What’s the “Ideal Game”?

I’m not gonna name any names…but I have some favorites…

When games are created or participated in, especially if children are involved,  we often launch criticisms at the designs of these so-called “games”. Children in particular may change the rules but when they do we don’t say they’re cheating (unless they’re obviously changing the rules to their benefit) and they may do so at the drop of the dime. When adults suddenly change the rules in a game they are playing, this is usually looked on with more suspicion about motives.

Among children however, routine changes and the change of rules can often reach an easy consensus so long as everyone thinks it’s fair. Recently I was playing with some kids in a game called “Gaga Ball” and we were using our hands to hit a ball into the other players, sort of like a mix of dodge-ball and soccer…but with hands.

But there were only three of us (and I was the adult) so we made a rule that jail-breaks could happen. I pretty thoroughly dominated as I figured but they also got me out once or twice. But this was also partly wanting to make the game more interesting. As another example to illustrate this point: My roommate was playing a football video game and just crushing the other teams by large margins that you typically wouldn’t see on TV and if you did, it would be news-worthy.

So I asked her: How is this fun? How is crushing the other team so soundly fun after so many times? Isn’t the whole point of games to have some sort of challenge? She replied (roughly) that she still enjoyed it and I think part of that enjoyment for her was the personal challenge of, “How badly can I crush this other team?” Like all games though, this one got old. She increased the difficulty and started facing a bit more resistance to her tactics than she had previously.

Once again, the game was afoot.

How do we make sense of all of these situations? Is one game inherently better than the others? Is seeking our challenge an inherent part of a good game? What about competition and keeping the rules loose and consensus based? Should games be dictated by a referee, a set of strict rules and teams of coaches, managers and officials?

I considered many of these thoughts while reading A Funny Thought on a New Way to Play by Alejandro de Acosta.

For Acosta, the parts about competition and strict rules, officials and divisive language that games can sometimes incite (“it’s us versus them!”) are not part of the ideal game. The ideal game for Acosta likely revolves around more solitary or, perhaps at most, consensual and cooperative small-scale games that maximize cooperative and individual autonomy.

A game like soccer, on the field and with officials, judges, judgemental parents, referees and a big book to showcase what the rules are end up being a distraction for Acosta. They are impediments to the ways we may play otherwise. Not being able to use our hands in soccer makes it more challenging, true, but is challenge all there is to games?

Isn’t a part of the fun of games…having fun? What if players could use their hands once per play? Then you could include the hands but keep the feet the focus of the action. Using your hands might become a lot more tactical, precise and interesting than it is in a regular game of soccer or, well, football (also known as soccer outside of the US).

In any case, games becomes much more interesting when rules are able to be changed quickly and easily. Or at least, compared to the ease in which games in the Major League of Baseball might get changed. Where fans have argued for many years about whether baseball drags on too much. Some have suggested fewer innings but it’s likely the fear of change, the love of tradition and the bureaucracy of the MLB that’ll prevent any of this from happening any time soon.

And even when the issues are much more dire than whether innings are too long, e.g. football players getting concussions even when their wearing helmets, any kind of change is slow to happen. Even speaking out publicly, getting the word out, talking to the press about it, trying to change people within the NFL and so on is a slow-going venture.

That’s partly because these sports are so driven by money, competition, personal and financial investment up the wazoo and many other things that stagnate any kind of change. Not to mention all of the advertisers and stockholders who have investment within the NFL and all of their opinions. In this way, the actual players and something as major as their health becomes undervalued next to the bottom line.

This isn’t to say I want games to eliminate any of these elements. Contra Acosta I don’t think things like competition (or money, et. al.) are necessarily bad things. I think they’re tools and can be used accordingly in exploitative ways and especially when they’re controlled by large, bureaucratic and centralized units of power. And even more so when the background of such organizations takes place within a capitalist society.

Ultimately, the culture and economic relations of capitalism need to be undermined. And to do that, sure, competition maybe shouldn’t be as always highly prized (there are plenty of great games that use some form of cooperation, even ones like hide and go seek). But I also think competition can push us to be better as people and as game-players.

What I want to say about competition is that while it can certainly be toxic in its practice, I think this practice is much more informed by the culture in which it happens and the society that propels these practices. Acosta and others like him (egoists and such) may find this to be a “spooky” sort of language (i.e. not real) but the networks of power that exist in our world are complex and need to be graphed and mapped along bigger lines than just affinity groups.

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