Nerd Factor: Back in the Swing on Things

Dr Mike Robinson ~ UL Communication Studies Professor

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I was several months behind, of course, but over the break I finally got the chance to play Spider-Man on the PlayStation 4. While I am nowhere near finished the linear storyline of the game, I am already ridiculously happy with its open world features. Web slinging around virtual New York City on random crime-fighting adventures and various side missions is an unsurpassed thrill amplified by vertigo-inducing high quality graphics.  I have long thought that one of the unappreciated appeals of Spider-Man is his method of transportation. After all, we all know how to swing.

Swings are a central feature of the playground.  Arriving at the park to discover that the swings are busted or *gasp* too wet to ride is a singularly soul-crushing experience for most children.  At recess time, kids are normally unruly manifestations of kinetic energy, but even the most ardent of these joyful anarchists will agree to rules for turn-taking on swings.  Swing sets are miniature experiments in democracy.

Swinging is a combination thrill.  A rush of movement across the arc combined with the giddy bout of weightlessness at the end of the swing, repeated forwards and backwards with the regularity of pendular motion. The activity also offers some small skill mastery as the discovery of how to kick off the ground and how to move and position the legs leads to higher and higher arcs.

That skill reveals the next level of the swinging experience—danger.  The littlest kids pushed by their parents will shift from pleading “higher” with each push to shouting for the grown up to stop.  Eventually the child becomes responsible for his or her own progress. An adrenal rush hits at the top of the arc when it is just a bit higher than the swing before.  Kids begin to fantasize about somehow swinging all the way over the swing set bar. It is insanity.

My friends and I had particularly dangerous swing ambitions.  As we got older, we would swing the backyard swing set at my friend Chip’s house so hard it would start to pop loose.  Its legs would hop and dance out of the ground. And we did not stop. When not on that poorly secured deathtrap, we got in the habit of flinging ourselves loose at the top of the forward arc.  The goal was to sail as high and as far as we could and still land on our feet.

In addition to a normal swing set, I also had a rope swing that my father secured to an old oak tree in my backyard.  My parents had rescued a tall metal platform from a junkyard. We called it the “lunar lander” because that’s what it looked like.  In addition to serving as an imaginary spaceship, it was also the ideal high place to swing from. My friends and I spent hours on that thing, sitting in, standing on, or hanging through the red plastic seat. Until, that is, it broke one day while my friend Eric was riding it.  He was okay. And it was kind of funny.

Spider-Man is the ultimate expression of the fun of swinging.  Like most superheroes, he takes something we all do (or long to do) to the next level.  Peter Parker’s fictional life is enormously complicated, but thanks to the game, it is easy to understand why he gets away from it all by web slinging across the city.