by Tom Vanderbilt
No game towered so ferociously over my eight-year old imagination as Truth or Dare. Other youthful pursuits, such as Freeze Tag, Red Rover, and even the ominously titled "Bloody Murder," were safe and predictable, operating under an essentially closed system: you were always found, you "kicked the can" or you were hit with a springy red ball that signaled your instant expulsion. These games fit perfectly into the moral structure of childhood. They followed a clear-cut set of causes and results that was as appealingly simple as a round of heads or tails: good guys should always win, uneaten food was an affront to untold starving millions and a tag meant you were "it." Truth or Dare, on the other hand, was always tinged with danger and unpredictability, and the mere mention of its name invited a certain solemnity to whatever Rec Room we happened to find ourselves in. Like attending a 'PG' film without parents, playing a game of Truth or Dare hinted that we had control over our desires, as well as their consequences.
Truth or Dare expanded the realm of the possible, valiantly charging across the well-circumscribed boundaries of behavior. The game did present two fairly potent categories for children to be dabbling in: Truth was linked to "Justice, and the American Way" and thus part of the rigorously-subscribed-to dictum of at least one Saturday morning cartoon show; the Dare was part of a tangled nexus that involved the power of social mastery, the desire to conform, and the expression of whatever dark machinations were working inside those seemingly innocent and tousled heads. We let loose the Keds-and-Garanimals-wearing collective id and marveled as I sent my neighbor Michael B. (who otherwise I considered my friend) across the street to "ding-dong-ditch" the block's potential pathological killer.
Thinking back on it now, Truth or Dare was ultimately as preordained as any of the other leisure concepts fathomable by the pre-pre-teen mind. The truths sought almost always revolved around whatever objects of affection one was concealing, and the dare inevitably involved the consummation of that secret affection, duly marked in a brief public rite. My own boyish pride prevented me from telling the truth about my feelings for Kathy R., and a similar impulse caused me to wrinkle with disgust over the imperative to "french kiss" her. The game usually ended rather quickly, as all the appropriate questions were asked and all the conceivable dares exhausted, to be forgotten until the next brave suggestion got another game underway.
So why did we play this game that yielded truths that were hardly revelatory and dares that only reinforced the actions we wanted to perform in the first place? More than a game, it was an elaborate social ritual concocted to induce confession, serving the same function as alcohol in an Eugene O'Neill play. It was an artifice through which to transmit natural desires, even if we were still unsure at what we driving. There are more subtle games that we adults play to tell truths we pretend not to want to tell and to do things we pretend not to want to do; sometimes, faced with the Machiavellian two-steps of cocktail parties and the gnawing tug of repressed desires, I long for a good, honest game of Truth or Dare. </end>
Tom Vanderbilt is the associate editor of The Baffler and a freelance writer. He wrote "Behind Prison Walls"in issue 7.1. He lives in Brooklyn.