Competition Without Competition

Can games grant us peace?

Posted Mar 12, 2014

Competition is the cornerstone of games. Football teams grind out yardage, battling over turf. Tennis players grunt and grimace at the serve. Boxers punch each other’s lights out. Keen chess grandmasters reputedly lose as much as 10 pounds during tournaments. At play we strive to win. Games thrive on struggle. Fervent Canadian hockey fans say their game demands “ice in the blood and blood on the ice.” Competition would be red in tooth and claw if rules did not tame our competitive instincts. Strife is so important to spirited contests, in fact, that we depend upon rules and referees to keep them fun, fair, orderly, ongoing, and relatively safe.

So here’s the question. Can a game proceed without struggle? Or to put it another way, is a game a game without clash?

I thought not. That is not until last week when I visited an amusement arcade with a group of colleagues and with them encountered an unusual electronic game, MindBall, imported from the peaceable kingdom of Sweden. In this game a featureless blue table holds a long Plexiglas tube with a small, white sphere that rolls on a track inside. A facilitator, costumed in a lab coat and carrying a clip board, straps electrode headbands to the challengers’ foreheads. (Signage explains that these measure neurofeedback.) He instructs contestants to “think of nothing…make your mind a blank.” Side-by side screens show the EEG tracings of, purportedly, the alpha brain-wave that indicates wakeful relaxation and the theta rhythm that shows evidence of sensory-motor processing and what neurologists call “arousal.”

Two competitors defend their ends as a magnet hooked to the EEG machine moves the ball back and forth. The aim of the game is to keep the EEG tracks low and unvarying. The screens act as a kind of scoreboard, the on-screen tracks spiking if a player fidgets or lets his mind wander. And here’s the competitive part—the ball, moved along by a magnet, will budge away from the calmest player (who’s winning) and toward the least relaxed player (who’s losing). If the ball travels all the way to the goal circle in front of you—if you’ve been the least tranquil, that is—you’ve lost the game.

EEG Theta wave

I paired up with a colleague who’s cool as a cucumber under fire and a frequent, unflappable network news guest who producers value for his witty and urbane commentary on the history of famous toys. Nobody was betting on me in a game that required relaxation. And sure enough, first game, my opponent decisively prevailed—and then, to no-one’s surprise, matchup after matchup he went on to out-relax everybody else in our group.

With my blood up, I demanded a rematch in this battle of the minds. Surely I could be more peaceful, more serene, more composed! The match started badly, of course. I gritted my teeth and the ball scooted my way. But then, as I searched for a calm eddy in the mental flow, the ball began to move back. Then, incredibly, it slowly made its way all the way to my opponent. Then the score stood at one all.

The game wasn’t easy, not for me anyhow. And the facilitator made the next and final encounter harder by playing at high volume The Bangles number one hit from 1986, “Walk Like an Egyptian.” Think of nothing? Make your mind a blank? Ha! Focus? Of course instead I was thinking of the way crypt carvings picture Egyptians striding with comical stiffness, how Howard Carter discovered “wonderful things” in King Tut’s tomb, how outraged mummies strangle cursed grave robbers, how Cleopatra kept both Caesar and Marc Antony guessing, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Luckily my opponent was having the same trouble. The ball wavered but did not travel. This became, as the facilitator told us later, the longest contest he’d monitored.

In fact the ball inched back and forth for about nine minutes. The game ended only when my opponent cracked up after beholding an improbable sight—me in a state of relaxation. As his theta wave spiked, I boldly seized the opportunity by failing to react. The ball scooted toward him as the electrode recorded his grin; he came up for air and went down to defeat.

When I think of epic face-offs, I think of that titanic arm-wrestling contest from the Hemingway novel; blood oozed from under the competitors’ fingernails. And that’s what made this experience so singular and mischievous. Games ordinarily train us to expect the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. This one grants us peace.