Recently I was having a “heart-to-heart” with my older son about good sportsmanship/gentlemanly conduct in gaming. He had just bullied his younger brother to the point of mania in a grossly imbalanced game of Street Fighter II. Our conversation began in the usual way, with me rhetorically asking him how he would feel if I unleashed the full fury of my Street Fighter II skills on him round after round. (SF2 was a daily after-school activity for me through high school.) I followed this then by asking him how valuable it really feels to win like that—to just obliterate an opponent who is incapable of offering any measure of competition. (Fortunately, he said that it wasn’t fun.) And so I came at length to one of those accidentally profound moments as a father—the kind where you get to play it off like you’re so wise and learn-ed, and which you must immediately document and commit to the ages. I said:

A true gamer doesn’t care about winning. A true gamer cares about everybody having a good time and everybody getting better at the game.

I didn’t mean for it to be my fortune-cookie wisdom for the month; it just happened that way. Even as the words were leaving my mouth, I found myself actually hearing them for the first time as well, and saying to myself, “yes… this is how I would define the character of a true gamer.”

My newfound sagacity stands in contrast to when I was young, and against a memory I have of arguing with my dad about the so-called “object” of a game. I held that the “object” was to win, pointing readily to that section of the rule book where it says OBJECT. He insisted that the “object” was to have fun. A semantic argument, to be sure (and all the more laughable, considering my father’s tendency in those days to infuriate people with his rules-jockeying and to take losing so well…). Nevertheless, the point is understood, and it turns out he was correct, even if he didn’t always practice what he preached.

My students will regularly challenge me to chess matches, which I accept as often as possible, because I love the game. Notice I wrote, “because I love the game,” not “because I love to win.” More often than not, the student’s skill level is far below my own, which is usually revealed immediately by the kinds of novice questions they ask about how to set up the board or how the pieces move. In situations like this, winning would be pitifully easy, but not fun. So instead of pursuing checkmate at all costs, in the interest of pursuing a more meaningful experience, not only will I follow the game with some general strategic advice designed to help them improve their chess play, but I’ll often coach them right in the middle of the game, advising against potential blunders and offering strong candidate moves for them to consider. They’re confused by this. More than once I’ve been entreated to some variant of “why are you helping me?” or “you’re not supposed to tell me…” (These teenagers are not far removed from my 8-year-old son’s approach to game-play.) Inevitably, my response is some variant of, “What fun would that be?” I point out that it’s no secret I could obliterate them if I wanted, which is pointless and unenjoyable to both parties. So rather than actually playing chess with them, more often than not, I am teaching them chess. Every game is a practice model.

What is fun and meaningful is not the interest in the contest, but rather the interest in the craft of the game.

This is especially true when confronted with a wide disparity in skill levels, but it remains true even when the players are all fairly evenly matched. In this vein, I also think of games like golf and bowling. Perhaps it’s because these games are essentially “multi-player solitaire,” but the fact remains: the players often speak in terms of “their game.” “How’s your golf game?” “What did you bowl last night?” The conversation is frequently not about the competition against other players, but against oneself. The true goal is to become a better __________ player, not so that one can brutalize one’s opponents, but so that one may in fact be a better performer in the art-form of the game itself.

I have recently begun applying this mindset to all my gaming, and two related observations have surfaced: (1) the entire experience is much more enjoyable, as even an old game takes on a new, puzzle-like quality, and (2) losing is much easier on the ego. This is not to say that I don’t care about or don’t try to win. Trying to win is, of course, part of the art-form, after all, and when I’m playing with evenly matched opponents, teaching them the game is not really part of the dynamic. But with this “craftsman’s” mindset, losing becomes much less personal. The identities of all the players dissolve into a question of the best “play”—the best “showing,” if you will, of the game in question, and of all its component positions. As part of this ballet, while I still I do my best to be competitive, I’m trying to be more impersonal about it. When faced with a losing position, rather than getting frustrated or taking it as an individual attack, I’ve been trying to ask simply, “what is the best strategy for a situation like this?” Each move is its own, isolated problem to solve, like a chess puzzle printed in a newspaper. Perhaps this doesn’t seem, on the surface, like it’s anything different than what any strategist is doing, but I’m trying to explain a subtle but important shift in attitude. I’m not concerned with what my strategy is or how I ended up in the position. I’m concerned with how a situation like this occurs and how a player—any player—deals with it in a way that is most appropriate to the integrity of the game for the sake of itself.

I’m given to think of Plato’s Forms and the idea that there is some perfect, intangible, and ultimate version of everything, of which everything in this reality is a mere approximation. I’ve argued that games are nothing more than a social construct that have no meaning or “proper” execution other than that upon which we agree. But this more recent line of thought has led me down a contrarian path. Maybe games are like Plato’s Forms: maybe every game has some perfect manifestation and corresponding set of behaviors that comprise the Form of the Game, and that the Game itself is never actually played. Rather, like chess with my students, every play is a practice model, and we gamers are the philosophers who are trying to help the game realize its ultimate form.

I’m going ultra-philosophical, I know, and maybe nobody actually thinks of it all this deeply. However, you can witness this kind of attitude at play when the table is surrounded by a full complement of true gamers. Everyone, of course, is trying to win, but at the same time, there’s a lot of positive and constructive table talk, with every player openly discussing all candidate moves, regardless of whose turn it actually is. On occasion, I’ve even seen this kind of display even when the game being played is part of a tournament!  These players truly exhibit the qualities (I’ve realized) of a “true gamer,” and their ambition is to make real the game’s “true object”: that everyone has fun and that everyone learns how to be better at that game.

This is the kind of gamer I’ve realized I want to be. It’s moral; maybe it’s philosophically profound, but most of all, it’s just more fun for everyone. Funny how we’re the ones who learn things when we think we’re teaching our children.

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Published by Geoffrey Greer