The glory of pong

by Abbey Cahill | 9/21/16 12:58am

Masters, a haiku:

I am claustrophobic.

There is sweat dripping on me;

It is not my own.

Here is the truth of it: The pong ball is equally a piece of equipment for a traditional Dartmouth game as it is a vehicle for dirt, mysterious fluids, old beer and, in the summer, squashed fruit fly remains.

Any basement utilized for pong is a moist, hot breeding ground for all sorts of decaying microorganisms, evidenced by the way that pong tables decompose. A table from 2005 looks like it has been sitting outside, exposed to the elements for 20 years. In basements across campus, time is accelerated. Wood rots at an uncanny speed. One game turns into four. Is it still light outside? What time did we start this harbor game? We do not know.

On top of the general air of grossness that it creates, pong also has a way of bringing out animalistic tendencies in otherwise civilized people. The alpha male tends to dominate “strong side,” or the left side of the table, where cups can be reached most efficiently by right-handed people. As a result of learning to play pong in a somewhat patriarchal society, I was immediately relegated to the less desirable “weak side” upon entering Dartmouth, and now I prefer it. Every time I step on table, I am reminded of it.

So, superficially, pong is pretty disgusting in every sense of the word. Then why do we love it so much?

Pong today is a campus unifier; it is much more inclusive than it used to be. In the past decades, it has transformed from a one-table game essentially limited to brothers within the given fraternity to a multi-table operation in which all people are generally welcome to stay and play. Since its conception, pong has also spread to sororities (hooray for female-dominated social spaces), co-ed houses and off-campus houses across Dartmouth.

It is a non-intimidating rite of passage for freshmen because it provides easy opportunities for bonding and allows normal social conventions like eye contact and body language to disappear from the picture (for better or for worse). Furthermore, it’s a relatively safe alternative to other drinking behaviors because it excludes hard liquor and confines drinking to regulated, public spaces.

Over sophomore summer, all the hype surrounding pong peaks. Dartmouth becomes our space. Pong becomes our game, and it’s this sense of pride that makes people so obsessive. Brackets are made. Tournaments are held. Even on parents’ weekend, moms and dads fill the basements.

It all culminates in Masters, where people from all corners of campus play for recognition, for glory and for fraternity. The seriousness surrounding the entire ordeal is comical.

“‘It’s just a game’ — losers,” a winner asserted via Instagram this year.

Masters also creates a depressing sense of disillusionment once it’s all over. Later, over a cup of warm flat keystone in a subpar basement scene, a friend asked without a hint of irony, “What’s the point of even trying at pong now that Masters is over?”

Pong disillusionment is totally real, and it comes with time. The infamous Generic Good Morning Message listserv included pong in their June 2nd, 2016 message titled “Goals I Had as a Freshman vs. Goals I Have Going into Senior Year:”

Freshman Year Goals: Make it to masters, kick-save in the finals, sink the final cup, rip my shirt off, boot into the crowd, show the fans “livin’ la vida loca” tattooed across my chest.

Senior Year Goals: Get 3’s on line with nobody in the basement besides those 4 kids who are always down there. Wait out the line of 3’s.

The Pong-Star illusion shatters for most as sophomore summer passes and graduation nears, but there are always those die-hards who regard beer pong as their main extracurricular activity. It’s been this way for a long time, a Psi U ’84 told me.

The important thing about pong, though, is that it transcends generations, ages, and groups on campus — and that’s what’s special.