I love games. I play them, make them and find their history fascinating. I don’t mean computer games, which I don’t mind. I mean board games where computational engines of dice and cards and human interaction tell stories straight out of the box. While I could easily write pages about how much games help us understand economics, politics and more, I want to explain how games are not the model we really want to help us understand life. Life is not a game.
Albert Camus, the existentialist philosopher, wrote that whether or not to commit suicide is the only really serious problem of philosophy. The rest is conversation. I would disagree and say that all of ethics matters and that suicide is only one of the mistakes we can make. It is not trivial to ask if we should be vegetarian or join an army or be kind to strangers or any other number of ethical questions. However for many people contemplating suicide is the most profound ethical debate they will ever have with themselves and games are the wrong tool for preparing us for that discussion.
Again, I want to say that games are great. I feel about games the way movie buffs enjoy film. But the movie buff needs to remember that life is not a movie, in that it is not something you just watch unfold. Likewise the game buff needs to remember that life is not a game in that it is not something you win or lose. In games with win conditions it is sometimes possible to see how the game will unfold well ahead of its conclusion. With several turns to go with only widening distance between first and last players it is normal for players to lose interest. The winner slogs their way to the end with the promise of glory but even their joy is lost. The loser drifts away from the table or increasingly looks at their phone. When that happens in regards to real life, suicide or self-destructive behaviour is one result; anything to disrupt the march to a foregone outcome.
This is what makes chess an excellent game by the way. No matter how poor your board position is you can still sometimes force a stalemate if not steal an actual victory from your opponent, almost to the very end. Even more importantly the culture around chess is that winning is not the point. People play out games in order to learn from their losses. This is a cultural norm that is firmly taught to new players and is a stroke of conceptual genius. For chess players, chess is always just a game. Defeat in chess does not mean anything beyond the game. And victory does not make you a better person.
As I say this about chess you might be thinking that seems false. In pop culture chess is not talked about as if it was just a game but stands as a metaphor for business, international conflict and depressingly for some people interpersonal relationships. Historically people thought chess made them better at being real generals and historically being a good general was winning at life. The cold war made chess matches between Russia and the US act as tests for their respective ideologies. Perhaps it is in reaction to this that local chess clubs strenuously teach the art of losing well while people who aren’t familiar with chess are often reluctant to learn simply because they think losing will make them look destined to lose at life. Despite the actual cultural embrace of losing by serious chess players, chess metaphors are exactly the sort of poorly borrowed mentality of win-lose gaming that are a horrid way to understand life.
Victory conditions in games are clearly defined. There are notable exceptions to this I’ll mention later but the statement is true for 9 out of 10 products you’ll find boxed at a game store and certainly true for chess. Rules are fixed at the outset and provide a maximum scope for your play. Your turn consists of moving one piece for example. In other games you must reveal hidden information when instructed to. Rules often have the assumption that players will be pushing the limits of what they can do in order to win and only the rules hold them in check. Does this remind you of how businesses are expected to operate? Does this define the legitimate behaviour of landlords or traders or taxpayers? What if a corporation is capable of lobbying politicians to rewrite the rules? This too becomes part of the game. Fair play is defined as pushing the rules as far as they go and winning is as simply determined as possible. In fact could anything be more like the generic victory points found in many games than money? It doesn’t matter if you made your money selling crack or singing ballads, it’s still X number of points towards victory.
Perhaps the most stomach turning example of what I mean is Neill Strauss’s “The Game” and other treatises of pick up artists. Here dating is reduced to trying to win more sexual victories and this is the sole measure by which strategies are evaluated. Does “negging” sap a person’s confidence, tap into their insecurities and manipulate them into looking to you for fulfilment they don’t actually need? Maybe but if it gets you laid that’s a win. From this source we have “incel” culture in which people are encouraged to identify as losers in the dating game, and from this identity the risks of violence against others and self are very real. Why bother playing when you are so far behind those in the lead? This is economics applied to dating after economics has been converted into a game.
2020 has been a year when a great many people have been going backwards in their personal economic game. Before the pandemic the bushfires in Australia destroyed many people’s property. Before then many people were brutalised by a Robodebt scandal that hasn’t cost a single minister or public servant their job. Before then average real wages have been declining while wealth has been increasing for a small minority for some time. Suicide and COVID-19 are going toe to toe for who can kill more people and COVID-19 is a highly infectious disease which has turned our way of life on its head. High rates of suicide is tragically both the old normal and the new normal. The only solution our governments have is to restart the game and get people back to their losing positions at the table.
It is worth noting that no civilisation has ever lasted while running their economy and society in the particular game-like way that we do. Radical egalitarianism is imposed in the longest continuous cultures like Australian Aboriginal culture or that of the San people in South Africa. In urbanised Ancient Egypt workers’ rights were strictly protected and debt was regularly cancelled. I’m not saying that playing competitive games will create a suicidal culture. We can play the most brutal games, if we remember they are just games not metaphors. If we play our society, economy and dating culture in the same way though we shouldn’t be surprised that suicide is as common as it is. When I look at policies like Robodebt I have to consider that this is a possible intention.
To end on a more positive note I mentioned there are games where victory conditions are not clearly defined. Role playing games of which there are many variants are not so much about winning as about playing out a character. I have yet to play "Fog of Love" but when Shut Up and Sit Down reviewed the game they made it look like something that might really represent relationships for people who aren’t pick up artists. Please watch their review. It shows that its possible to strive for one outcome without seeing a different outcome as a loss. It shows that every relationship and every persons story is unique. Also when my friends and I play our board games we play to win but we sit down at the table to have a good time. We choose the game that will make the whole experience the most fun, fixing the rules for everyone’s benefit. That way everyone wins. Imagine if we build society in the same way.
If this post raised any issues of safety for yourself please call Lifeline or reach out to those close to you.
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