Magic Penny Jar & the Essence of Play


A nostalgic look back at early play and pondering the making of a gamer. Where did it all start? Where could it all go? Come share your early gaming experiences and help unravel the mysteries of play.

Why Do I Play?
The old question has come to haunt me again. What is it in these games that still attracts and rewards me? I know I can identify a sense of achievement. Playing means something to me beyond a means of relaxation. However, I have dozens of other ways to bring rewards of achievement, both in empirical and non-empirical terms. The immediate reasons fall short. There must be more to it.

This deliberation is not a question of whether I will continue to play. I'm over the socially accepted age-line and can indulge in childhood pursuits with less and less scorn as I gain Old-Codger status points. I ponder the questions only for myself, perhaps find a key to perfect my own amusement.

Early Gaming
My earliest gameplay experiences occurred where the only thing that came by cable was electricity. Telephone lines were categorized "wires" and connected to telephones -- and only to telephones. An antenna fed signals to the TV in a one-way flow and the "remote" was asking another member of the family closer to the set to change the channel. The radio still had near as many shows and was a legitimate alternative to the tube. There was a calculator in the house but the only computer was of the original definition of the word. Handhelds referred to either stuffed animals, small children or science fiction props. A controller was a personality type.

Life was simpler. Things lasted longer, but not forever. During one annual clean up my father disassembled an ancient recliner, well beyond use. It yielded a treasure of coins from within its worn padding, broken frame and upholstered folds. Years of pocket change had slipped a coin at a time into the seams and cracks, never to be seen again for decades. There were a couple nifty old half-dollar coins, plenty of standard dimes and nickels of various dates, and a hoard of pennies. What was not put back into circulation immediately went into a jar, formerly a glass barrel of pickles. It became known as the "Penny Jar" and served as a receptacle for spare change. When it filled to the point it could hold no more my father would break out the brown paper sleeves. We would assemble coin-rolls, together as a family, and take them off to the store or bank. The Penny Jar would never be emptied completely, however, except briefly when we needed it to play.

Ways to Play
Solo play didn't always require props but could involve anything. I now suspect toys were invented in part to keep small hands and big imaginations off of other household items. "Serious" things were intended to be "boring" things and therefore protected from fantastical enactments and being left out in the rain when playtime exceeded attention spans. The Penny Jar initially fell within the realm of the protected but mightily tempting.

Playing with adults, on the other hand, usually required more structure and visual aids. Somewhere along the way to adulthood they lost the ability or will to freestyle. Therefore even before the accumulation of years of games (meaning chess, checkers, backgammon, Reversi, Monopoly and Life) there was always a deck of cards handy, an ideal combination with the Penny Jar.

Penny Jar Magic
It was pure magic from the first use. My father didn't just pass out handfuls of pennies, fortunes were bequeathed. I remember the excitement of the penny disbursement, punctuated squeals of laughter (many likely my own), and the fascination of counting and stacking one's own holdings. From that moment through the many games that followed it felt real. I was risking, winning and losing my own fortunes. "The thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat" -- especially losing to a younger sibling who didn't quite comprehend the meaning of "four of a kind beats a full house" but loving the moment of scooping up the mountain of winnings.

Every time we played winning felt like winning, losing felt like losing, even though nothing really changed. The pennies went back into the jar at the end, but the sense of having won or lost remained. Afterward my mind always raced with thoughts of next time. How could I increase my fortunes if I had done well, how could I improve on the results if I had busted. I know I wasn't alone.

Coin Age
The card games provided a new classification for the Penny Jar. It still required special dispensation but was firmly in the category of play-tool. And what a tool! Individual pennies served well as various markers or substitute game pieces. They could be the basic unit for stacking or spinning with the snap of a finger. Columns and pyramids of the copper discs became alien power sources, treasure or weapons. Anything!

It was not all games however. A number of pennies disappeared in the name of science, used in sacrificial experiments on railroad tracks. While fascinating shapes resulted it was hard to work the flattened blobs into play. They didn't stack and couldn't spin. The commemorative medals made by machines that charged a nickel to press a penny into a new form were only a little better.

More than a few pennies served in early economics lessons, often in exchange for bubble gum that was rock hard, and probably stale, but included a small comic inside the wrapping. Other similar consumables were also involved in identical lessons and I never tired of the repetition.

