Friday, April 10, 2020

When Life Becomes A Game

            Apart from the purely recreational element, games serve another very important purpose both for human individuals as well as social groups.  Through a game, a person is able to extract defined discrete principles in the form of rules from the streaming of life activity and is able to use those rules as the foundation for a series of defined discrete actions within structured interactions with one or more other people.  The non-delimited infinity of possible path crossings with others in daily life is reduced to a delimited infinity of formal interactions within the formal structure of a game.  In math, a non-delimited infinity is all the points on a line of any given length.  A delimited infinity is, for example, all the positive discrete numbers: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, etc.  It is beyond the scope of this article, but mathematicians can prove that a non-delimited infinity is larger than a delimited infinity.

            Anyway, by reducing the flowing, blendable, continual stimuli of a stream of life activity to the defined discrete stimuli of defined discrete rules and defined discrete game actions, people can gain technique in controlling many aspects of life and, in particular, in dealing with other people.  Games help people to regulate interactions with other people. To deal with primal differences, competition and conflict in a somewhat restrained civilized way. 

            Now in most games, the stream of life activity cannot be totally kept out of the defined discrete structural interactions of the game.  The stream of life activity makes its appearance in the form of luck.  The dealing of cards, the selection of tiles, and the roll of the dice are examples of aspects of many games that can’t be controlled through the defined discrete rules of a game.  There is, however, one game I can think of where such a lack of control through luck plays a very minimal role.  I’m thinking of chess.  In chess, the only luck aspect I can think of is if a person gets to play the white pieces (and thus opens the game) or if he plays black.

            In sports, the unstructured stream of life activity intercedes in a different way than it does in board and card games.  Because humans aren’t robots, it is much more difficult to control precisely all the muscles involved in bodily movements than it is to control the mental decisions made to make moves in card and board games.  Mental decisions are frequently the result of inevitable moves required as responses to the decisions and moves of one’s opponents.  Now, poker and bridge may be considered to be a little bit closer to physical sports, because presentation of facial expression and vocal inflection or the lack thereof are kinds of physical sporting movements.  Controlling facial and vocal muscles can be thought of as being somewhat analogous to controlling hand, arm, chest, leg and foot muscles in traditional sports.

            But all these different competitions have one thing in common.  They are all based on discrete actions that are distinct from the processes in the streaming of normal life activity.  These actions would never be confused with real life processes.  And that is good.  Because real life has many aspects that games don’t.  Real life processes make and preserve organic imprints on human fields of experience that have lasting meaningful effects on people’s lives.  These imprints relate to social, political, economic and spiritual survival.

            Nowadays, there are whole new groups of games based on video, computer and virtual reality.  These games continue to be based on defined discrete phenomena and not the flowing, blendable, continual phenomena built on organic stimuli.  But the amount of defined discrete phenomena and defined discrete stimuli found in these video, computer and virtual reality games is so much greater than those phenomena and stimuli found with board games, card games, and in sports.  So much so, that all the defined discrete phenomena and defined discrete stimuli found in video, computer and virtual reality games start to blur together in people’s minds and start to be experienced as flowing blendable continual phenomena and flowing blendable continual stimuli.  As a result, people increasingly find themselves immersed in modern technological games as if the games were part of the regular flow in the streaming of life activities.  In other words, these modern technological games threaten to totally break down the barriers that exist between primary experience and mediated experience.  They cause people to lose their normal perspective on when things really matter.

            One difference of course between video, computer and virtual reality games and real life activities is that the phenomena in these new games lack mass, matter and substance. They are infused with the experiential vacuum in which they exist.  So all the actions generated within these vacuum environments, even though on some levels they appear to be real life actions, result in no making, receiving or preserving of organic imprints.  These actions neither help a person to feel fully alive nor to prepare for death.
            Except for professionals, who are relatively few, games, in general, are meant for most people to be a kind of metaphorical rehearsal for external world life.  When people start treating games as life, then the reverse becomes true as well.  Life becomes a game.  People start to manipulate one another as if they were simply defined discrete pieces on a game board or else playing cards.  Other people can be disposed of easily, much the same as game pieces or cards.  In a game, a person cannot afford to form a deep-bonded relationship with a particular piece or a particular card.  Relationships with game pieces and cards are contingent, much as they increasingly are with humans in modern technological society.  A piece or a card is kept by a player only as long as it is useful to advancing a person’s game strategy.  The same is true today in people’s attitudes in the external world, whether it relates to a person moving up a corporate ladder or making a sexual conquest.  People today tend to relate to other people not so much for forming a meaningful relationship, but instead for some extrinsic utilitarian goal.  Game competition begins today when one is strategizing to get one’s kids in the right kindergarten. 

            When most or all interactions in life become implicit competitions, real sustained bonding and intimacy becomes very problematic.  When one feels a constant need to strategize in order to survive, it becomes very difficult to feel grounded in one’s living environment and in oneself.  Stress balloons.  Life becomes very uncomfortable.  It really is important to keep a barrier between the world of life and the world of games, which is simply a reduction of life to certain particular aspects.  It really is important if we want to prevent society from fragmenting apart and us as individuals with it.

© 2020 Laurence Mesirow

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