The Madness of Playing
"After the Rain - How the West Lost the East"
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If a lone, unkempt, person, standing on a soapbox were
to say that he should become the Prime Minister, he would have been diagnosed
by a passing psychiatrist as suffering from this or that mental disturbance.
But were the same psychiatrist to frequent the same spot and see a crowd
of millions saluting the same lonely, shabby figure - what would have his
diagnosis been? Surely, different (perhaps of a more political hue).
It seems that one thing setting social games
apart from madness is quantitative: the amount of the participants involved.
Madness is a one-person game, and even mass mental disturbances are limited
in scope. Moreover, it has long been demonstrated (for instance, by Karen
Horney) that the definition of certain mental disorders is highly dependent
upon the context of the prevailing culture. Mental disturbances (including
psychoses) are time-dependent and locus-dependent. Religious behaviour
and romantic behaviour could be easily construed as psychopathologies when
examined out of their social, cultural, historical and political contexts.
Historical figures as diverse as Nietzsche (philosophy),
Van Gogh (art), Hitler (politics) and Herzl (political visionary) made
this smooth phase transition from the lunatic fringes to centre stage.
They succeeded to attract, convince and influence a critical human mass,
which provided for this transition. They appeared on history's stage (or
were placed there posthumously) at the right time and in the right place.
The biblical prophets and Jesus are similar examples though of a more severe
disorder. Hitler and Herzl possibly suffered from personality disorders
- the biblical prophets were, almost certainly, psychotic.
We play games because they are reversible and their outcomes
are reversible. No game-player expects his involvement, or his particular
moves to make a lasting impression on history, fellow humans, a territory,
or a business entity. This, indeed, is the major taxonomic difference:
the same class of actions can be classified as "game" when it does not
intend to exert a lasting (that is, irreversible) influence on the environment.
When such intention is evident - the very same actions qualify as something
completely different. Games, therefore, are only mildly associated with
memory. They are intended to be forgotten, eroded by time and entropy,
by quantum events in our brains and macro-events in physical reality.
Games - as opposed to absolutely all other human activities
- are entropic. Negentropy - the act of reducing entropy and increasing
order - is present in a game, only to be reversed later. Nowhere is this
more evident than in video games: destructive acts constitute the very
foundation of these contraptions. When children start to play (and adults,
for that matter - see Eric Berne's books on the subject) they commence
by dissolution, by being destructively analytic. Playing games is an analytic
activity. It is through games that we recognize our temporariness, the
looming shadow of death, our forthcoming dissolution, evaporation, annihilation.
These FACTS we repress in normal life - lest they overwhelm
us. A frontal recognition of them would render us speechless, motionless,
paralysed. We pretend that we are going to live forever, we use this ridiculous,
counter-factual assumption as a working hypothesis. Playing games lets
us confront all this by engaging in activities which, by their very definition,
are temporary, have no past and no future, temporally detached and physically
detached. This is as close to death as we get.
Small wonder that rituals (a variant of games) typify
religious activities. Religion is among the few human disciplines which
tackle death head on, sometimes as a centrepiece (consider the symbolic
sacrifice of Jesus). Rituals are also the hallmark of obsessive-compulsive
disorders, which are the reaction to the repression of forbidden emotions
(our reaction to the prevalence, pervasiveness and inevitability of death
is almost identical). It is when we move from a conscious acknowledgement
of the relative lack of lasting importance of games - to the pretension
that they are important, that we make the transition from the personal
to the social.
The way from madness to social rituals traverses games.
In this sense, the transition is from game to myth. A mythology is a closed
system of thought, which defines the "permissible" questions, those that
can be asked. Other questions are forbidden because they cannot be answered
without resorting to another mythology altogether.
Observation is an act, which is the anathema of the myth.
The observer is presumed to be outside the observed system (a presumption
which, in itself, is part of the myth of Science, at least until the Copenhagen
Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics was developed).
A game looks very strange, unnecessary and ridiculous
from the vantage-point of an outside observer. It has no justification,
no future, it looks aimless (from the utilitarian point of view), it can
be compared to alternative systems of thought and of social organization
(the biggest threat to any mythology). When games are transformed to myths,
the first act perpetrated by the group of transformers is to ban all observations
by the (willing or unwilling) participants.
