Let’s try something a little different.  Before you click the “more” link, do me a favor.  Either in your head or on paper or whatever, define the word “game.”  The more specific, the better.  You probably had something in your head before the undertaking, due simply to the title of this essay.  Hopefully you’ve adequately defined it by now, so let’s continue.

Did you come up with something involving rules?  Score?  Winning/losing?  Goals, boards, pieces?  Wikipedia defines “game” thusly:

A game is a structured activity, usually undertaken for enjoyment and sometimes used as an educational tool.  Games are distinct from work, which is usually carried out for remuneration, and from art, which is more concerned with the expression of ideas. … Key components of games are goals, rules, challenge, and interaction.

This article is actually a pretty interesting read, so I would encourage you to check it out when you’re done here (maybe you already are at this point.)  There are loads of different ways to define the concept of “game,” and I would imagine that no two people define it in exactly the same way.  I love playing games, especially games like Mafia, Cosmic Encounter,  and Bang, where a lot of human interaction is involved.  It’s fun in these circumstances to guess at what people are thinking and try to logically deduce their possible actions and motives.  I’m sometimes accused of taking the “gaming mentality” of the preceding sentence too far into my personal life, but I think it’s impossible to fully separate ourselves from “playing games” with our lives.

A simple definition of “game,” which I like to use, is “an alternate set of rules by which participants agree to live their lives for a specific duration of time.”  In the game of soccer, for example, the duration is about ninety minutes.  During this duration, the rule “don’t shove people out of your way” is suspended and “it’s okay to jostle, but don’t kick or tackle other people” is implemented in its place.  In the case of the game Mafia, suspended rules include “don’t lie” and “treat others with respect,” and alternate rules include “everyone closes his or her eyes for a few minutes every round” and “allowable actions depend upon which playing card is distributed you.”

Rules, in a sense, make the game.  What differentiates rugby from football is its rules: only lateral passes, field goals kicked from wherever the touchdown occurred, play doesn’t stop every down, etc.  The result is a completely different experience — even though the basic “stuff” of the game is the same, the rules change its essence entirely.  We live our normal, day-to-day lives like this as well.  Whether we acknowledge it or not, we live by sets of rules.  Playing games simply allows us an avenue to swap certain rules in and out when we like.

Think of the worst game you can remember ever playing.  for me, it was the LOST board game.  I love LOST but this game, given as a well-meant but poorly-researched gift some Christmas past, simply was not fun.  The rules were far too convoluted, wordy and poorly-written, and ultimately still ineffective at defining the game, despite being several pages long.  It was terrible; halfway through the first game, I just gave up and never played it again.  I think I donated it or something, but it is no longer in my closet.

Now think of the times in your life when you’ve been most frustrated.  Was it when somebody didn’t live up your expectations?  Somebody (maybe you) “broke the rules”? You felt cheated?  You were tempted to say, maybe you did say, “that’s not fair!”?  We use this terminology without a second thought, probably without even realizing how very game-like it is.  We govern our lives, work, even our relationships, by rules, and when we perceive those rules to have been broken, we react just like we do when we find our younger brother holding extra cash under the board in Monopoly: we throw our hands up in disgust and question why we even wanted to play in the first place.

Similarly, those rules, when enforced, can form the base of a truly beautiful and free experience.  How much more able are we in these circumstances to achieve the game’s true potential?  Think of a chess game between two grand masters, each of whom intimately knows the ins and outs of the system.  Such people have spent immense time and effort in exploring the alternate reality created by the rules of chess, and are consequently able to create something beautiful and complex out of what amounts to a very simple framework.  Imagine two fresh players stumbling through the game for their first time.  They necessarily don’t have a very good grasp of the framework within which they now find themselves, but if they keep at it, they will in time develop into players who could very well be the aforementioned grand masters.  In this case, the system itself almost takes care of them.

We need these systems in our lives and relationships.  In almost every relational conflict I’ve experienced, the problem arose because the participants were not “playing by the same rules.”  So much relational “limbo” is experienced because people fail to be forthcoming with their expectations, desires, dreams, goals, etc.  Under these circumstances, it can be hellish to guess at why your counterpart is behaving a certain way, since instead of the shared framework of Mafia, you necessarily only have your own framework based on your own experiences at your disposal.  Beginning a relationship of any kind with another person necessarily involves a merging of two sets of rules into a new and different set, and it’s worth it to take the time at the beginning to hash out this new set of rules so that participants aren’t left exchanging “but I thought it was understood that we would only interact in this way under these conditions!” with “What?  That’s preposterous!  I thought it was assumed that we would interact that way no matter what!” when it inevitably happens that some action violates somebody’s expectations.

Like I said at the start, I love playing games.  Giving your all in pursuit of a goal is one of the most satisfying feelings I can think of, even if that goal is to lie your way to victory over the hapless townspeople.  But games without adequate definition lack the very component that makes them engaging and fun in the first place, and like The Game (you just lost.), the only way to win such games is not to play.

As usual, comments of any nature are welcome and encouraged.