Dorm Games: Trying to create culture from its obliteration

Worth Courtyard, where Crunkfest traditionally takes place.

As with any personable, resilient, creative, and obnoxious “Positive Mental Attitude,” or any united concept, principle, worldview, or coherent life goal, really, sometimes I honestly just don’t know if I’m actually supposed to be taking Swarthmore seriously right now.

I mean, isn’t it exactly the moment when your governments (student or otherwise) start talking big and sincerely believing they might have some progressive solution for some vague “lack of culture” — like the recent “Dorm Games,” or nationalism in the late 19th century  — that you’re supposed to acknowledge how just plain screwed your grassroots and local culture really are from any point of view?

Sort of like when your girlfriend says “we need to talk,” not because you haven’t been talking every day, with a finger on the pulse of the other for months, even years, but because, as it turns out, all that talk and heart-beating’s been pretty cheap when it comes down to the deep sigh that pauses after those four words. Communication — that is to say, a need to articulate the loss of what’s most intimate — in these cases, is the first sign of some unspoken communicative failure.

And like active communication or socially acceptable behavior, it is my opinion that Dorm Games simply don’t fit into Swattie schedules, not to mention their “culture” — whatever that word even means. I speak from four years of independent, anti-social, self-interested, socially-unacceptable, and uninvolved adherence to Swarthmore’s culture of un-culture —  including writing for The Phoenix.

What is trying to fit into Swat culture, however, from the top down, like some typical, socially-awkward Swattie, missing the tell-tale signs flashing over the faces of his “friends” or the liking-trends of his “Facebook friends” (you know, the kind of signs that are always trying to say without saying, that he’s really not doing a very good job of fitting in) are a series of Dorm Games ranging from “Dorm Survivor” to a photography scavenger hunt, so basic even sixth-graders in Williamsburg wouldn’t be caught drinking it at Starbucks. Don’t even get me started on the condescending colonial undertones of the “surviving” and “scavenging” parodies.

Let’s be honest: the first thing any average Swattie thinks when he hears about these “Dorm Games” and what they entail is: (a) whether or not that paper/problem set/cover letter/novel/thesis/[insert assignment here] sitting over his head is going to get itself done if he goes on a scavenger hunt in the middle of a Sunday night (of all nights), (b) if his present GPA is conducive to grad schools, fellowships, [insert post-grad dream here]; (c) if that potential internship salary/stipend/allowance this summer will help him pay off the freaking student loan he had to take out to buy plane tickets home; or (d) if he’s maximizing that post-grad yield on his parents’ tuition checks with X major/minor, instead of Y major/minor — you know the story.

Beside all this anxiety, institutionalized as though it were a culture in itself, Swatties are not even by nature interested enough in their own local dorm communities to take any rational interest in a dorm team’s success. Just look at any dorm kitchen, or any bathroom after any given Saturday night. Swatties are as culturally passive and unwilling to get their hands dirty as any other millennials, accustomed to leaving dishes in the communal sinks uncleaned, expired milk in the fridge undrunk, with identities as stained and spoiled by their cosmopolitan and vapid politics as they are by a mass-produced and branded Western liberal arts “culture.”

Not exceptions but the rule, many Swatties today are master bureaucrats, disciplined into appeasing the demands of the world’s best professors, clubs, corporations, grad schools, and their disciplines like monkeys tied to control levers and oxygen tanks in space: training to perform ritual observations of forms long passé, and to forget content.

Unity, culture, involvement, and social feeling, therefore, are as foreign and malignant ideals to Swarthmore dorm culture as the Quakers were to the Native Americans and the Native American land they purchased. I mean, just look where Western notions of progress, culture and social feeling brought Native Americans!

“In our attempt to advertise for the Dorm Games last week,” wrote the Student Government Organization in an e-mail late last week, “we hung a large poster by Shane Lounge that clearly illustrated a fictional account of Swarthmore’s history. As a result of our presenting this story, members of Swarthmore’s Native American Student Association … informed us of the ways in which we were perpetuating a well-established American tradition of fictionalizing and glorifying colonization.”


“The poster,” continued SGO’s e-mail, “is a representation of how systemic colonialism continues to pervade our culture and society, whether intentionally or not. Colonialism is and continues to be fundamental to the history of the United States. Swarthmore College is not exempt from this trend. The College is founded upon and implicated in colonialism. The Lenape were the rightful, original inhabitants of the land Swarthmore sits on now. Additionally, we regret and would like to refrain from destroying history that might recount abuses of power and authority. We would like to highlight the recently released work of Professor Dorsey’s Black Liberation 1969 research seminar as an exemplar of ways in which we can be mindful and respectful of the struggles that others have experienced and may continue to be experiencing.”

I guess this is what makes the Dorm Games so funny — I mean, not funny at all, but steeped in irony. That SGO felt so vulnerable as to publish an admission of guilt in their PR campaign for it was only part. Their apology and self-implication in the millennia-long moral delusions of colonialism transcended completely the specificity and local problem of campus culture at Swarthmore College by coincidentally and ironically returning to the historical problem of  “culture” at its most extreme and local source: the obscure and amoral origins of the local land and its local people in which we all happen to be cultivated. Well done, SGO.

Instead of setting up the Dorm Games as a half-hearted attempt at bridging the gaps in campus culture, doomed from the beginning by lack of creativity and any rational incentive to participate, why not just set up an event without a deadline and without a competition, whose goal would be to remember in perpetuum, and to reconstruct, the Native American past that we’ve so irreparably lost and that continues to rot away at the soul of every culture at Swarthmore like an original sin — financing it with our holy Student Activities Fees?


  1. Yes and no: “Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril. Those who read the symbol do so at their peril. It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors. Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital. When critics disagree, the artist is in accord with himself. We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.”

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