Risk. It doesn’t teach you to care about people who have less than you, to form alliances, to care about world hunger, global warming, overpopulation or international cooperation. It doesn’t touch on any of those politically correct themes. A popular favorite since 1951, Risk is about vanquishing and subduing your enemies. Period.
I grew up playing Risk-and loving it. I hadn’t seen a Risk board in thirty years, but I immediately got sucked into that first game with Justin. I told him that Risk wasn’t like the other games we’d been playing. For months now, I’ve been patiently teaching him to play chess, backgammon, cribbage, and a number of other games, carefully letting him win while ensuring his success and pleasure in the game. I told him right away, “Justin, Risk is different. It’s not a merciful game. Everyone is out to conquer the world, and when you’re losing, it doesn’t feel very good. Are you sure you’re ready for this game? You can’t whine when you play Risk. It takes years to learn the best strategies. You’re probably going to lose a lot first. Can you handle that?”
Justin assured me he could take it, and so we started playing with the sixteen-year-old girl who lived across the street. I steadily built my base in North America. They fought over Asia and Europe, the most difficult continents to defend. I consolidated my gains and didn’t spread myself too thin. They both went all out trying to win every country they could. Two hours later, I had them both in a stranglehold. Pretty soon, the world was mine. I felt the heady rush of power that comes with world conquest. I tried to be nice about it, but the fact is, I had just conquered the world.
Justin struggled to keep his composure, and he managed to, barely. As soon as the game was over, he wanted to start again. But since the epic struggle had gone on all evening, I said it would have to wait until tomorrow.
The next day, a new cast of characters played Risk. I lost early (I think playing Risk once every three decades is enough for me), and Justin hung in, trying out every strategy he’d watched me use the night before. He lost again, but gave the winner a real run for his money. As soon as the final country fell, he wanted to play again, a boy obsessed. Finally on his fourth try, he won. He was beside himself with pleasure, so excited he couldn’t sleep. “I had fifty-two armies in Iceland, Mama!” he told me.
During the last two days of our vacation, Justin tried to convince everyone we crossed paths with to play Risk-again and again. I had some fleeting doubts about encouraging my almost-eight-year old to revel in military victories, but then I said to myself, “Hey, he’s a kid. This is a game. He’s got so little real power in the world and so few places to exert it. Why not give him a chance to conquer the world?”
On the plane ride home, Justin made me promise to go out and buy Risk as soon as we got home. So I did. The next night, he got another game going, outlasting all of his opponents simply by sheer endurance. Once the grown-ups had all quit (“Justin, I have to go to work tomorrow!”), he enlisted Emily, who was too young to understand the game, but was thrilled to do as she was told, to finally be included in this game that had absorbed her brother for days now. They played for three hours. He was the model of kindness: “Okay, Emily. You should move your troops here, into Eastern Europe. Now roll three of these dice. Oh, great Emily, you got a six and a five! Your six beats my five and your five beats my three! That’s a double loss for me. You’re doing great!”
Two days after we got home, Justin asked for some tracing paper. He began tracing the whole gameboard, writing in the names of the countries and coloring them in. He was so excited about Risk that he decided to make a whole set for his best friend at school. He found every scrap of cardboard we had in the house (tea boxes, leftover shoeboxes, medicine boxes) and started taping the pieces of tracing paper to the cardboard, creating one huge unwieldy game board. He had plans for duplicating the cards and the rules. He started talking about how he might make the game pieces.
For the past few days, this facsimile Risk set is what Justin has wanted to work on from the moment he walks in from school. What started out with an obsession with victory has turned into an art extravaganza-and an act of generosity toward his friend. It’s been several days since any attacking dice were thrown at our house, but the house is full of paper and tape and pens and creativity. So much for taking over the world.