Introspection replaces observation and becomes a mechanism
of social coercion. The game, in its new guise, becomes a transcendental,
postulated, axiomatic and doctrinaire entity. It spins off a caste of interpreters
and mediators. It distinguishes participants (formerly, players) from outsiders
or aliens (formerly observers or uninterested parties). And the game loses
its power to confront us with death. As a myth it assumes the function
of repression of this fact and of the fact that we are all prisoners. Earth
is really a death ward, a cosmic death row: we are all trapped here and
all of us are sentenced to die.
Today's telecommunications, transportation, international
computer networks and the unification of the cultural offering only serve
to exacerbate and accentuate this claustrophobia. Granted, in a few millennia,
with space travel and space habitation, the walls of our cells will have
practically vanished (or become negligible) with the exception of the constraint
of our (limited) longevity. Mortality is a blessing in disguise because
it motivates humans to act in order "not to miss the train of life" and
it maintains the sense of wonder and the (false) sense of unlimited possibilities.
This conversion from madness to game to myth is subjected
to meta-laws that are the guidelines of a super-game. All our games are
derivatives of this super-game of survival. It is a game because its outcomes
are not guaranteed, they are temporary and to a large extent not even known
(many of our activities are directed at deciphering it). It is a myth because
it effectively ignores temporal and spatial limitations. It is one-track
minded: to foster an increase in the population as a hedge against contingencies,
which are outside the myth.
All the laws, which encourage optimization of resources,
accommodation, an increase of order and negentropic results - belong, by
definition to this meta-system. We can rigorously claim that there exist
no laws, no human activities outside it. It is inconceivable that it should
contain its own negation (Godel-like), therefore it must be internally
and externally consistent. It is as inconceivable that it will be less
than perfect - so it must be all-inclusive. Its comprehensiveness is not
the formal logical one: it is not the system of all the conceivable sub-systems,
theorems and propositions (because it is not self-contradictory or self-defeating).
It is simply the list of possibilities and actualities open to humans,
taking their limitations into consideration. This, precisely, is the power
of money. It is - and always has been - a symbol whose abstract dimension
far outweighed its tangible one.
This bestowed upon money a preferred status: that of
a measuring rod. The outcomes of games and myths alike needed to be monitored
and measured. Competition was only a mechanism to secure the on-going participation
of individuals in the game. Measurement was an altogether more important
element: the very efficiency of the survival strategy was in question.
How could humanity measure the relative performance (and contribution)
of its members - and their overall efficiency (and prospects)? Money came
handy. It is uniform, objective, reacts flexibly and immediately to changing
circumstances, abstract, easily transformable into tangibles - in short,
a perfect barometer of the chances of survival at any given gauging moment.
It is through its role as a universal comparative scale - that it came
to acquire the might that it possesses.
Money, in other words, had the ultimate information content:
the information concerning survival, the information needed for survival.
Money measures performance (which allows for survival enhancing feedback).
Money confers identity - an effective way to differentiate oneself in a
world glutted with information, alienating and assimilating. Money cemented
a social system of monovalent rating (a pecking order) - which, in turn,
optimized decision making processes through the minimization of the amounts
of information needed to affect them. The price of a share traded in the
stock exchange, for instance, is assumed (by certain theoreticians) to
incorporate (and reflect) all the information available regarding this
share. Analogously, we can say that the amount of money that a person has
contains sufficient information regarding his or her ability to survive
and his or her contribution to the survivability of others. There must
be other - possibly more important measures of that - but they are, most
probably, lacking: not as uniform as money, not as universal, not as potent,
Money is said to buy us love (or to stand for it, psychologically)
- and love is the prerequisite to survival. Very few of us would have survived
without some kind of love or attention lavished on us. We are dependent
creatures throughout our lives. Thus, in an unavoidable path, as humans
move from game to myth and from myth to a derivative social organization
- they move ever closer to money and to the information that it contains.
Money contains information in different modalities. But it all boils down
to the very ancient question of the survival of the fittest.