Read this book, read it backwards, read the instructions, forget them, and read it again. Mathias Svalina’s, America at Play, is a collection of game scenarios that pull at your reality, forcing you to see what’s hidden in plain sight. Each game is a story, an existence, an enigma. The games invite you to imagine them, suggesting where you may find yourself in each of them, as what player, and why. America at Play handcuffs you to its contents, urging you to read the games over and over and over, seeing them through your many eyes, finding yourself inside of them.
The collections’ terrain is a political playground, dense with euphemisms and riddles that so gracefully touch the surface of the political climate of today’s America. Of the greater games at play, in which all of us become aware that we are pawns, we don’t makes the rules, that we are pieces on a chessboard. America at Play reminds us of how we are drafted into America’s eternal battles from the moment we take our first breath, Svalina unfolds the playing boards that we step onto, from one to the next, until there are no more, until it is game over and we are left for dead.
The children run from the alarms.
At home the children eat their suppers with the tv on. When their mothers ask ‘How was school’, they say ‘ok’.
Between Games for Older Children and War Games, we are presented, but not interrupted by, games as Rites of Passage. Svalina paints this crucial part of his collection so masterfully, allowing this series of games to explore the ceremonious landmarks that define us in American culture. All of our first’s and the bliss and sorrow they provide- Puberty, First Kiss, First Time One Is Allowed to Stay Home Alone. These instructions are lessons and stories of sad children, of youth, of innocence lost. Beautiful and tragic, he reminds us of all of the moments we learn what it is like when we truly understand what it is to feel alone, what it is when it becomes more clear who is on our team. When we need to run from the Fox, when we learn that we can’t always protect the Rat from the Cat.
War Games are the wars happening inside of us, and those happening outside of us that we are chained to. The battle line is the edge of the playing field, is a chalk-drawn line in the middle of the blacktop, inviting children to the very front. Svalina uses these games to illuminate for us the tragedies that occur everyday, the ones we see and don’t, the ones we choose not to.
There are classisms outside of the classroom games, the silver slippered children we meet in them, and the children who are instructed to turn their backs to the others.
The child with the darkest skin does not sit beside the child with the shiniest shoes.
Social training has an added meaning here. Anyone who is tagged must join the group that tags them.
The colors of our skin as the first teams we are placed in, our colors as a game, as one of our immediate divides. Structural competition exists in each game, what we are instructed not to do, is to realize that the winners are chosen before the games begin. If you follow the instructions, Svalina draws for you a pattern, a paradigm, of social injustices. Subtle as some of them may be, the truth of the realities presented wraps your heart with a clenched fist.
The children hold hands & refuse to allow either the It-child or the chosen child to stop running. These two continue running for the rest of their lives.
We are all the children in this book at every stage in life, we will continue to play their games, the only thing changing is learning that the instructions and rules have long since been decided, that most always, America decides which children are It. I am certain you will want to play.