Monday, January 08, 2007

We Really Can All Be Winners

Is there a hard difference between "sports" and "board games"?

If you say that one relies on physical skills while the other mental, I ask whether Spit (or Speed) is a board (or card game) or a sport. What about Rebound or Crokinole?

You can't draw the distinction between video games and sports anymore, not with Dance Dance Revolution or the Wii.

Wherever we find a boundary between one activity and another, you can be sure that someone is going to find an activity that combines both.

All we still have is "games".

So let's move it up a level: what is the difference between a "game" and an "activity"?

Most definitions include something like a voluntarily adopted rule-set, outside the framework of a "real" world objective, a possible goal or end point, and very likely one or more winners and losers, either in absolute or relative terms.

An activity without a rule-set can be "play", but hardly a game (perhaps another long discussion). It must be voluntary; the gladiators, after all, didn't have to fight. They could have tried to climb out of the arena and been shot and the game never would have happened. They voluntarily - with strong persuasion, let us say - chose to play.

As far as its objectives being "outside" the real world, you may be running to get into the pool, but the objective is not to get to the pool, but to be the first to do so. That's entirely different in nature, even though achieved simultaneously with the real objective that encompasses it.

This definition include sports, party and parlor games, and board and video games, as well as things like team-building exercises by companies, dating games, "first into the pool" and so on. It excludes wars waged by governments and militias, because even even when fought with rules and producing winners and losers, participation is not voluntary but imposed, and the activity and goals are not outside the framework of the real world. It also excludes things like working together to build a house (unless a contest is brought into the activity) or picking cards and telling stories based on the images on the cards drawn (since there are no winners or losers, unless this is artificially imposed).

This last example is an interesting case. I think most people could envision a story-telling exercise, even without winners and losers, being packaged and described as a "game". It claims the definition of game based on components - cards, which are also components often used in games - design, packaging, turn oriented structure, sedentary nature, and maybe other similarities.

But mostly, this "game" wants to claim game-hood by virtue of the associations and status it gains as a game, namely: relaxing and non-threatening, associated with various therapies or studies that promote "games", marketability and meaning to certain markets, and so on. Of course, it also suffers the negative associations with being a game, such as buyers having to overcome a prejudice as to its serious nature, among others.

I wrote a series of articles on Winning Alternatives, which challenged the notion that modern games need to have absolute winners and losers.

I further suggest that within today's society, we play as if the goal of the game is not to win, anyway, but to play against our own potential.

We find this everywhere in our modern world. "It doesn't matter if you win or lose it's how you play the game." And the contrary (since we are not trying to breed mediocrity) that we must keep trying no matter what, because only losers quit when facing a challenge.

But no one calls Silver medal winners "losers", except sneaker advertising companies. No one tells someone who worked as hard as he could but simply didn't have the correct bone structure or mental abilities that they are a loser if they didn't win. Absolute success counts in the real world not by absolutely overcoming all obstacles, but by achieving a sustainable result. If you find it difficult to be an airline pilot, you're not a real-world loser if you become a baker, instead. But in the hypothetical game "Race to Become an Airline Pilot", that's what we still insist on.

I suggest that our society has advanced past this notion of winning and losing. We understand the balance between failure to try as being not acceptable and not winning as being not important. Yet we still design games that are based on our archaic notions of winning and losing.

People get bored of games when they get bored of winning or losing that game. When the idea of the game is no longer important. Some people find it fun to continuously flip a coin and call heads or tails. Even though they know that the odds are 1 in 2 every time. Seeing what happens can still be a thrill. When do they stop? Not when they've learned the odds, but when the outcome no longer holds any interest.

It used to be that the results of games mattered. We lived with honor, pride, heroics, and so on, measured as personal, tribal, or national rank relative to others. Those days are essentially gone. Succeeding is still important, but beating is no longer essential to humans. Achieving is important. Nobody civilized cares any more if they have more money than their neighbors; on the contrary, now we measure success as those who help others succeed as well.

People only care if they have enough to do what they want to do. Objectively we don't measure worth by who wins the 100 meter dash, not really. We care about the character the players have built during the competition. But we still formulate and reward winners and losers in games, including the 100 meter dash.

What this does is cause a great cognitive dissonance between our objectives and formulas for games and our ability to carry lessons from games into the real world.

Wouldn't you think that we would shift our attention away from the winners and losers? Without changing the goals of the activity, that is: to achieve as much as you can or more than the other competitors. Can't we, instead, focus on the achievements themselves? By rewarding individual progress, or competition versus an expected goal, rather than versus others? Or growth as a person?


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