Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 16, No. 3, 2017
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Robert J. Lewis
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Men are born for games. Nothing else.
Every child knows that play is nobler than work.
Cormac McCarthy

Why are we haplessly hooked on our favourite games, and take them so seriously when winning or losing at whist or Monopoly counts for nothing (gambling is a separate issue) in real life?

We soberly note there isn’t a culture in the world that doesn’t have its games. If going-game is not mapped out in our DNA, there is a preponderance of empirical evidence suggesting that while we choose the games we play, there is very little choice in the species inclination to set aside a significant percentage of its leisure time for games.

Reduced to its indivisibles, every ‘formal’ game institutes a highly particularized, patent-protected culture with a fixed set of rules and delimited range of negative and positive outcomes which produce every game’s winners and losers.

Lewis Lapham, in Money and Class in America, synonymizes the environment of the game with the prelapsarian world, especially in sports that feature fields of dreams, which are in fact perfectly ordered, tableau-like, edenic spaces. "But inside the park the world is as it was in the beginning. The grass is as green as it was in everybody's lost childhood; nobody grows old.”

In Seduction, Jean Baudrillard introduces the notion of the rules of the game taking irrational precedence over the laws that surround it, as if the diversion, however irreal and inconsequential, is no less deserving of the respect and deference accorded to the real world.

Our uncanny and incurable attraction to game culture and the often outrageous import we attach to winning and losing is further proof, where proof is not wanting, that we are, at best, a part-time rational species.

Let us go then, you and I,
Where the card table is spread out beneath the pie in the sky
And no human voices shall wake us, until we disqualify

Since its materials are tangible – the board, the deck of cards, the dice, the computer screen – the game functions more as an alternative world than fantasy. Unlike the latter, all games engage the physical body: from the spirited manipulation of joysticks or pinball flippers to the more sedate positioning of chess pieces.

What laws are to the real world, rules are to the game. Laws can be ignored, finessed or interpreted, but rules are meant to be obeyed. Disobey the rules (introduce a fifth ace in a bridge hand, move your bishop like a rook) and the game ends. So why do we happily, if not with quasi-giddy anticipation, look forward to submitting to the fixed rules and absolutes of whatever game we fancy? What is it about games that convince us to surrender our freedom for a restricted range of pre-determined outcomes that, win or lose, have no practical bearing in the real world? And how do we rationalize that for the sake of winning, a certain percentage of gamers will be tempted by unauthorized means to gain the upper hand, risking their real-world self-respect and friendships?

The game, however contrived and removed from the real world of real consequences, creates an equal playing field among unequals. Rich and poor, high class low class, literate illiterate, provided they submit to the rules, find themselves contemplating the same bingo card, Clue board or computer screen. And while the better player usually emerges victorious in games such as Scrabble and bridge, the element of luck in most games predicts that the loser one day will be the winner the next. Real life’s losers, most of whom are economically disadvantaged, are predictably attracted to games that offer good odds at winning.

The game, the concentration it focuses, the passion it generates, shrinks time to the present indicative. Our fears and anxieties disappear as we submit to the rules and operations of the game, or as spectators to its unfolding. Temporarily relieved of regrets over the past and worries about the future, especially the angst over that future singularizing event no one escapes (decease), every game is a means to the same end – getting out of the black and into the blue. In bio-chemical speak, game culture provides a similar high to that experienced through drugs: serotonin and dopamine levels shoot up when playing our favourite games.

In the heat of the game at the exclusion of everything else, we don’t age, we experience time passing like our beloved pets that dwell in the eternal present and for whom time does not exist -- but without forsaking our faculties of judgment, which, depending on the game, are engaged to a greater or lesser degree. When the outside world intrudes, the gamer’s displeasure or anger is not directed at the intruder or intrusion, per se; his upset is a direct effect of being yanked back into existential time, which undermines the raison d'être of the game.

Pinball, which came into its own in the late 1940s, was a game changer: it was the first game that required of the player absolute concentration for the entire duration of the game. It raised the game’s intensity like Charlie Parker in jazz and James Brown in funk turned up the heat in their respective genres.

Certain games require waiting in between turns, or moves or bids. For some, these waiting periods reduce the intensity and gratification of the escape/diversion. In response to the growing demand for a more unadulterated product, newer, more fully engaging games have been developed, especially in our current century in conjunction with cyber technology.

For its sheer intensity and immoderation pinball has not been surpassed. In its category, every game subsequent to it is modeled on its template, like the fizz (carbonation) is the sine qua non in every soft drink.

All games, by their nature easily assembled and commenced, represent alternative worlds with their very particular grid of time and space. The wall that separates the world of games from the real world is invisible but very real, and a decisive indicator of the innate incompatibility that provides for each world’s safe and autonomous orbit. Despite its discombobulatingly superior mass and significance, the outer world is remarkably kept at bay for as long as any game is being played. The lasting appeal of any game rests on the quality of escape it provides from the real world as well as its ability to neutralize the mostly discomfiting effects of self-consciousness, a species specific distinction that evokes both awe and extreme anxiety.

And for those “passing strange” ones (those unflappable freaks of nature) – and we have all encountered them at one time or another -- for whom the gaze of the other does not exist, who are everlastingly comfortable in their skins, whose way of being-in-the-world we secretly envy from near or afar, we must never forget that they are excluded from a world that can never be explained or revealed, much like the world of sexual desire cannot be described or demonstrated to a child.

The integrity of the game is threatened when the outside world begins to take an interest in it, when its contrived but purposeful irreality begins to take on water (reality) and lose its float. A chess game is simply a game until two world masters meet representing the prestige and honour of their respective countries, and millions of very real dollars are at stake.

For many, the ideal game combines its irreality and inconsequentiality with the added real consequence of winning or losing money. Huge complexes (hotel-casinos) have been constructed around this particular combination in which the play-and-pay binary represents the pinnacle of gaming, where the losers, having waived the ‘no consequence’ option, consent to deal with losses that range from the trifling to the catastrophic.

Since every culture treasures its games, gaming, along with sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, ranks as one of the world’s most cherished and dependable modes of recreation and escape. And while its psychological high cannot compete with the physical high of drugs, games are sanctioned by the law and even fanatical gamers are exempt from the negative health outcomes associated with incontinent drug and alcohol consumption.

Suffice to say that games are much more than merely games, if not windows into the subconscious of a species not yet fully adjusted to the implications of being self-aware. Whether it be through mind altering substances, the all night rave party, the Mardi Gras or playing your favourite game, they all reduce to a deep seated desire to escape into the present, the eternal now, which Freud contends is tantamount to a subconscious death wish, or “return to the inanimate.” Games both cater to and mask that primordial longing of wanting to be relieved of being the object of the gaze (the judgment) of the other.

In an ironic twist of DNA, children spontaneously invent and play games in order to develop the competencies required to navigate the real world while the adult plays them in order to escape that same world.



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