Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

If Everybody Hates “Game Playing” Why Does It Happen?

People often get passive aggressive as a last resort when talking to brick walls

Nobody likes people who “play games.” Indeed nobody is a game player. This becomes obvious if you’ve spent any time on dating websites where almost all users declare that they aren’t game players and absolutely won’t tolerate them. 

No one says,  “Yeah actually I’m a game player.  I like playing games.” So who are these game players that we all abhor and none of us are?

Game players mess with your mind.  They’re closely related to the passive aggressive, manipulative, and drama queens.  They stir up trouble but pretend they don’t.  

The problem with most pejorative diagnostic terms in psychology and pop psych is that they cut two ways. They slice open and expose counterproductive behavior but they also mince and dismiss efforts to expose counterproductive behavior.

Take the pejorative term “narcissist.” You’ll accuse someone of being a narcissist if they’re self-absorbed but also if you’re self-absorbed and angry that they’re not paying you the inordinate attention you falsely believe you deserve.  In other words one can accuse someone of being a narcissist to dismiss efforts to expose your counter-productive behavior.

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A:  Honey, I can’t pick you up again tonight.  I’ve got to finish work.

B:  No that’s obviously not it.  You’re just a narcissist, to self-absorbed to care about others.

“Game player” cuts two ways also.  By definition they stir up trouble but pretend they don’t.  One way to do that is to lob little bombs just above/below someone’s radar, for example sighing “whatever” which if taken literally means “I withdraw my opposition” but implies the more incendiary, “You’re an idiot,” or “You’ll pay for this later.” 

But another way to be a game player is to block opposition so consistently that your opponent can only withdraw silently or voice opposition with little above/below your radar bombs.

There’s no talking to some people, and worse there’s no talking to them about how there’s no talking to them.  Worse still, there’s no talking to them about their assumption that they’re absolutely open-minded and receptive to feedback. 

Have you ever encountered someone who pretends they want to have a conversation but are really just lecturing about what they’re sure is absolutely true or perhaps about you’re faults?  You listen politely but they go on and on.  You humor them, but at some point you may a brief comment offering an alternative perspective, as if it really were a dialog. 

No matter how slight your comment, they take it as evidence that you must not have been listening. Patient with your apparent failure, they start their monologue over from the beginning.  

This “Insistent Replay” maneuver is just one of many ways we can claim receptivity when we’re unreceptive.  We don’t think of this as game playing but it is. And with such people you are likely to grumble, mutter something passive aggressive like “whatever.” 

Surely there are real game players, manipulators, sociopaths and narcissists.  If there weren’t, then such pejorative diagnostics would lack credibility.  But we tend to be pretty quick to level such diagnostics at others without noticing the way they cut both ways.

We can game play by sins of omission and sins of commission by the sin of omission of blocking honest communication so completely that the only option left is a manipulative “whatever.” 

Indeed the two ways can go two ways, two people each frustrated that there’s no talking to the other, and that there’s no talking to the them about how there’s no talking to the them, both convinced the other is a game player and that in contrast they’re the open minded ones. It’s not hard to fall into such a situation.  Most of us have done so at least once or twice. 

How do you prevent falling into such situations again? 

1.  Be slow to diagnose.  Reserve those pejoratives for people who really earn them.

2.  Think subtly about those diagnostics and how they apply, for example “game player” applying as much to those who block honest criticism as to those who resort to indirect criticism. 

3. Don’t assume that you’re impulse to diagnose pejoratively is just calling a spade a spade.

4.  Don’t assume that your ability to diagnose others means you have a clean bill of health, (which I call “exempt by contempt” for example saying, “Me a game-player?  Impossible! I hate game players.”) Assume that what others do, you probably do too.  Chances are you’ve even done an “Insistent Replay” or two in your time.  Employ the mantra, “I wouldn’t put it past me.”

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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