Games We Play

Children’s Games, by Pieter Bruegel, 1560

Playground games (not sports) can be divided into two categories.

Elimination games systematically remove players or teams until there is only one left. These are highly competitive, and can lead to quarrels and tears.

Co-operative games emphasize participation and challenge… fun rather than defeating someone, play rather than competition.  If competition is involved, the outcome does not involve being eliminated. Instead, it means switching teams so that everyone ends up on the “winning” team… one big happy family. And then the bell rings.

Many schools attempt to teach and encourage “new games” of the co-operative sort. The emphasis is on participation and healthy exercise, not on the development of a particular skill or team allegiance. Everyone is equal and no one’s self-esteem is damaged. Well-intentioned to be sure, but this does not go very far or last very long.  The kids see through it, and many of them hate it. What fun is sports day at school when everyone gets a ribbon for participation, regardless of achievement!? The kids know the world doesn’t work that way.  They know that the real deal is not games, but sports.

Everything outside of school, from little league right up to the professional sports they see on television, is organized in tournaments.  Players or teams may even be seeded to manipulate the outcome, there are quarter finals and semi finals, and eventually the winner takes all.  There are no co-operative games at the Olympics.

In the real world there is only one winner… one successful job applicant, one scholarship winner, one champion, one manager or CEO. Watch the reality shows on television… even something as loathsome as “Dance Moms” or as “Toddlers and Tiaras” (two links, I couldn’t decide which is worse).  The competition is vicious, egos are crushed, and hopes are dashed on a regular basis. Co-operative games don’t prepare children for the inevitable pain of competing and losing.

American sportswriter Grantland Rice famously wrote: “For when the One Great Scorer comes to mark against your name, He writes  not that you won or lost but how you played the Game.” A nice idea, consolation for the losers, but winning would have been better. Always. We pay lip service to good sportsmanship, but sponsors choose the champions.

The Hunger Games just takes this to a new level… extrapolating the concept of elimination competitions to the ultimate end. It is a war story. The tributes  compete for rationed weapons and supplies in an enclosed, finite, and ultimately hostile environment. Survival skills are as important as fighting skills. Water is scarce. Attempts to find new food sources can be deadly. Fire is dangerous. Medicine and shelter are unavailable. The weather is unpredictable.  There are hidden weapons, booby traps, mutant natural enemies.  They are watched, critiqued, manipulated.  It is a satiric critique of the zero-sum game that dominates our competitive world… sports and entertainment, economics, politics, everything.

The outraged adults who see only vicarious violence and inappropriate content are missing the point. The kids, like my grand daughters who have read and understood the books, do get the point. This is not only satire; it is a cautionary tale. It will be up to their generation, not yours and mine, to resist the slide into totalitarian government, media manipulation, a starving population on an exhausted and unstable planet.

Here is Peter Gabriel’s 1980 recording of Games Without Frontiers, lyrics here if you don’t remember the song. The references are to a television series that ran in Europe for 34 years called Jeux Sans Frontiers. Wikipedia tells us that the idea of the show came from French President Charles de Gaulle, whose wish was that French and German youth would meet in a series of funny games to reinforce the friendship between France and Germany. Yes, games as a government initiated propaganda tool!  Seeing is believing, and of course the best are on YouTube.

Yes, we need  more co-operation and less competition. But what are the odds!? And what are the alternatives!?

What do you think?

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