Your Society Is Shaped by the Games It Can Play

I owe inspiration for a good bit of this post to Jordan Peterson and Friedrich Hayek.

I wrote last night about the games which we all play on the individual level, from Make-The-Best-Grades to Impress-The-Boss.

There are also games which everyone in a society can be part of at the same time. These are games which are still played by individuals but which have deeper and wider fields of play. These are the games which have to do with fundamental human values – after all, the game is typically shaped by the goal set for it.

In a game like football, the goal is to deliver a ball down a field, or to prevent the other team from delivering the ball down the field. The rules mostly shape themselves around allowing both sides to pursue their goals in a way that makes an ordered game – rather than complete chaos – from happening.

What does that look like for a society?

Remember that what a game looks like is very much determined by what “winning” consists of and is seen as being. This differs from age to age, and can be based on everything from achieving the Greek ideal of excellence to living the Japanese code of honor.

We Westerners happen to live in a world in which winning can be many things. You can win by being great at business. You can win by being a great vocalist. You can win by riding horses well, making great sushi, building world-changing software, or being the best boy scout troop leader. American society is full of games, and for that reason, it’s full of winners – or at least the opportunity to be one.

This pluralistic world of multiple winnable games is not the norm.

The normal state of affairs, from the earliest kingdoms through the Roman dominion to the European colonial empires through today has been the mono-game – a game that attempts to drive out all others. That mono-game is politics.

Politics, n. the activities associated with the governance of a country or other area, especially the debate or conflict among individuals or parties having or hoping to achieve power.

It is not controversial to say that politics has driven much of historical note in past cultures, mostly because (very unfortunately) politics is the primary engine of cause and effect which historians seem to focus on.

Of course, there were other games happening in societies dominated by the mono-game. There was art, there was romance, there were all of the games of daily life. But it was genuinely accepted and even considered praiseworthy in these societies that the route to dominance in all of these games was the game to control political power. After all, instead of playing all of the games, why not play the game that will give you control of all the other players?

No, it’s not controversial to say that politics has been the predominant game in past settled cultures. It is controversial to say that politics is primarily a destructive and wasteful game.

If there is only one one route to making decisions in a society, you will be all the more competitive to get access to it. This is true of political authority. When there will only be one decision – whether it’s about food or clothing or economics or military policy – made for a large group of people (a “nation”), there are tremendous stakes associated to that decision and controlling what comes of it. This is the source of every revolution, every bitter campaign, and every emotionally-wounding Thanksgiving conversation – when you deal with politics, you deal with that which will be imposed on everyone else. 

What it takes to achieve this political authority is precisely what makes politics a game not worth playing. Societies which play an authoritarian mono-game of grab-the-gun-in-the-room tend to be more violent, less productive, and more mistrustful than societies which don’t .

Sociologist and economist Friedrich Hayek examined how societies which embrace authoritarian games tend to play out in his work The Road to Serfdom:

“The ruling moral views will depend partly on the qualities that will lead individuals to success in a collectivist or totalitarian system and partly on the requirements of the totalitarian machinery…. To be a useful assistant in the running of a totalitarian state, it is not enough that a man should be prepared to accept specious justification of vile deeds; he must himself be prepared actively to break every moral rule he has ever known if this seems necessary to achieve the end set for him.”

In other words, to win at politics in a society that has made politics absolute, you need to have the nerves – and lack of conscience – to do anything to gain and maintain power, regardless of your other well-intentioned ends for the use of that power.

To the degree you make power something 1) efficacious and 2) threatening, you make it much more attractive as an object. You also make the game of power more destructive and more dangerous to the plurality of games otherwise available.

Many people in the United States are living in a way that trends toward obsession with and worship of the mono-game of politics. Our political philosophies – right-wing or left-wing – aggrandize state power, making it more efficacious. Our policy plans make it more threatening to our opposition. We continue to raise the stakes for the political game by making the scope of the political game larger. We cry out for a strong individual to save us from our problems and spend months mourning when our strong individual does not win, and months gloating when our strong individual does win.

These are clear signs that our society is becoming addicted to the mono-game of politics. We have started to see the effects on the types of games we are able to play as our freedoms are restricted by the growing “winner class” of bureaucratic politics and our time is sucked away by our attentions to political processes. We all believe that “we” are somehow the government, and we are paying for it. We will pay for it if we continue to create an increasingly powerful government which interest groups can use as a weapon.

If we take the route of the mono-game, we lose what’s so cool about our world. It’s possible for multiple games and multiple winners – even an entire population of winners – to exist because we don’t have a mono-game of violent domination which people must either win or lose. We do have violent domination, and winners, and losers, and we’ve always had those things – but there’s at least something about us that has prevented true authoritarianism from taking cultural root in America.

How do we avoid this? We must move in the opposite direction. Our goal must be to stop those who would turn to the political game of violent dominance. That means creating more games, playing more games, and winning more games. Ignore the game of politics. Don’t try to seize the gun. The irrelevance of the political game directly depends on the indifference of people who could otherwise choose to play it.

Remember that the type of games you play and create are the things that your children will act out when they are men and women.We must provide games which are alternatives to the nasty, brutish, and short game of political power.

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James Walpole

James Walpole is a writer, startup marketer, and perpetual apprentice. You're reading his blog right now, and he really appreciates it. Don't let it go to his head, though.

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