I observed my children in a game of “Simon Says” the other day. My son and a couple of other kids were out early on in the game and had to stand to the side for a good well. The tricky part of the game came when the facilitator said, “okay… Simon Says… crouch down and build up your super charge….” All the kids got down and mimed a rocket ship about to blast off. “Blast off!” the leader exclaimed. And then all the kids except my daughter jumped into the air. He tried to call them all out: “I didn’t say Simon says!” But one of the kids answered back that what he thought was two separate commands were actually joined together as one. The whole thing came down to what we mean by an interpolated ellipsis! And I sat there and watched as he caved in and let them all keep playing… after my daughter had basically won the thing!
Now, one thing I try to teach my kids is… if they’re playing a game that requires a referee, then they have to abide by his rulings or else there is no game. And for another thing, my daughter wasn’t offended in the slightest– she just wanted to play with the kids that were there. But I really wonder what his thinking was. I kinda wonder if he thought that being “out” was inherently unfun. Maybe there’s this principle that it is a good idea to keep as many kids engaged as possible. But if that’s the case… what about the kids that are already out? Why not declare a winner quickly so that there’s time for an entirely new game… and give someone else a chance at playground glory? You see… not only was my daughter denied her victory… but my son was denied the chance for a rematch. All because some kid was able to rules lawyer the referee when other children would just meekly accept a ruling and keep on.
What do I do, though? I quietly told my daughter later that she had, in my opinion, won that game, but that she did well in not fussing about what seemed to me to be a bogus ruling. Yet part of me hates it that teaching my children to be good sports seems to indirectly hand the playground over the uncountable number of “squeaky wheels” out there, but what can you do…?
When I took my daughter to family camp last week, we did a canoeing class together. We played this game where the facilitator would toss rubber ducks into the water. We’d all go after them and put them on our fore deck. The other boats would then try to maneuver so that they could take your rubber ducks from you. This was actually a cool game. My daughter and I were racking up the ducks, when I overhead the teacher say something to the effect that he was tossing in extra ducks in order to purposely keep everybody about equal in terms of score. I admit, I was a bit miffed at that– my daughter and I were doing well and now there was no way to gauge just how well that was! But whatever. We’re just there to “have fun,”eh? For my to say anything negative would be for me to be a spoilsport, right?
But here’s the kicker: he set up one last game at the end of class. He threw ducks to various places on the lake and we all were to go after them. Once they were all captured, we were to return to the docks to see who had the most. My daughter and I did not get a single rubber ducky! That was the agony of defeat right there– exactly what I’d asked for. We had a clear ranking of the various teams… and I was at the bottom. But here’s why it rankles: when I was winning, we had the referee adjusting the game’s state in order to make everyone feel about the same. But when I was losing, that artificial balance suddenly evaporated!
Later on I was in a cooking class with my daughter and they were playing duck duck goose while something baked in the oven. This cute little girl gets tapped as the goose… and the gets up… and runs the opposite direction that she was supposed to! Aww…. Of course, this is the exact moment that one of the moms in the room had to shout out, “good job!” The same thing happened back when I had my kids in soccer. Some little kid would get the ball and then head towards his own team’s goal and try to kick it in. Inevitably, a dad in the crowd would scream, “GOOD JOB!!!!” You want to pump up a kid’s self esteem? Fine. You want to give some encouragement and direction to someone that’s struggling? Go for it! You want to deal out a little positive reinforcement? Have at it…. But I have just one question here. Where in the hell did we get this idea that kids should be praised no matter what they do? No, it’s worse than that, actually. The amount of praise that we lather on them seems to be inversely proportional to how good they actually do!
Taken all together, it’s as if these people want to keep everyone engaged, make everyone feel like they’re competitive, and then make sure that (most of the time) everyone gets praised just for being there. It’s almost as if they are religiously opposed allowing children to experience real games and the ups and downs that go with them. This is where you scoff at me. But no, this isn’t just a couple of rogue parents. This isn’t just a handful of mediocre referees. This is some sort of strange religion of “fairness” that is aggressively evangelized by its practitioners. No, really. I will look at these referees and say… hey, it’s their game. They can run it like they want to. And these “good job” type parents. Sure, I criticize them here… but I would never call them out personally or cut them down in front of their own kids. And yet… if I happen to be the one running the game… they don’t give me the same benefit of the doubt that I give to them.
You see, when I was playing chess with the kids at camp, someone made a point to criticize me for winning against them– like I’m some sort of big meany or something. Why is that? Are kids really that fragile? Oh yeah, like I’m going to beat this kid in a game and suddenly he’s going to be up all night crying about it. I don’t think so. That kid… he actually came and found me the next day and made me sit down and play him a second time. I don’t think I bruised his ego at all. And even if I did, I doubt it could compare to, say, lying to this kid about his relative skill level for twenty years. Honestly, I think these aggressively “fair” and “nice” people not only hate games, but they hate civilization itself. But the worst thing is, they really aren’t any fun. Whatever it is that they’ve been poisoned with, in the end they are actually just plain terrible referees and gamemasters. They are so attached to getting certain preconceived outcomes, that they don’t actually know what “play” is anymore.
Seeing as an entire generation seems to have lost this, I will go ahead and spell it out. These are the laws of play:
- A game without winners and losers is no game at all.
- The pain of finding out you’re inept is far exceeded by joy you receive in developing your talents to their potential.
- Time spent losing against a superior player is not a bad thing. Handled well it can be a master class experience. (Hint: take notes on how they beat you and see what you can do to address it for next time.)
- A referee should strive to above all be impartial.
- If the referee interferes in the game state in order to bring about an artificial form of fairness and balance then victory is hollow and losing has no educational value.
- The proper place to ensure a game is balanced is before it begins. A handicap can be applied if the players agree to it. Being subtle about the use of handicaps is disingenuous. Unbalanced scenarios can make for fun contests between players of varying skill levels, but there is no need to put people in denial about the fact that folks are different.
I’ve wondered for years now why it seems so hard to find players anymore. And when I do run an all-ages role playing game at conventions, I realize now that for a lot of people that show up I have to actually explain what gaming is. When consequences for stupid actions, player character death, and cause and effect emerge in the course of play, I inevitably get resistance. It’s almost as is they are offended on some level. Which makes sense because, if they haven’t been on a competitive sports team… almost every game they’ve participated in has had someone pushing for perks, exceptions, and “balance.” People think this is the right way to do it, too… it’s how they’ve been taught. Anything different just wouldn’t be fair, after all.
When I was a kid… I knew I’d probably live to actually see the years 2001 and 2010. I just assumed we’d have a base on Mars by now. We don’t… but we do have a lot of unbelievable developments in materials science to make up for it. One thing’s sure, I had absolutely no idea how fast our culture could change. And I never expected that people that thought “Harrison Bergeron” was an instruction manual could get this far. It isn’t just that my hobby is pretty well politically incorrect– though it was that just because we “glorify” war and have pictures of women in chainmail bikinis. It’s much more than that. We have collectively brought about a generation of kids that don’t even know what a game is.
They don’t know how to play.