Dartmouth students are known for their "work hard, play hard" mentality and their dominant competitive streak. Nowhere is this more prominent than in the subculture that has sprung up around our favorite weekend -- and weeknight -- activity, pong. The infamous game, during which two sets of partners use ping pong paddles without handles to try and "hit" and "sink" all their opponents' cups, is a very Dartmouth invention. Unlike its more primitive cousin, Beirut, it combines skill, speed and saves with a ready-made social scene. However, despite the positive aspects of pong -- its ties to Dartmouth tradition, the opportunities for social mixing, the slight athletic payoff, its negative qualities can be overwhelming when looked at from a distance. While binge drinking and drinking games are not endemic to Dartmouth, the emphasis we place on an activity that in a single game can put its players in danger of passing the binge drinking mark is troubling.
Pong developed in its earliest form in the 1950s. Originally played only by frat boys, it has become a universal game that unites the (drinking) people on this campus. It serves as a metaphor for the way in which Dartmouth traditions can evolve without losing their ability to tie students and alumni together. While we may never know when the first game of pong was played or what the original rules were, there is a rich history from which to draw. The game has had many incarnations, be they fast pong, or lob pong, two-cup, shrub or ship, but the essentials have remained the same. Additionally, pong is also very social, providing opportunities for get-to-know-you games and for general mixing that may otherwise be harder to find on our small, isolated campus. Plus, pong can often be fun -- at least while you are winning.
The problem, however, is that we often allow our Dartmouth myopia to overwhelm our commonsense. Looked at from a distance, there is something disturbing about the importance we place on an activity that can literally be defined as binge drinking. The reminiscences of alums seem to suggest that this was not always the case, with pong being played with less alcohol and more emphasis on skill. There is also something unsettling about the extent to which pong has co-opted our social scene and our dating culture. While hook-ups are a fact of college life, the attitude that a game -- or four -- of pong is equivalent to actual courtship is upsetting. Furthermore, it is not realistic. If Dartmouth is preparing us for the real world, what good will the ability to impress a possible partner with your serve or throwsaves actually be?
Pong is, at least for now, an essential and often enjoyable aspect of Dartmouth culture, and has been for decades. It is a shame that it should have become so caught up in some of the more negative aspects of college life. But just as our current alums remember pong fondly despite the way in which it has evolved, we too will probably remember long nights of holding table with fond nostalgia.