My brother James and I once built a nuclear reactor at the kitchen table.
Hard to believe? Sure, but even more amazing, it’s still firing people up almost forty years later.
Okay, fine, a little explanation might be in order…
Early in 1979 we had a brilliant idea: build a board game exploring all aspects of nuclear power, pro and con, with a meltdown in the cards if you didn’t play them right. The timing couldn’t have been better: “The China Syndrome” was leaving movie audiences on the edge of their seats, and Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania soon offered America a very real taste of potential nuclear disaster.
Our board game had playing pieces shaped like cooling towers, obligatory dice, cards with arguments for and against, and a nuclear reactor at its core. The control rods in the “containment” structure rose and fell according to the players’ successes and failures. The game box featured a haunting night-time shot of Rancho Seco in Northern California, a sister plant to the Three Mile Island facility. We even included rules for beginning, intermediate, and the very dedicated advanced player.
And here’s what it looked like: CONTAINMENT, the Game of Nuclear Energy Controversy, Crisis and Confrontation.
We ordered up five thousand boxes in advance, ready to handle anticipated public demand.
The publicity quickly rolled in: Jane Pauley and Tom Brokaw presented our game on The Today Show and praised its topicality. Playboy Magazine ran a nice photo with a blurb (not as nice as some of their photos, perhaps, but still nice). Television stations filmed us seated before the game board in on a knoll overlooking Rancho Seco, and the newspaper even ran a nice article with photo. So far, so good.
Unfortunately, the pace of sales proved as sluggish as trying to shut down the tsunami-swamped Fukishima power plants in 2011.
It seems we hit the market just as the American public was turning its collective back on board games in favor of the new video games. And perhaps the idea of spending long hours facing deadly radiation exposure didn’t have the appeal we had anticipated.
So our board-game business, Shamus Gamus, melted down.
Flash forward to 1985 and a letter arrives from nuclear engineers in South Carolina. They pass the long hours at the controls playing CONTAINMENT, and request an arbiter’s call on a finer point in the advanced rules. I settle the dispute, but don’t mention never once having made it through the advanced game. Too complicated for anyone but a nuclear engineer, perhaps.
Now flash forward to November 2014, when the Nelson Institute Center for Culture, History, and Environment at the University of Wisconsin hosts academics and artists from around the world. The goal: explore the Anthropocene, the Age of Man, asking “how might certain kinds of objects make visible the differential impacts—past, present, and future—that have come to shape the relationships among human and non-human beings, living in an era of extreme hydrocarbon extraction, extreme weather events, and extreme economic disparity?”
And Caroline Peyton, a doctoral candidate from the University of South Carolina, presents our game to that scholarly audience as one such object of the Anthropocene. She had discovered an old copy of the game on eBay. Here’s the link to her presentation: http://nelson.wisc.edu/che/anthroslam/objects/peyton.php.
In response to Ms. Peyton’s well-received performance, the game CONTAINMENT is now winging its way to Germany to become part of an interactive learning event at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society in Munich this summer. The Rachel Carson Center is affiliated with the Deutsches Museum, Germany’s fine museum of technology.
Back in 1979, sitting on thousands of unsold games, James and I thought our first business venture a waste.
Some 36 years later, CONTAINMENT seems to be enjoying the half-life of nuclear waste.