Weekend at Bernie’s: A Case Study of Early Experiential Gaming From The 1980’s

When we were kids, my brother and I devised a game–or morbid–themed pastime–we played only between ourselves called “Dead Person.” It wasn’t so much an activity, but a disruptive and sinister strategy for letting one of us know when the other had just had it.  One of us would mutter “dead person” and go limp like a ragdoll, usually on top of or in the way of the other.  The observer to the death was tasked with the responsibility of moving the body with an effort convincing enough to inspire a revival of Dead Person back to consciousness.

We unleashed Dead Person when we were either too bored or annoyed with life’s mundane expectations of us, or severely insulted by reality’s impotence when matched against our wild imaginations.  Nothing cool ever happened, so we died. The situations were never the same or even slightly predictable. As the younger and smaller sibling, I often died in self-defense.

I dropped dead when my brother would try and get me to leave the TV room. I died on the patio, in the hallway, on the threshold of my bedroom door. I slumped on top of the Wurlitzer when my brother staged a coup on my scales practice.  I lay limp at the kitchen table during Saturday morning cartoon commercial breaks. I blacked out in the backseat of the family van if a road trip was taking too long.

I was strategic in my suicides whereas my brother would use his flour-sack weight and die hard on top of me, especially if I tried to escape. He also had a flair for the dramatic and became lifeless at the most unpredictable moments.  He’d be up in Monopoly with a stack of marigold $500 bills, eight properties on Boardwalk and Park Place, and suddenly collapse at my feet under the table.

Like a training montage from Karate Kid or others in the vain of 1980s cinematic storytelling, we practiced well and often. We honed our skills of both being Dead Person and attending to Dead Person. We learned how to stay dead for longer periods and devised new situations that would conjure the need for it. If one of us got lazy and died too often or poorly, our credibility was severely diminished. You’d be called an idiot and get the cold shoulder. It sometimes took weeks to regain enough trust to begin a good round of fatalities.

Whatever the circumstance, Dead Person had the enchanting quality of tantalizing the vast spectrum of our tenuous childhood emotions – it would simultaneously bother the shit out of and delight us.  I am certain I learned the art of the eye roll paired with a mildly amused grin because this Weekend at Bernie’s themed game.  We had never even seen the movie.

I often used the game as a weapon to effectively halt my brother’s power and shift to a mood more generous to my favor.  But sometimes my strategy would backfire and I’d

A movie about a guy that dies. No one mourns. Everyone gets laid.

be left in the grips of diabolical mad man. Using material pilfered from our father’s robes, my brother would tether me to a doorknob or a chair and leave me to my own devices. He’d talk smoothly and continue to act as if my captivity was all still part of the greater game. “How about I time you. We’ll see how long it takes for you to get free,” he’d say, while checking the integrity of the knots.  I found myself agreeing with him, wanting to rise to the challenge. When I was rendered immobile, he’d run freely out of the room to go read my journal or shake coins out of my piggy bank.

Typically I could writhe free after twenty or thirty minutes, but the real trouble came if, or when, my mother found me in the process.  Our shenanigans often resulted in broken furniture, yelling, tears, destroyed property, lame robe ties or other telltale signs of general disrespect to our home and its surroundings.  The scolding would begin and my brother would retaliate with arbitrary logic. “But I’m training her!” he would plead to my parents. “I have to tie her up because if she were ever kidnapped, this is the only way she’ll know how to escape. Look at her – she’s so small and stupid. This is a test.”

For these antics we’d both get into trouble and be denied TV for week or more. It was a punishment my parents thought fair and effective but only fueled more rounds of Dead Person to help us past the time.

We drove my mother crazy when we died in public. She would drag us to the grocery store after school and stand idle in the middle of the aisle, deeply contemplating purchase options. She would also have the nerve to deny our secret additions to the cart, whimsical packages that featured cherubic elves in trees and bite-sized animals adorned with Technicolor sugar balls that clung to pink frosted bodies. In our catholic school uniforms, disheveled by a full day’s wear, I would die in the middle of the Pastas and Rice section.

My brother would drag me across the dirty linoleum and pull me up to the under-carriage of the cart, the place where people kept their bulk item purchases and bottles of beer. Shoppers would walk by, horrified as my brother pushed the cart up and down the aisle with a small, unconscious stowaway. People shot judgmental glances at my poor, bewildered mother as she evaluated the differences between Uncle Ben’s enriched long grain rice and its generic counterpart.

In the summer our pool was a crime scene to a pair of floating corpses. After a long day’s swim, buoyed on our backs, we would quietly wait for the vultures to circle.  We’d wait see how many birds would swarm above us, like we had the power to control the will of ugly creatures.  On a good day we’d get up to five or six – one time we had eight.  Sometimes my mother would step out on the balcony and scream in her shrill, foreign voice, “Kids! Kids, are you okay? What are you doing? Kiiiidds! Don’t scare me like that!” When she would see we were fine, she’d turn away huffing and muttering vague insults about naughty children that exasperated Arab women often did, and we’d have to start all over again. It sometimes took a half hour or more to get a good swarm going.

Sometimes my imagination got the best of me. I would stare up into the deep azure and hold a suspicious gaze at the swarm above as I thought about all frightening scenarios that my brother didn’t, or couldn’t prepare me for. Knots, yes. But what about everything else? Lunatics, psychos, real kidnappers who kept stashes of candy under their car seat and patrolled the neighborhood looking for tiny girls in uniform. All of it. I wasn’t prepared for anything at all.

I pictured these winged beasts plotting our demise, fed up with the taunting. I pictured them zooming down to snatch me up like stunned prey, like flying monkeys ready to steal me away to a haunted castle.  They would viciously poke at my skinny, sun-tanned body and I would be helpless to fend them off. The local news would report “A young girl has been kidnapped/maimed/massacred by gang of vultures in her own backyard, more news at 11.”  I pictured a reporter at my house, interviewing my distraught family in a bright pants suit and aqua net hair. I thought of my brother dripping wet in his swim trunks recounting the whole affair, talking about being helpless to stop them and exaggerating his own bravery. “I don’t know what happened,” he’d say with wide-eyed shock. “If only my parents let me train her for situations like this, she might still be ok.”

That’s about when I would say it was time to go inside.