It seems to me that some games are better than others. Some are trivial. Some are boring. Others are fascinating, fun, and profound. Given that it is possible that all of life is a game (a given that I am not convinced of yet), what makes a game “good”? Is it merely a matter of taste? Are there some criteria that we can apply to judge the quality of the games we play? If indeed it is true that live is a game from top to bottom, then it seems essential to me that we be able to choose what games we play and what role we play within them. I wonder if this is not a great part of what mental health care is all about. We help people to find their game and to remain suitable for effective participation in it. We are part coach and part team physician. Let’s think some more about this.
When I consider what makes a game “good,” I start with the supposition that no particular game is good for everyone. Each one must play his own game. Even so, I do believe that there are ways to tell which games are best from among the games we may choose. One of the first things I would consider is, “What is the purpose of the game?”. Some games serve merely to entertain. Some educate and develop cognitive and motor skills. Some promote socialization and emotional maturity. Some earn money. Others pass culture from generation to generation. I’m sure that I cannot list all of the possible functions that games can serve, but I hope that I have made it clear that games can serve many functions. The great games probably each fulfill many of these purposes. Thus, when we evaluate a game, we need to consider what purpose it is serving, the importance of this purpose (which will vary among individuals), and how well it fulfills its purpose.
When evaluating the purpose of a game, many people get a vote. Of course, the most important and weighty vote goes to the individual. As part of psychotherapy, we help patients identify their games and encourage them to consider their purposes. For them, the sexual game may be simply for entertainment. For others, the sexual game may be for growing a family. Some may see its main function in developing close relations. Many may see all of these as important. It may not be at all uncommon that people play a game for a purpose they are unaware of. They may play the game because someone said they should. They may play the game because they do not know any other game to play. Sometimes families define the purpose of the game. Sometimes a person’s cultural identity defines the function. In fact, it seems probable to me that games function not only on a personal level but on a family level, community level, and a cultural level.
After we identify (or at least line up the chief suspects) the purposes of our games, it is helpful to consider how important the game is. I often see people who are playing games they hate. They spend hours devoted to achieving goals that they deny are important to them. If we find that we are playing games that do not correspond to our needs or values, we are fooling ourselves about our needs and values. I seem many students in my clinic, and it is amazing to see how many of them complain about their inability to pull their grades up. Yet when we look into the activities of their day, we see that they are spending a lot of time playing video games, watching t.v., hanging out with friends, or even washing dishes that have been sitting in the sink for weeks. They say that the education “game” is important, but their actions say otherwise. For whatever reason, they have prioritized other games that have an immediate payoff. It would be reasonable to suppose that the immediacy of the payoff has become the priority, so that education (with its important but far off reward) is less important than a video game (with its trivial but immediate reward).
Finally, in considering what makes a game “good,” we might consider how well a game fits in with reality. For many games which are intended merely to be entertaining, this is often not important. In games of make believe and fantasy role play, excessive attention to reality might even be a weakness. These games often take place in a space where nearly all of the rules are arbitrary and almost all of the consequences are reversible. For example, the effect of gravity is whatever the definer says it is. Action may take place in zero-g or in ten-g at the definer’s whim. Light speed may be c or it may be 35 mph. Characters can have multiple lives. And so on. On the other hand, many of the games that we play for entertainment and almost all of the games we would identify as really important take place in a space that has many arbitrary rules and many essential rules. For example, sure, it would be fun to fly; and certainly, Superman can do amazing things wearing a cape. It does not follow, however, that tying a towel around your neck and playing Superman by jumping off the roof is a good game. These spaces, where there is a mix of essential and arbitrary rules correspond, I think, with Winnicott’s transitional space.
The degree to which a game fits with reality is often difficult to assess. As I said in a previous post, I am a believer in Truth. I believe that underlying our experience and our perceptions is an objective, true reality. I also believe that among the True things, there is “Good” and “Evil.” Because of this, I see games as varying in their “goodness” based on how they comport to this reality. Not all believe as I do, I know. For these others, there is much more freedom in game structure because there are fewer essential rules and more freedom for arbitrary rules. I expect that this will lead to disagreements about the “goodness” of different games. Still, I think there is room for a great deal of agreement.
For example, if baseball had been created with first base 180 feet from home plate and the outfield fence a quarter mile distant, it would have been a bad game. If football had been created with a ball that weighed 40 pounds, it would have been a bad game. If workers’ contracts specified that they would only be paid for a day’s work when it was 100% error free, it would be a bad game. If broad jumps under 30 feet didn’t count, it would be a bad game. If betraying friends and depriving them of good things in life is rewarding, this would be a bad game.