Studies show that most animals benefit from playing simple games. It increases their mental strength as well as their physical balance and prowess. We can tell a child is advancing to the next stage when she begins to playfully imitate. We know that daily crosswords or chess can stave off Alzheimer's in the elderly. Scientists, when studying animals that play games — from ants to those darling snowball-clutching macaques — have come up with the cute and easy explanation for why we like play so much: 'It's fun!' Wrong again, Einstein. Play isn't fun, it's essential.

It's no big shocker that just like everything else, going out and drinking can get boring. No matter how many friends you have and how scintillating your conversations may be, at some point in any night-lifer's nightlife you're going to yearn for something more. Watching television at a bar is fine, but not very interactive or introspective. Striking up small talk with entirely new people can sometimes get you in trouble, as can trying to mix up your routine by pounding shots. Leaving the bar early and going home is admitting defeat. But one sure way to combat a case of the yawns and deflect an existential crisis is to seek out a bar where you can actually engage in an activity. Though there are many places around town with diversions galore, the following are two classic (and one new take on an old classic) options.

The Grand

4631 Airport Blvd., Suite 121. 454-1986, .

There's something very Kerouacian about spending a rainy day inside a pool hall drinking cheap beers, and whether you think Kerouac is a lousy hack of a writer or not, who hasn't, at one depraved low point, dreamed of adopting the Beat lifestyle? Bongo drums and black turtlenecks, black caps and cigarette holders. Brawny, winking pool sharks who all look like Paul Newman and are either up for a sudden fistfight or an impromptu road trip. However, at the Grand you won't find that.

You'll find instead some perfectly normal-looking people who don't smell like cloves and are just earnestly trying to better their game (tables are $8 an hour, $4 during happy hour). Despite its normalness, the Grand is cloaked in secrecy. No pictures are allowed inside, and even my beer bottle was wrapped up in a napkin so I couldn't see the label (it was a Lone Star, and cheap, too — $2.50). Although it gets pretty packed at night, with people drinking drafts and playing pinball and discussing snooker, it's still an anonymous place — they leave you alone to drink your beers and scribble your silly Beat poems on their napkins.

The Highball

1142 S. Lamar Blvd. 383-8309, . (Restaurant critic Mike Sutter reviews the restaurant side of the Highball here .)

As if singalongs and 'Lord of the Rings' feasts weren't enough, those Alamo folks have taken an old Salvation Army thrift store , swanked it out in sparkle-vinyl, infused some liquors for signature cocktails ($10 and delicious—try the Thai One On, made with cucumber, a special salt rim and house-infused mango rum), and then installed a dance floor, a couple skee-ball games, a bowling alley and themed karaoke lounges.

Though a little on the expensive side (lanes are $20 an hour for as many as six bowlers during off hours and $30 on weekend nights; karaoke is $20 an hour for up to four people), with service a little on the slow side (the nostalgic Brunswick lanes often need maintenance, and the counter staff apparently hasn't yet figured out that a computerized system is easier than writing down names), the 'amusements' at the Highball are aptly named.

When you do rent a lane, they bring you a tray of snacks (smoked nuts, pickled things, and chips) and are good about checking on your beer situation. Their draft 512 Wits are $4.50 and perfect for winding up your strike-arm.

In closing I'd like to say: Thanks, Highball, for taking my great idea that I had in eighth grade and making it into your reality. All you did, really, was sub out my roller rink for a karaoke lounge or two and, I guess, actually come up with the money and the gumption to do it. Whatever. I forgive you, since you're actually pretty fun.

Horseshoe Lounge

2034 S. Lamar Blvd. 442-9111.

The Horseshoe is about as authentic a dive as you can get on the south side of town. It's essentially Bizarro Ginny's Little Longhorn , except with a long shuffleboard table instead of a tiny stage. Same loyal, mixed crowd, same variety of beers (Lone Stars are $3, Dos Equis $4 and of course, no drafts). Instead of pickled eggs, which Ginny's used to have (and which are sorely missed), the Horseshoe has Happy Jack's Roadkill Jerky, which Happy Jack claims is actually just beef but who knows.

The shuffleboard table is possibly the best in Austin, with electronic scoring, a long, well-maintained lane (coated in that weird, soft sand that's so addictive to mess with) and a list of rules demanding that people don't go to the bathroom or smoke during play. Despite the fact that all smoking must now be done outside, the Horseshoe still smells like an old motel room from the '70s, which, oddly, just adds to its charm.