Why Men Play Games

My latest essay at The Good Men Project

The Rock Father, James Zahn (left), and I play a very serious game of Call of Duty during the Battroborg publicity tour. (Photo courtesy of James Zahn.)

As stupid as fantasy football and playing cards may sound, the distractions men create to get together and hang out plays a vital role in mental and emotional well being.

As we get older and time gets scarce it’s hard for men to justify the hobbies of their youth. The three-hour football game our fathers indulged in over our home team has now spread into an 11-hour fantasy football orgy spread over three days that even the most patient spouse has trouble understanding.

Fantasy football is awesome and it’s stupid and it’s not the only game we play.

We spend five hours golfing 18 holes with our in-laws or our peers or our buddies, and that is understandable, but spouses can’t help to wonder why it becomes an all-day affair.

Why don’t you just come home after golf and help me out?

Because the 19th hole is the best part, baby!

We don’t make a good argument why it’s the best part, or why fantasy is important, or why a periodic card game matters. Often we’re not aware of it. I’m going to go make shit of my friends. I’m going to make the best dick jokes. I’m going to drink beer, use tobacco, fart and bullshit. It’s important, dear.

Most of men’s group activities sound like nothing more than a reprisal of college days of dissipation and irresponsibility. The list of things I like to do with my buddies (not just the two of my inner circle but the other buddies I might see once a year), include playing cards, playing football fantasy or otherwise, playing video games, playing golf—it all involves playing something or watching someone else play something. And beer.

But it is the act of getting together not the activity that matters.

I’m going to go make shit of my friends. I’m going to make the best dick jokes. I’m going to drink beer, use tobacco, fart and bullshit. It’s important, dear.

It’s what enables us to connect. I speak for my group of friends but I think it’s pretty typical. For a man to say to another man let’s get together and talk without it being the payout for a lost bet is unsettling.

“What are we gonna do?”


“About what?”

“Our lives.”

It happens but such a serious tone implies some dire necessity. The same impetus can be resolved by “Wanna get a beer and watch the game?”

I don’t know if it’s a gender thing and I don’t really care as to what the reasons are. The more feminine group interactions feature a more intimate theme, like a recipe club or wine club; considering the intimate nature of how these things are shared, the centerpiece of the meet up is not the distraction but the discussion. Women are more likely to create intimate, inward looking social encounters while men behave more like a penis and seek outward distractions. There are exceptions to every gender generalization, I know, but women’s group time is perceived to be more meaningful and important.

Men’s group activities are not. Seemingly.

Last month I had two meet ups with different friends in two weeks—I know, more social interaction than in a typical year. One was a promotional opportunity for a bunch of dad bloggers whom I’d known only by the one-dimensional square of their avatar or the wide-ranging wit of their comments and posts. The opportunity to meet a virtual group in reality (I learned what IRL means) was one I didn’t want to miss.

But the premise was absurd.

TOMY International toy company was on a nationwide tour in a video-gaming truck to promote its latest innovation, Battroborg, a miniaturized version of remote controlled robot-fighting game. A group of guys in a parking huddled around two guys furiously shaking the controllers in their hands, all over a two-foot game arena studded by 3-inch robot boxers, looked like a giant circle jerk.

Inside the truck trailer was a wall of couches opposite a wall of flat screen TVs hooked up to PS2 and all the other gaming systems. (Yes, it can be rented.) I never got into gaming and this night was no different, but I liked hanging around.

When we lived in the city and I was a stay-at-home dad with a toddler and a newborn, I would meet up with 4 to 8 dads every Thursday as part of Chicago Dads meet up group. The strangers that would become my friends shared more in common with me than some of my oldest friends because we were parents of kids the same age and we lived nearby. The weekly two-hour meet up satisfied some of that parental loneliness and longing for adult interaction. The weekly play date was much more popular than the monthly dads meet up night at a bar.

It was the play, with our kids and with other dads, that was theraputic; men are much more likely to talk when they have the option of talking, not the expectation. The expectation is work; the option is a choice.

