The games we play
Adolescents drifted from city to torn city, sloughing off both he past and the future as snakes shed their skins, children who were never taught and would never now learn the games that had held the society together.
The spirit of that quote from the opening paragraph of Joan Didion's essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” has stuck with me since my first reading. The essay has made me consider in particular all the games we play and all the scenarios in which we play them. We play games in the office, in the realms of dating and relationships, in the checkout line at the grocery store when we talk to strangers to pass the time. All these separate interactions are games with their own pieces and rules. And it's crucial to learn what rules and pieces apply to each game.
I saw these points played out recently when I took my kids to a local park. A group of girls came along and started screaming and telling each other to shut up in a manner that used certain four-letter words. I considered saying something to the girls but then decided it was better to ignore them. Either they had never learned the rules of this specific game or they had made a conscious effort to ignore the rules. Whatever the situation, I didn't get the feeling they were in the mood for redirection, so I instead redirected my daughter to the other side of the playground.
How many other kids will over time be discouraged from playing with these girls? And what other adults will decline invitations to play with them over the next few decades?
I think about my parental responsibility in regard to these games. Am I doing my part to teach my children the rules that will integrate them with society? And, perhaps more importantly, am I teaching them how to identify the rules I'm prone to overlook?
I can think of a few games I had to learn on my own as I grew out of an awkward childhood and into an awkward adulthood: the games of eye contact and firm handshakes and speaking clearly and confidently. I remember getting laid off thirteen months into a new career, when I learned my parents' advice to keep my head down and work hard was one of the rules of a vintage version of the employment game. The modern version has different rules dictating that you should never get too comfortable in one place and that, as the labor market continues to evolve, you may be better off as a generalist, as opposed to putting all your eggs in one basket as a specialist. For my generation and all who follow, adaptability may well be our best skill, not only in the workplace but also in the broader landscape.
Sometimes the rules of the game suck and should be changed, but I worry about any new rules that seem to have been created and distributed by a handful of armchair philosophers on Twitter. Change is inevitable and in some ways necessary, but it should be thought out, for even the best-meaning rule change has unintended consequences. This is the never-ending struggle between progressives and conservatives.
Lately, when I think about the games we all must play, I think about them in the context of Scott Galloway's Great Dispersion, the concern that the novel coronavirus has accelerated the demise of some meeting places which once brought people together—such as shopping malls and movie theaters—and that as we become more comfortable using technology to do more at home, we will miss out on opportunities to mingle with people from different backgrounds and classes. Will we further lose connection and empathy as a result?
I'm already worried about the side effects children will suffer after nearly two years of strained interactions courtesy of the global pandemic. And how will adults be similarly affected?
There are certain games, such as professional networking, that I haven't played in nearly two years. Will I again—or to what extent?
How many games have we forgotten to play? Do we care to learn them again? And which should we not feel bad if we never play again?