May 25, 2011

You’re gonna lose

We like to play games, don’t we? It seems to be the first rule of civilization. As soon as we establish rules (Commandments, laws), it seems like somebody has to figure out how to push the limit. And then we engage in semantics: Did the questionable behavior violate the spirit of a rule? Or is there no harm and, thus, no foul?

It is human nature to compete. We strive. We reach for the brass ring. We have our eyes on the prize. And when we catch it, we will preen. We will strut. We will celebrate our victories. We may even thank Jesus and share the wealth, but no one will mistake who the top dog really is at the end of the day. Somebody is winning. Is it you?

When I was a kid in the ’70s, Eric Berne’s book “Games People Play” and the concept of Transactional Analysis seemed to have a significant influence on the American psyche. Originally published in 1964, the basic premise was that people are all “OK,” that we all have validity, importance and are, thus, worthy of equal respect. A quick check on Wikipedia reveals general similarities with Freudian theory and ideas regarding our ability to escape maladapted patterns in order to pursue individual dreams, but the “games” we play seem to emphasize the ways in which we jockey for control and superiority, and the analysis of these games had the implied goal of achieving the acceptance of our universal personhood; this was a “game” designed to end with everybody winning.

In high school, I was invited to play “Dungeons and Dragons” with a few guys during lunch, but I lost interest when they made it clear they only wanted to gang up on my character and kill him at the beginning of every adventure. Some time after that, in college, I discovered a curious activity: inventing “games” that downplayed competition and emphasized camaraderie. One game involved a kind of scavenger hunt. We divided into two teams and went about searching for certain items, but each team had a “secretary,” and the goal was not to find the most items; the winning team was the one with the most entertaining notes. We laughed long and hard that night!

Over the last few years, my family and friends have discovered new games that feed upon this same principle. “Apples to Apples,” for instance, is a terrific game where players of all ages “compete” to create the best analogies. Each player has seven cards featuring the names of people, places, events or concepts, and each round begins with turning over a target card baring an adjective. Each player chooses the best card in their hand to match the adjective. One player chooses the best card from those played, and the person who played that card “wins” the round. The brilliance of the game is in that the person who chooses the winning card changes with every round, their choice is absolute, but table-talk is encouraged. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had playing a game while having no concern for winning. (The best play ever: “Touchy Feely” was won with “Helen Keller.”)

A couple years ago, one of my buddies invited me to join a game group; it’s me and him and two other guys, and we get together once a month and try new games. We have tried so many that I have a hard time remembering the names. I understand that “Settlers of Catan” is popular, but it took a long time to play, kind of like a feudal version of “Risk.” I liked “Carcassone” a lot more; I think it is because it is simpler to play, but not too simple. One of our favorites is “Crokinole,” a kind of hybrid of caroms and darts, with a target in the center. The downside is that the boards are custom-made and can be expensive. It’s nice to know somebody who has one.

I’m not very good at any of these games, but I look forward to these get-togethers. It’s not so much about winning as it is about hanging out with friends and catching up on what’s been going on since last month. I suppose that’s just a different kind of winning.

For further consideration: “Everything Must Go” isn’t a very funny movie, but it tends toward the principle that “Nothing can be a pretty cool hand.”

In memoriam: Steve Gordon.