The Game of Life Is Bad for Us All

It should be a picnic.

Posted Aug 01, 2020

The idea that “life is a game” is a popular sentiment. Typing that phrase into Google produces 6,490,000,000 results in 0.56 seconds. But do we actually want our individual and social lives to be structured like a sporting match? Really? As entertaining as it can be to watch a game of basketball or tennis or netball or baseball or football, imagine if our societies were organized entirely like that.

To begin, there must be clearly defined rules with someone scrutinizing you constantly so that there are no infringements. Occasionally, you might object to a decision by the scrutinizer, and appeal to a higher authority, but their decision would be final. If you made too many infringements, you might be removed for a period.

You don’t get to negotiate the rules, or have a say in what they should be, regardless of how unjust you might think one or more of them is. The rules are the rules.

So, you’re in the game. If life is a game, then, for as long as you’re alive, you’re playing. Since this is a game, you necessarily have to have opponents. Games can vary a lot, but one constant is that they are competitions. They are always structured so that one (an individual or a team) is pitted against another. You might play individually or as part of a team, but your ultimate purpose is to do better than the other side in accumulating whatever the commodity of the game is such as goals or points.

There is no respite in a game. Even if you are on the bench, your teammates are continuing the battle on your behalf. If you relax, even for a moment, you might lose the advantage you had worked so hard for.

There are always winners and losers in a game. Sometimes, to be sure, a particular game might end in a draw, but people hardly ever find a draw very satisfying. Such an outcome is often called “no result” to indicate just what we think of it. Occasionally, there are periods of “extra time” and “sudden death shoot outs” to eliminate the draw situation and arrive at a winner. So, some people win, and some people lose. The winners are often jubilant and cheered and applauded by many. The losers live to fight another day.

And that’s exactly the point! Life as a game means we’re in a constant fight. For some reason, calling something a “competition" seems to create an entrancing kind of effect in which the "something" becomes cloaked in an appealing, even admirable, aspirational aura. If we labeled the same interaction a “conflict," however, an entirely different impression would be conjured, even though the interaction is exactly the same.

Different words with different connotations sharing precisely the same structure and dynamics. Would we think about current policies that “encourage competition” if we discussed them, instead, as policies that “promote conflict?"

Back to the game. Even if you’re the winner, you can’t let your guard down. Take a peek behind you. Here they come. They’re still coming. They’re always coming. World champion tennis players have remarked that staying at the top is harder than getting to the top.  

Is this really how we want to live our lives? A land of constantly struggling to establish winners and losers. Some people, including politicians and other leaders and decision-makers, seem to think so. They create policies, conditions, and circumstances so that people must compete for resources even when there is no need to. There is more than enough to go around for all of us. It’s a problem of distribution rather than quantity.

Perhaps distribution would be different if cooperation rather than competition was the order of the day. There’s a very good reason that cooperative play is considered more developmentally advanced in young children than solitary or parallel play. As a race, we are still near the bottom of the social-developmental staircase.

45146692, @123RF
Source: Frederic Cerez, Image ID:45146692, @123RF

Instead of a game, what if life was a picnic? Picnics have a fundamentally different purpose than games. Picnics could be thought of as collaborative times for creating enjoyable experiences of sharing in relaxed and trusted social gatherings.

Think about your ideal picnic. It’s probably not going to be a super big group, and the people on your list will usually be people you like to spend time with. Consideration is given to the location and the timing to maximize enjoyment. Locations are often chosen so that the picnickers have lots of options — space for children to run around, walking paths for people who want a moment or two to enjoy the setting, and places for preparing and cooking food.

The format of the picnic is frequently flexible. Suggestions are made for a time to meet, perhaps some activities are proposed, the food to bring might be described, and so on. The main point about a picnic is that it is cooperative. Picnics involve collaboration. There’s no need to compete for food or remain vigilant in case you lose the advantage.

It is well within our capabilities to create conditions such that life for all our global citizens is a picnic. A bold suggestion might be that picnics are good for all, all the time. Games are good for the winners while they’re winning, but winning never continues indefinitely. And even when winning is sustained for a period of time, it requires ongoing effort, drive, and focus.

Competing and cooperating are both different examples of controlling but, whereas control by competing involves a fight, control by cooperating involves more of a flow. Fighting or flowing, it’s all still control, but perhaps one has better outcomes, on a wider scale, and for much longer periods of time.

Let’s turn life into the picnic it should be.