The Morality of Play

Playing games teaches a basic morality. This morality comes from the fact that in order to have fun playing the game, one must follow the rules. It is the rules of the game that allows us to get the fun out of playing. Games present challenges and meeting those challenges constitutes fun.  Subverting those challenges in order to win or play unfairly ruins the game. Kids become outraged when someone cheats. They are quick to correct the situation and identify a cheater and urge him or her to ‘play by the rules or you can’t play!’ –  Cheating spoils the fun. Playing by the rules works because it’s more fun that way.
When you play a game, you do so (or should) for solely for the fun of it. By accepting the rules and playing by them, you devote your whole self to the act of playing and consider it fun. Yes, games often involve winners and losers, but it’s the experience that everyone on each team should value. The shared experience, regardless of winning or losing should generate a feeling of peerage and pleasure. You are all fellow players.

When You Cheat, You Cheat Yourself

Having played enough as a kid, you instinctively learned all games are more fun if played by the rules. If someone broke the rules you shouted “Hey! That’s not fair!” and as a group you and your playmates came down on the cheater. Morality is expedient because we all want to keep playing. By playing happily as children we all absorbed the lesson that cheating isn’t a good thing. Still, we’ve all done it at some point in our lives. When did the urge to cheat begin? Can you pinpoint the time when it became important or necessary to cheat? As a child, did you cheat at Hide and Seek or Blind Man’s Bluff, or Tic Tack Toe? Not likely. More likely, it was when you began school or joined an organized sport. Our culture worships success and the prime directive in our culture is on preparing one for success. With success as the ultimate goal, the focus is all about winning and being rewarded for it in various forms; things like bragging rights, a gold star, a pat on the head, more money, admiration of others, and increasing your own status and power. As we grow up, fun takes a back seat to winning. Recreational play becomes a thing that is done in your spare time to relieve the pressure from the compulsion to succeed – if there’s time.

Our Indoctrination to the Success Syndrome

When you beat someone else at a game, then gloat and put down your opponent, you exhibit poor sportsmanship. When your fun comes from that motive and not from the playing, you reveal to the world that you consider yourself superior. You separate yourself from your playmates and start on a dangerous path. Maybe you played by the rules and you may have achieved the goal of the game, but if you derive satisfaction from beating someone else and not the experience of play, what is the cost? When did you make the shift? It starts at home. We are bribed by our parents to behave appropriately or do some chore and get a reward in the form of conditional love. We are loved when we are ‘good’. We learn that gaining the approval of our parents is paramount. It comes in the form of treats and extra privileges, making our parents proud, etc. Then we go to school there to be judged and graded by teachers. We seek the ‘A’ or the gold star or teacher’s praise. We are conditioned to work for that instead of the intrinsic value of learning for the fun of it. That carrot and our conditioning lead us away from fun-for-its-own-sake and compel us to do whatever it takes to win. Our identity gets wrapped up in winning. Under that kind of pressure, cheating becomes more and more attractive. We have seen the proliferation of cheating in our culture everywhere. From buying term papers to steroid use in sports – The Olympics, Barry Bonds and Lance Armstrong come to mind. The cognitive dissonance in our culture comes from knowing that cheating is wrong, but at the same time, accepting that winning is everything. Our culture still reveres sportsmanship and fair play, but in reality, it stresses and rewards success. What are we supposed to do?

We think Cheating is a shortcut to Happiness.

Happiness from achievement is a chimera. We have been taught that fun is trivial and secondary to hard work and success. By the time we complete our basic education, most of us are programmed to work for the satisfaction of having the trappings of success. We want the new car, the better job, the higher salary, and fame (the approval of everyone). Falling short of that, we seek other forms of happiness. Things like drink, drugs, sex, shopping, and overeating. All these behaviors distract us from our failure in some form or other. We fear failure and have to lower our expectations and content ourselves as best we can with our small successes and suffer ourselves the comparison to those more successful than us. We take solace in stories that prove that the rich and successful or famous are actually unhappy and that makes us feel better. The Germans have a word for it – schadenfreude. We rejoice in their suffering, all the while wishing we were in their place and rationalize reasons for not reaching this pinnacle of happiness Of course there are stories that tell us that crime does not pay, or the righteous man wins in the end. La de da!  Yeah, right.  We live with this cognitive dissonance admiring one thing but doing another. We insist that happiness comes through fame and fortune. We think that is the ultimate happiness. Once we reach this point, it’s no wonder cheating seems like a good choice.

Playing by the Rules and Having Fun is the Key to Happiness

True success comes when having fun doing whatever you do is the primary goal. It might bring money, fame and fortune, but those are secondary and not even necessary. Those happy people fortunate enough to enjoy what they do in life, do so solely because it is FUN. People like Warren Buffet. He is a modest man who’s played by the rules and he claims to work very hard for one reason. Because he enjoys the game! He should be admired for that more than his billions. Don’t envy his wealth, envy his happiness! Having good fun comes from playing the game fully. Games, gamification and Improvisation are more and more recognized as the solution to the problem of counteracting the prevailing paradigm of success at all costs.

We need to adopt a new paradigm – One that makes success secondary to good fun.

I think we all understand this at some level but cannot disengage from the treadmill our lives and careers are on. Get back to the playground and play by the rules, learn the skills each game teaches and apply it to your work. Can we re-learn this lesson? Yes. Find a good coach.  Someone who knows how to create an atmosphere of fun – Someone who can effectively show you how to play with your friends and co-workers. Yours truly, maybe? …So much for the shameless plug. All kidding aside, it’s all a matter of getting back to that time when games were fun for no reason whatever and we just played and played. It was then we learned all life’s lessons. More and more, schools are doing away with playgrounds, and recess and children don’t play with each other anymore the way we did a few generations ago. There seems to be no time anymore when we can just ‘go out and play’ with our friends.

Playtime is Essential – Commit to Playing Regularly

We all need a recess period and a playground and it’s as close as the lunch-room, the parking lot and yes even the boardroom. Get rid of the equation Success = Fun.  And replace it with Fun=Success! I guarantee you’ll win in the end. Gary Schwartz Nov. 2012 North Bend WA
By | 2014-11-21T16:09:11+00:00 November 21st, 2014|Categories: Creativity, games, Spontaneity, Theory|Tags: , , , |Comments Off on The Morality of Play

About the Author:

Gary’s 18-year association with world-renowned theater educator and author, Viola Spolin provides the foundation for his work today. He is the only master teacher to have ever earned an endorsement from both Viola Spolin and her son, the legendary original director of Second City, Paul Sills. Gary resides in North Bend WA. He is founder of The Valley Center Stage, North Bend’s Community Theater and teaches theater games locally and around the world.

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