Escalation to Arcade
It is possible the attraction to pennies played a part in the thrill I felt at a roll of quarters during the arcade boom. The memories feel similar. While I played with quarters -- stacking, flipping, spinning, bouncing and even bought snacks on occasion -- I didn't smash any on railroad tracks. I take this as an indication of personal growth and a tribute to the educational value of pennies that sacrificed themselves so that quarters would not be wasted. Some dispute remains over whether my use of the quarters qualified as a waste.

Beyond the Arcade Age
For some inexplicable reason I did not make the jump to the other kind of gaming with coins, such as slots, or gambling with dice and cards and chips. It seems a little odd in retrospect. But gambling could never satisfy like the video arcade. Atari added to the thrills away from the arcade as did the advent of D&D and heyday of Avalon Hill. The order and impact is all jumbled in my nostalgic fog but it was a glorious time to game.

There was also a hiatus or three taking me away from regular play starting in the midst of the Arcade Age. I missed the decline of arcades and collapse of Atari. Avalon Hill faded much in my absence. Sometimes I feel personally responsible. If I had only been there to purchase and play.

Computers and the Internet would catch me before I could get it figured out. There was so much to explore and play. And although my experience with graphical MMORPGs resembled the Hindenburg, soaring potential collapsed in a fiery end, the urge to play remained.

Somewhere along the way "play" transcended "games" and transduced "life". I no longer had to stop playing and get back on with real life, I just switch games. Cooking game, cleaning game, the day job game. While not all were as fun as other games they were more fun, fulfilling and less disappointing than a certain 3D MMORPG-that-shall-not-be-named. Now I play all the time and couldn't stop if I wanted to -- not that I want to. But even as I can play at anything I still adore games.

I do want to better understand the phenomenon. When think on it, it takes me back to the Magic Penny Jar. But this is not the standard ending where I cycle back and tell you "Now I'm all grown up and have my own penny jar." I don't. There are no "pennies" for one thing. Coins are considered dirty -- who knows where they've been! -- in this age of advanced knowledge and hygiene.

Perhaps the answer is out there with you. Is it a magic resonance of penny jars or the local alternate? Is it simply a result of the culmination of expendable income and leisure time? If it is the coin jars, could we usher in a new spiritual age of play by assembling our magic totems? It is important enough to to ask.

Do you know why you play?

Wow, I'm speechless (textless?). I'll return once I have more fully analyzed this article and have something more meaningful to contribute, but let me be the first to applaud you, Aozora. This is intense stuff, and it sends my head spinning in all sorts of fun ways. A bang-up piece of literature, right here.

*blushing* Thanks for the kind words. This actually started as a forum post but got out of hand so I just rolled with it.

Any contributions are good. Even simple ones. I really am interested in what other peoples' experiences are. It gives me a broader view on myself and the world. And I love finding the connections. Did you have the same board games stuffed in the hall closet? Were adults resistant to play? Anything.

One part of "play" for me is slapping down words and kneading them into different shapes, not much different that hobbies with clay, assembling toy models or drawing pictures. It is an enjoyable pastime.

A great read, Aozora. I'll mull this over for a bit.

Thanks zip. Your comments help to sooth my nerves wrought up because I am behind my submission schedule, heh-heh. Oops.

By the way, is it a good time to say, "Welcome back"?

sure it is :)

I could go on and on about my experiences with roleplaying, but I suppose I'll just answer the question now. I've met some of my best friends through roleplaying. I've been a part of some of the most fantastic stories that have ever taken place outside of a Dragonlance novel. I have played some of my most memorable characters (while off of the stage) during roleplaying games.

But I think the biggest reason why I still play would have to be that when you find a really good group of people to play with, roleplaying becomes like air. Wow, that really sounds nutty, but it's true . . . at least for me. I really just feel like I'm holding my breath through the work week until I get to my next game and can take another fresh breath.

When MySpace comes back up, I'll drop the prelude to the answer there. I'd really started to run on.

I could go on and on about my experiences with roleplaying ...
When MySpace comes back up, I'll drop the prelude to the answer there.

Great answer, not nutty at all. I'll be looking for the prelude, please drop us a link or some more comments when you get a chance.