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  • Writer's pictureCrone

The value of games

Games. Professional sport. PE at school. Hopscotch in the playground. Monopoly at home. Poker tournaments. Made up games played on long car journeys. My ex-fiance and I used to do one called 'counting horses' and another that was about lateral connections. We played Scrabble and cards sometimes. I used to love The Game of Life. And marbles. My dad taught me chess. I wasn't good at it. I taught my mum Canasta. She beat me at that. I usually lose games. And I was always the 'last one picked' for teams at school. Games haven't really been great for me.


I intended to write about the value of games. You can try your hardest and still lose. You can be talented and still lose. You can work hard and win more often - but there are no guarantees. Life lessons. You learn about cooperation and selflessness in team games. You learn about motivation and competition, but also about losing well as well as about winning with grace. You learn about rules. You learn about strategy and timing and practice and technique. Of course: games come from play and play is vital for all complex and especially social animals. It's how you learn about survival and flourishing when the stakes aren't too high.


All that's important. But rather obvious.


What's maybe more interesting is, well, two connected things: the concept of games and the way in which a family similarity can create a sense of unity between different things.


So, the concept of games. We can talk of the game of politics and the dating game; Eric Berne wrote a book called Games People Play about the way in which people conform to habitual modes of behaviour, often recruiting others to play different roles in their games; we know what it means when someone says to us, 'Don't play games with me!'; we can treat law or research or earning money as a game. What's interesting here is that in all cases, there's not really the suggestion of flippancy. It's more that we have a kind of 'meta' relationship with reality. That we are shepherding this aspect of life into a specific field of operation - where there are rules, but where, although it's connected to reality, it is not actually reality. As though we are performing another part in this aspect of life that we can in a sense disconnect from the rest of life. As though it it is in some way discrete.


But only to some extent - just as games are affected by external factors (different rules in Premier League football due to the enforced break and fixture congestion; the political significance of chess tournaments between the USA and the USSR during the Cold War; the moods of the players in a family game of cards when the parents are going through a bad patch), these metaphorical games are open to the rest of life rather than cut off from it. It's an important aspect of games that they are both 'their own thing' but also 'open'. They are not a separate world unto themselves, but very much a part of this world and embedded in it.


Also relevant to the concept is the idea of particular rules and habits, traditions and roles that are part of whatever activity we are describing as a game. The idea that such and such an activity has its own code or structure is understood by referring to it as a game. Hence, we can play the victim game, and, in doing this, we are always the loser and the worst off, we always have to be oppressed or maltreated. That's how we see this game playing out. We will cast the others as oppressors, as benefiting from our distress, as unsympathetic. They may be willing to play that role. Their game may be a game of domination. But they may not, they may object to that role and want to have the role of carer or saviour. We might accept both of those, as they allow us to continue as victim of society or of our parents or of fate. On the other hand, others might object to the game entirely and refuse to play.


Notice, again, calling something a game doesn't mean it's not serious. After all, Russian roulette is a game and its consequences can be very final. In addition, you can't just jettison the rules or even change them when you're playing any game, otherwise, strictly, you're not playing the game. There is a real importance to these rules. Especially if you're involved in a game with others. It works because 'everyone knows the rules' and everyone is expected to 'play by the rules'.


I'm explaining this, but we understand it quite readily because we understand the concept of games - a term that already, in its first range of group members, encompasses so many different sports and pass times.


That leads me to the second thing. How can we see so many different games (chess versus skipping rope; rugby versus solitaire; water polo versus darts) as members of a group, let alone all the other things that can, more expansively, be described as games? I mentioned before a family resemblance - but that's not quite right as there's no real similarity between playing patience and playing ice hockey, nor between 'the victim game' and 'treating research as a game'.


I think that the concepts above - the parallel discreteness and openness and the sense of there being an 'etiquette' (to use another term in a metaphorical manner) - are critical.


Also, though, maybe there is a sense of the performative, which relates to the 'meta' status of games, and puts them at one remove, perhaps, from the blood and bones of living. In addition, in games, there is, I think, always the concept of winning or losing. Of 'the cards falling for you', or not. How much the winning or losing matters depends on various things... how much is survival or self-image or success in the 'real world' dependent on the game - either in reality or in the imagination. Because of the openness, it will always matter somewhat. Even losing a game of patience might make us a little less satisfied when we go to wash the dishes.


Imagine, though, that we have invested all of our self-concept in playing the dating game. If that goes badly for us, we might be devastated. We might forget that it was a game, that there is a whole world of life and experience outside it.


I'm intrigued by this partly because although I see the value of games in both the original and broader category, it seems to me that it is critically important to know when we are playing and when we are not. We have to step into the conformity of the game with acceptance and with eyes open. And we have to know when it's better to stop playing that game.


NOTES


My animals like to play games. The dog will play fetch or tug of war. In the latter game he knows that the rules me he doesn't bite my fingers. He also can understand when the game is over, though he might attempt to insist that it continue or restart. The cats like to play fetch. The rules as far as they are concerned are that I play when they sit staring up at me mewing, having dropped the toy near me. Then I am to throw the toy for as long as they want. If I do not throw it far enough, they are dissatisfied. Clearly, they feel it is a rule that the throw should be challenging. Dogs - and to an extent horses - seem to enjoy learning and achieving - though as this is a reward-based process, perhaps they only enjoy the reward. However, I think it is noticeable that dogs seem to prefer learning tricks in a spirit of 'fun' rather than as 'work'. One sees this even with search dogs. Horses, dogs, cats - all my animals have played with each other and it is evident that these 'games' have rules - do not cause harm, behave in a certain juvenile manner, show elaborate prancing movements. Again, there does appear to be this performative element as well as the semi-separation from other activities. But they remain open - the mood created by the game as well as the benefit (or damage!) done to the relationships within the game are maintained to an extent at least outside the game too.

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