More insightful was our fantasy football draft around Labor Day. Five of the ten teams are guys from high school; three are from college. Some fantasy leagues are all high school friends that have been around for decades. I would argue the vast majority share some social significance beyond the game itself.

Though I may talk to these guys online via failed attempts at a get together, I am guaranteed that I will see them at the fantasy football draft, which has become only a two-hour commitment. Half of these guys, whom I love, I see only once a year.

Of the eight guys that showed up it was revealed that three were in the midst of divorce or a major breakup of a long-term relationship. Fifteen years in one case. More than half the guys in our league had been divorced; one was in marriage counseling; two others had never been married. The only link to this rash of divorce was that we were all in this stupid fantasy football league.

This is not causation, not matter how seductive the reductive.

The point is had we not gotten together to talk about PPR stats and the philosophy of offensive coordinators, we never would have shared these more meaningful and painful facts of our lives. Not one of us, had we found out about the other guy’s plight, would’ve been taken seriously if we called up and said, hey wanna talk. That’s what the core group of two guys is for. But to be able to share the experience and the pain with that broader ring of friends makes it feel a whole lot less isolating.

Hearing people talk about similar experiences, or reading about other people with similar experiences, is nothing compared to sharing it with the people you have chosen to be part of your life.

Men like me and my friends aren’t likely to talk about the things that weigh on us because it’s painful and the whole reason we get together is to have fun and create a distraction from that which pains us. It is in this context, appreciating the simple pleasure of being around other guys over some mindless distraction and the esteem we award the wittiest shit givers, that we get perspective, that whatever else is unraveling in our personal lives isn’t as bad because, on the life-death continuum, everything is a choice of diversion and engagement.

Spending time with friends, no matter how moronic the theme, no matter how callow it may seem compared to women’s, cannot be discounted. It is not the activity but the act and it is a vital part of feeling balanced with all the other distractions of work, marriage and parenting.

Unfortunately, as we get older and our ties are strained by geography, consequence, and commitments, it’s harder and harder to justify those interactions. We hear the guilt and self-doubt and look at all those other things we could and should be getting done with our five hours. Then a year passes, maybe ten, and the only thing you hear about old friends is what you’ve missed.


Auto writer/editor for the Chicago Tribune

contact pageThis image is pretty familiar here. For the past week, it’s been the facebook image for my job as the editor of the Green Guide for Fuel-Efficient Vehicles at the Chicago Tribune. It’s a silly ploy to get people to submit their fuel-efficient Car Stories. What’s fuel-efficient about this minivan? It still runs, and we’ll run it to death.

Americans hold onto their cars for an average of 11.4 years, a new high. We’ve got that beat.

Here’s a few more of my articles from the past week at the Tribune on fuel-efficient trends in the auto industry.

Where is the hybrid minivan in America?

Automakers in the United States have no plans to sell hybrid or plug-in minivans, though they keep developing electrified crossovers and compacts.

2014: The year of the diesel?

13 diesel passenger vehicles enter the US market for 2014 boasting better fuel economy and lower emissions than gasoline engines. And they’re not all Volkswagen or Mercedes-Benz.

2014 Ford F-150 Tremor: With great power comes pretty good fuel economy

Combining V8 performance with V6 fuel economy, the Ford F-150 Tremor with EcoBoost packs pickup power and speed.





Literary Chicago: Past, Present, Future

Chicago Publishers Gallery Book Wall. Photo credit: Chicago PublishesA Brief Literary History of Chicago Published in F Magazine

It’s a little known fact that four of eight Nobel Prize winners in Literature hail from the Midwest. Here’s another Cliff Clavinism: an essay I was assigned by Tom Popp of f Magazine has been published, “Never a Lovely so Realizable: The Chicago Literary Landscape.

The Next Big Thing

photo by rakugo

My friend Megan Stielstra, author of Everyone Remain Calm and bestower of good news emails, asked if I wanted to partake in a blog chain going around amongst writers called The Next Big Thing. You agree to answer a ten-question form, then get 3-5 other writers to participate. The idea is not just to drum up support for our works in progress but to see what our writer friends are up to. Here’s Megan’s Big Thing.

