My dad said that if I wanted to learn Cribbage, I should pull up a chair and watch. I was probably twelve years old at this point, so it’s possible that I had some scrap of patience, but it’s also likely that my dad broke down and explained the basics to me. And it’s not like Cribbage is Bridge – it thankfully eschews telepathic-like communication for corny rhymes and a familiarity with all the possible permutations of cards that total fifteen, nibs and nobs, and a few point-giving combos. From there it was a regular mode of communication for us, counting up our hands, holding grudges, celebrating or bemoaning a nasty skunk-job.
Some friends learned Crib from their dads too, and mine was normally half a continent away, so it was nice to shimmy up to their tables and unspool with this lighthearted tussle. The cards would propel us forward through any silences, and we’d play for muggins if we wanted to amp up the tension a notch, but it was primarily an excuse to socialize with other men and figure out how to interact with them in ways that didn’t seem rooted in perpetual teeth-baring antagonism. In a world without enough stellar positive male role models, it was a relief to find some to simmer down with.
Now my dad is losing his second battle with cancer and I’m on my way to play what’s likely my last games with him while trying to ease the struggle for him and my Californian family. It’s heavy, as you might expect, but I imagine Cribbage will lighten the load a little. In the meantime, I thought I’d brush up on my runs and flushes and therefore was in the market for a new Crib app, which lead me to the adorable Cribbage with Grandpas. The title lays out the premise in broad daylight – you do a little grandpa creation, tweaking the flannel and the wrinkles and the sass to your satisfaction, and then you give the old man a call to do a little dealing.
This isn’t the most robust Cribbage app available. Others can match you up with friends or strangers, let you customize cards and and more acutely refine the difficulty to your liking. But they don’t have Grandpas. And while I tried to create my first opponent in line with my step-Grandpa Mark, a couple of games in I realized he looked more like my dad. Of course, it’s not really even close, this grandpa doesn’t play guitar like the twinkling stars as my dad does and his puns don’t match up with the in-game groaners my dad taught me and, most of all, he counts his pairs before his fifteens which messes me up every time. But still, as I count down the time my own father has left on this plane, it’s nice to think that there’s this little way where I can spend some time with him in an small way after he’s gone.
The game doesn’t try replicate my dad, but casts a conjuration of my own memories of him, memories rooted in Cribbage and music and so much more.
While working through these feelings, I’m reminded of recent pieces discussing the way games can provide sandboxes to work through grief, loss and trauma. On the podcast Reply All, The Sims 4 helped a young woman cope with the loss of a treasured grandmother that she wasn’t allowed to say goodbye to; she created her idealized family initially to hold on as long as she could, until she was eventually ready to let go. There’s the potential that someone might never be ready to say farewell, maybe losing themselves in a simulacrum that could get ever more refined as technology trods on. Deep fakes, the movies Her and Ex-Machina, near Turing-complete chatbots and almost inexhaustible data collection all show how tantalizingly close we are to achieving pseudo-immortality. This doesn’t serve the ones whose likenesses are being preserved, but those who want to luxuriate in the nearness of our connections.
This is an extremely one-sided transaction, obliterating the true give-and-take in all relationships. It’s hard to be selfless with an AI whose needs are adjustable at the user’s whim rather than its own, and we can’t truly be tested in our own humanity if we know we can turn off the app or forget to log-in for a while.
Which is where Cribbage with Grandpas gets it just right – the game doesn’t try replicate my dad, but casts a conjuration of my own memories of him, memories rooted in Cribbage and music and so much more. The best games are more than just familiar systems, they facilitate the sparks of our interpersonal connections. Fortnite is the basis of socialization for so many kids, Minecraft is a digital playground that built a generation of friendships and Cribbage will always be that kind of intimate game to me. It’s most acutely enjoyed where I can mess up my shuffle, call out missed points and groan over gifts given via the crib with friends new and old, brothers and sisters, and the glowing memories of my dad.