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Unwinnable Games

A slow drippy blah day isn’t a lot of fun, but it’s what greeted my son at the start of Summer Vacation this morning. “Miss school much?” I ask him, knowing the answer. This is the season of constant recess, but more importantly the recess where he can pick which friends to hang with.  That makes a big difference.

All during the year he had one complaint when I saw him after school.  “They were at it again,” the frustration bubbled out, “We spent most of recess arguing about the rules to Foursquare rather than playing it!”  There are some kids in his class who are either wannabe bigshots or control freaks or … it’s a public school, they take everyone.  And they can’t even organize a simple game of Foursquare (Boxball to me as a kid) without a huge argument over which silly rules like School Bus, Poison, Hold, and so on apply.

What’s funny about this is that adults are just kids who grew older, sometimes up.

I recently saw a ghost that hasn’t haunted the playgrounds of teevee much since I passed my time with a red rubber ball at Coral Reef Elementary.  Dr. Henry Kissinger has been making the gab show rounds to plug his new book “On China”.  One point he’s made many times is that where we in the West play a game like chess against each other, where the goal is to kill the king, in Asia they play Go, where the object is to surround territory.  When everyone plays by different rules, confusion is the obvious result – how does anyone know when they have “won”?

If this all seems like we’re making a big deal out of games, you’re right. But what starts in fifth grade it only gets worse with time.  Fun is one thing, and we can all use a bit more of it.  But games and the status-filled thrill of winning start to define people who have been fat ‘n’ happy for a long time and honestly can’t think of anything better to do.

It’s not as though there isn’t a time and place for a good pick-up game to show people who is boss.  Once, when I was young, some of my Anglo friends and I were kicking around a soccer ball when a group of Colombian kids came along and started stirring things up.  In laughing Spanglish they taunted that Americans didn’t know how to play futbol at all.  Naturally, a pickup game broke out and in a short time we certainly showed them – we really can’t play soccer.  But it was a lot of fun and I have no idea what the final “score” was.

The difference in my little cross-cultural experience is that soccer rules are universal, even if what we call it in what language may not be.  We could have a game and know just what happened.  We didn’t have to communicate anything that a missed pass or a blocked shot didn’t already say.  It was fun.

Flash back to my son’s problem, or even Dr. Kissinger’s observation – when you can’t even define what game you are playing you have no idea how to win and who gets the shine.  You can’t even have fun.  This is understandable when the game goes across cultures and levels of wealth among nations, but among kids at the playground?  Just throw the ball, kick it, or run with it – if we have to make up a new game from scratch we might as well scramble out the energy of a long day in the process.

Negotiations, even important ones, will always have some game inside of them.  It comes down to whether everyone knows the rules, or at least what is important – and when it’s actually time for recess.

In the playground of politics, debt ceilings and state budgets are held up for the purpose of scoring “points” while no one is actually keeping score.   This kind of game in the middle of a crisis, where there is something better to do, makes no sense at all.  There are no rules, there is no way to win, and there isn’t even a red rubber ball.  It’s just a bunch of kids standing around arguing wasting away a sunny day trying to be bigshots and failing completely at even that.

Everyone engaged in this kind of game is a loser.  Even my 11 year old son knows better than that.

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18 thoughts on “Unwinnable Games

  1. I remember the people who used to stand around at recess arguing about the rules. Always seemed stupid to me. Wonder what happened to them? I guess some of them wound up in politics.

  2. Anna, I think they did. This piece rambles a bit too much, but the more I thought about games and how important they are the more I realized this is a vast issue. And yet there are so many people who want nothing more than to stand around and argue about the rules – as if winning is so much more important than playing. Why play at all if that’s your attitude? They all lose.

  3. I can’t get past how I feel about making “games” out of important things. That may work for Kissinger but the guy always seemed like a cold fish to me. Maybe it’s inevitable but I think it’s lousy and the best politicians always cut through the games and get something done one way or the other. We don’t have anyone with the guts or the head to do that anymore, they only look out for themselves. I guess when I look at it that way at least Kissinger got things done and it wasn’t only a game to him – & you know things are bad when I can say something good about him.

  4. While it is certain that the game’s afoot both nationally, the one that’s playing out over there in Wisconsin has my rapt attention. It seems like a chess match with playground rules. 😐

  5. Back in the day we played ‘smear the queer’ (sorry if thats offensive but that’s what we called it). All we did was throw the ball at each other and laugh like crazy because those red balls never really hurt. I’d like to play this with Congress, except maybe with a baseball or a rock.

  6. Thanks everyone.

    “Let he who is without a voting record cast the first red rubber ball.”

    (I’m also thinking about the stoning scene in “Life of Brian”)

    This is the best idea on this blog yet, Jim. 🙂

  7. A brilliant post as usual. Takes the big and small and puts them together. Great ‘connections’!

  8. Has anyone ever done a poll on game-playing and politics? Or perhaps better yet a focus group? I’m constantly wondering how some injection of real voters and their processes/beliefs can be put into the “game”. Seems to me that no one really likes this nonsense,but it keeps on keepin’ on. Any ideas?

  9. That is one poll I would like to see, too. I think it would send a strong message to the news media about this nonsense.

  10. I hate to think of it as just a game but I guess if you have to play one you might as well do it right.

  11. I am tired of all the games and I would think that most people are. The first person to talk about peoples actual lives will probably win big. I don’t know why we can’t get a candidate like that.

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