Chess and Life

Can we get addicted to meaningfulness?

Posted Nov 30, 2011

Games can be so much fun that people devote much of their waking time to them. As they do so, their skill grows, which can make the game even more compelling. At some point, for some people, the game becomes so important that it begins to impinge upon the player's other valued activities, such as other interests or social relationships, and the player's life begins to deteriorate. How can this happen?

In a recent book on one of the oldest and purest competitive games—chess—anthropologist Robert Desjarlais takes up this question (among many others). He suggests the possibility that those who play a game seriously may do so because it is a haven of meaningfulness in a world that often seems meaningless.

Desjarlais writes (Counterplay, p. 114): "To begin a chess game is to step into the unknown, to foresee vague possibilities, to encounter formations at once familiar and unexpected."A game is like a highly simplified version of everyday life. One's decisions have consequences for the future. We know that each move we make, in life or in a game, determines a unique path for the future. In both chess and life, our possible paths are in practice infinite. However, in chess it will become obvious relatively quickly whether you made the right choices, because there will be an ending, in which you will win, lose or draw. In this, chess is like a story: there is an ending that makes it clear what it all meant.

In life, there is an ending, but we don't get to know what it is, because we are dead. The point is that games are like living life-we make decisions that influence the outcome-but in games the situation is set up so that we can know how it all adds up. This adding up, this meaningfulness, is one of the most important things that draws people to games.

But it is not at all unusual for players of chess, like players of many other games (role-playing games, video games, games of chance, etc.) to begin to feel that the world of the game is more meaningful than the world of everyday life. It could be the personality of the player, or it could be the nature of the player's everyday world, or it could be that the player is really good at the game and falls for the rewards of playing.

Whatever the reason, when the meaning of the game outweighs the meaning of the world, something that enhances life has slipped into something that detracts from it. It's an open question whether this situation should be called addiction. After all, classic drug addictions aren't typically based in the search for meaning. But it is useful, in our attempt to understand why a person can get pulled into something that begins to take over their life, that the problem can even be based in something that virtually defines our humanity: our quest for meaning.

To learn more, please visit Peter G. Stromberg's website. Photo by Sourabh Massey.