The great storyteller C.S. Lewis says in one of his stories (though I can’t remember which) that some of the most sinister things are those that look like or pretend to be something they are not. I’d modify this slightly and say that the worst things are those that actually believe themselves to be something they are not. Life is full of stories and games. It is not the playing or telling that causes trouble, but when we begin to believe the game is the reality.
Take sports. Imagine if a professional football player actually believed that the game was life. If winning was not just the artificial end within the construct of the game, but the actual end in life, you might see things like the scene in the ridiculous movie Any Given Sunday, where a player shoots a would be tackler. Players would hurt or kill opponents regularly and some would proudly become martyrs just to win. Critics of sports will say that this already occurs, but if you think hard about it, even the most over-committed behave as if they are in a game and that life is something else. The most criticized decisions, like bounties for injuring players, or keeping an injured player in, are egregious precisely because it is so universally acknowledged that sports is a game and it is improper to treat it like life.
It’s harder to see the other games and stories, and games and stories nested within games and stories, that we regularly engage in. Language itself is a kind of game. When you transform an idea into a mental image or words in your mind, you produce a symbol that represents the idea, but not perfectly. When you put those symbols into audible form, they are still less representative of the core idea. The hearer unbundles the words and facial expressions, translates them into ideas in their own mind, and finally translates them into a response or action. At the end of this game, the action of the hearer may manifest something quite different from the idea with which you began. You played the game of verbal communication. The better you are at the game, the more the response you got was what you wanted.
But this paints too simple a picture of the games we play. Language takes place in a social context. It is nested within several overlapping games. If you are talking at a work party, everyone involved is operating within a rich narrative about appropriate behavior, what words and actions mean, who relates to who in what ways, who plays what roles within the group, and so on. We are regularly navigating multiple complex narratives and games.
This is not a bad thing. Games and stories are useful and inevitable. We haven’t yet found a way to telepathically share abstract ideas, and I’m not even sure we’d enjoy it if we could. Games and stories help us make sense of the world, form relationships, predict causality, and move closer to our goals. Games are useful and they’re also a lot of fun. The danger is when you forget it’s a game and think it’s life itself.
I hate formal attire. It’s uncomfortable and I think it looks like a silly costume. Still, in certain contexts, a game has evolved wherein everyone wears certain costumes that come bundled with certain signals and ideas. I play the game, even if I sometimes wish everyone would find a more comfortable way to create the context of formality. I don’t mistake the game for real life – and thank goodness. If being a savvy dresser was the goal; if it was itself success, seriousness, intelligence, I’d be in trouble. I’m not very good at dressing well. Luckily, it’s a game and a way to communicate these concepts, albeit imperfectly, and it is tied up with a lot of other ways to communicate. I can do it enough to get by, but if dressing well meant living well, I’d be having a rough go of life. By recognizing unspoken dress codes as a game, I can actually have some fun with them and not feel so choked by my necktie.
Upon seeing games for what they are, it’s tempting to refuse to play and reject them altogether in favor of “the real thing”. This is a mistake in the opposite direction. There may be a time when I can always refuse to wear a suit and it won’t harm me, but for now, it would hinder my other goals in life. It would alienate me from people whose company I enjoy. I try not to be bitter at the games people play, but enter in on my own terms and navigate them toward my own ends. Even a hermit monk plays games. He has entered a narrative that gives explanatory power to his unusual behavior, and thereby protects him from some of the hurt that comes from not being understood. The social story of the hermit exists as a kind of fortress within which he can opt-out of other games with less harm to his relationships with others. (Of course hermitage is a game that, once chosen, can be hard to deviate from without significant cost, but the concept of getting stuck in our own games is for another day.)
It is incredibly liberating to realize the game-like nature of life. We are constantly telling and acting in stories and playing games. Once we awaken to this realization, we can step back and remind ourselves that the object of the particular game ought not be confused with the object of our life. We can seek to find the truth that resonates with us to our core, but on the journey we will inevitably have to play games with their own objectives. Don’t despise or run away from the games, but don’t forget that they’re just games! Play them, enjoy them, master them, fail at them, laugh at them, love them. It will make your journey towards fulfillment a better one.
(For a great read in this vein, I recommend Finite and Infinite Games by James P. Carse)