Lest the Old Traditions Fail: COVID-19 and the Future of Pong
Will Dartmouth pong be yet another casualty of the pandemic?
Up until a year ago, the sound of ping pong balls and music could be heard echoing through Webster Avenue almost every night, weekend or not. Although there are a variety of social spaces at Dartmouth, you can find pong being played in almost all of them. Pong, whether you call it a drinking game, a ritual or even a sport, is an iconically Dartmouth phenomenon. In Greek houses, off-campus apartments and alumni homes alike there are huge tables — sometimes even made from specially ordered lumber — painted with colorful designs and occupied by four paddle-wielding players.
Teaching the younger generation to play pong is a time-honored tradition. I still remember being shepherded into my club soccer teammate’s sorority basement the night our frat ban lifted during my freshman fall, being handed a sawed-off paddle and clumsily playing my first game.
Then the pandemic hit. For almost a year now, Dartmouth students have been stripped of our access to many of the places, communities and traditions that make school feel like home. As our year-long hiatus from “normal life” stretches on indeterminately into the future, I find myself missing the casual camaraderie and quintessential Dartmouth feeling of playing pong. I also find myself wondering if pong will be one more casualty of a pandemic that has already taken so much.
To get a sense of where we go from here, I talked to a cross-section of Dartmouth students, both older and younger than myself, about what COVID-19 means for the future of pong.
Leah Zamansky ’24, who is living on campus this winter and also lived on campus in the fall, shared some of the ways new students have struggled to become familiar with both pong and the broader Dartmouth social scene.
“In the winter, some people pushed their desks together to make a pong table,” Zamansky said. “One friend wanted to use cardboard, and people were trying to take tables from the basement. It’s not super ideal, and I’m not sure how many people actually know how to play Dartmouth pong because there are not upperclassmen on campus teaching us.”
Between the restrictions on group gatherings, the lack of connections to upperclassmen and the scarcity of materials, opportunities for ’24s to learn and play pong have been slim to none. Yet, the desire to join in is still strong.
“We all wish that we were able to do all the things that people do in normal years. It’s really sad — we only go into each others’ dorm rooms and not anything else ever.” Zamansky said.
Furthermore, access to social spaces at Dartmouth — spaces where pong is often taught and played — has never been equal, even in normal years.
“I definitely had more exposure to pong than my non-athlete friends because I had more access to frat basements where I knew guys on my team,” said Connor Luck ’23, a track and field athlete and member of the Gamma Delta Chi fraternity. “I had this connection with upperclassmen that I wouldn’t have had if I wasn’t on the team.”
Lauren Douglas ’21, a member of the women’s volleyball team and Kappa Delta Epsilon sorority, shared her thoughts on the exclusive social dynamics that have been exacerbated by a year of COVID-19 restrictions.
“The issue with this year has been that if you are playing any pong, you have to have your own table and a place to play — which mostly lies in upperclassmen houses — creating a dynamic where you have to know upperclassmen in order to play. It’s not like you walk into a frat and there are six tables no matter what,” Douglas said.
However, despite the challenges of the past year, Douglas expressed her faith in the social value and staying power of pong.
“The thing that gives me hope is that pong is literally sacred to Dartmouth kids — I know alumni are playing pong in bars in New York, and there are tables in alums’ Boston apartments,” Douglas said.
As Douglas pointed out, the COVID-19 pandemic is not the first time Dartmouth has weathered a crisis, and yet pong has continued to stick around.
“Pong could have died a million different ways already, but the spirit of Dartmouth has kept it alive. It’s not like people just forget about it,” Douglas said.
From quarantined students painting tables at home during the long pandemic spring to the efforts of ’24s to join in on makeshift tables, it appears likely that pong will survive the pandemic.
As Luck said, “Once you learn it, you kind of bring it everywhere.”