As writers we don’t have a water cooler where we can meet at during the day to share our frustrations or boast of our minor breakthroughs. Few nonwriters could understand why you’d be bragging about finally nailing that key transitional paragraph. That’s what I’m taking from The Next Big Thing.

1. What is your working title of your book?

The Affairess

2. Where did the idea come from for the book?

Moving from the city to the suburbs, taking the 6:20 am express train, and seeing the same woman get dropped off by her husband at the train stop, then meeting her lover three stops later on the train. That might be fiction. I don’t know. Definitely from riding the commuter rail from the suburbs to the city. And feeling grateful for the first time to be at least underemployed.

3. What genre does your book fall under?

Romance and humor. A student classified a writer as such tonight in class and I loved that. Bleak romance and dark humor.

4. Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Bugs Bunny doing both genders.

5. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Lying to his wife about losing his job, a man about to lose everything finds inspiration in the woman having an affair on the train.

6. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I will have a  box-o-books with my name on the spine delivered to my door. I will have validation. Preferably in cash.

7. How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

Tinkered around in the dark of winter, saw the light, wrote it in the summer. Came quick once I heard it. Three months. Read excerpts from six chapters last year at various reading series. Started third major rewrite in January 2013. Expect to be done in March, then writing group again, then my wife the ringer, then submitted by summer.

8. What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I don’t much like Updike yet Lyle has some Rabbit characteristics. The suburban pageantry and the economic collapse dovetail into characters who are estranged from themselves by the lies they perpetuate to assert a sense of identity. Earlier draft had the Affairess jumping in front of a train, so there’s some subconscious Anna Karenina. Sans threshing of the wheat. Takes place in February, the longest month of the year for Chicagoans, so it feels Russian at times, but with hope.

9. Who or what inspired you to write this book?

It was fun. Then it became something that was saying something. I didn’t hold it in the same make-or-break regard as my first (unpublished) book, which was personal and which had to be perfect(it isn’t). This was pure (see #1)fiction, a daily discovery that led to creation, and it was fun. The inspiration was not thinking about the old novel anymore (still do).

10. What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

There’s a disturbing blow job scene.


Gint Aras, author of Finding The Moon in Sugar, editor of the Marriage section of the Good Men Project, professor at Morton Community College.

Amy Guth, author of Three Fallen Women, Social Media Manager at Tribune Media Company, RUI co-host.

Scott Miles, Pushcart-Prize nominated writer and author of The Downriver Horseshoe.

News & Notes 2013

We made it through a Thanksgiving snowstorm in the Poconos on our drive back from Philly, and Lil’ Griswald has never been better.

I’m excited for the new semester, where I’ll be teaching the Writer’s Portfolio to graduating seniors. Students build websites and compile print portfolios to prep for post-collegiate life.

A few reviews have been published since the last update, a few articles, a round-up of jams and jellies (spreadable fruit is delicious), had an essay in The Way We Sleep, but the busiest aspect has been the new editing job.

I’m the editor of the Dads & Families section of The Good Men Project, a progressive digital men’s magazine engaging in a conversation about the role of men in modern life. Like our facebook page. You’ll find stuff like this:

A meme from a 600-page epic? Sure it’s wordy, but what a brilliant book. No one does characterizations like Steinbeck. I’m indulging in the letters to his editor, collected in full in Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters. Each time he sat down to write, he’d pen(cil) a note on the left-hand side of the notebook, musings on life and the novel, then write the manuscript on the right-hand side. I’ve been reading an page each morning, while it’s still dark and the house is quiet, goading me onward in rewrites of The Affairess.

News and Notes

Robert Duffer in the MinivanThanks for visiting my relaunched site, Duffer 2.0.

Along with the relaunch, I’d like to announce my new job editing the Dads & Families section for the Good Men Project.

In these pages, you’ll find samples and clips of my:

and me in my minivan. Click it to contact me. For more about me, go here or there.

Juli Duffer web designBig thanks to my sister, Juli Duffer, who helped migrate the design and content into this more self-sufficient platform. She is awesome and supremely talented and you should hire her because she can explain every single thing on any web page with ease and wit. This is her self portrait.