Another theory

Obviously, there’s something more subtle operating here. The “testing traits” theory doesn’t seem to work.

Let’s try a less ambitious theory:

We consider a game fair if we believe that players with comparable ability have, at the beginning of the competition, an equal chance to win. Conversely, we consider a game unfair if we believe that two players with comparable ability do not, at the beginning of the competition, have the same chance to win.

(Note that this theory does not claim that these are the only circumstances under which we judge a game to be fair or unfair.)

Surprisingly, even this modest claim can be shown to be problematic. If one player were given a substantial advantage over the other at the beginning of the game, we might still say the contest is fair if the rewards are different.

For example, let’s say two Scrabble players of equal ability are told that Player A will win unless Player B has, say, 50 points more at the end of the game, but Player B will earn $1000 for winning and Player A will win only $100 (or some other fraction of what B earns). Wouldn’t they (and we) agree that the game is fair (assuming the difference in compensation is considered “appropriate”), even though they don’t have the same chances of winning?

This, of course, is the principle behind bookmaking. Since we can’t guarantee that all teams, players, or horses have an equal chance for success, we give greater odds or a “spread” to those betting on a competitor perceived to have less chance of winning. The bet is perceived to be “fair” as long as the reward for predicting the outcome is seen as more-or-less proportional to the chance of guessing correctly.

The advantages of the underdog

But even if the tangible rewards were identical, we might say the Scrabble game was fair because Player B would gain tremendous bragging rights for winning under these conditions whereas Player A would get little satisfaction from beating B in this way.

In fact, one might argue that all “underdogs” (people perceived to have significantly less chance of winning than their opposition) have inherent advantages over their rivals. First, the less your (perceived) chance of defeating your opponent, the less “pressure” on you to win. In addition, the less likely your success, the more glory you can achieve by winning.

How much more exciting and memorable was it for the American hockey team (a huge underdog) to win the Olympic gold in 1980 than for the American basketball “dream team” (an overwhelming favorite) in later Olympics? Over 25 years later, the line, “Do you believe in miracles?” still sends shivers up and down many spines (and has generated the movie, “Miracle”).

Would we remember David and Goliath if Goliath had won?

In a sense, then, some David-Goliath contests can be seen as “fair” (or less unfair than we would ordinarily see them) because the physical advantages of the odds-on favorite may be compensated for by the intangible rewards available to the underdog.

Ironically, we don’t have to “level the playing field” in order to have a “fair” game. We just have to make sure that the player or team running up the hill has the possibility of appropriately greater rewards than the one running down.

In 1970, a game came out which illustrated this surprising phenomenon. Black and White was obviously intended to show how racism kept African Americans from achieving success, so at the beginning of the game the players who took the roles of black people started out with all kinds of disadvantages—less money, fewer job opportunities, etc.—than those who took the white roles.

When I introduced this game to a class, you can guess what happened:  All the students wanted to be black people! They knew intuitively that those who played whites would get little joy from winning (since they started out with all kinds of “unfair” advantages), while those who played blacks had, literally, nothing to lose. If the “blacks” didn’t win, no big deal—look how far in the hole they started. But if they happened to win, the rewards would be amazing. They could razz the “whites” for the rest of the term!

Ironically, the game demonstrated the opposite of what (I assume) it was supposed to demonstrate. Instead of making the students identify with the plight of black people, it made the circumstances of African Americans into a no-lose game situation!

Consider the contrast

The differences between that game and “real” life are instructive. For one thing, the players assuming the roles of blacks had reason to believe that they had a decent chance of success in the game. First, they could see from the rules that they had at least a shot at winning (let’s say a 1 in 10 chance), but they knew that, even if they didn’t actually win, they would still be able to claim a moral victory if they “made a game of it,” i.e., they came at all close to winning. More important, the forces against the “blacks” were explicit. All the advantages that “whites” had were obvious from the initial set-up. There were no hidden factors.

To me, that’s very different from the way racial relations (or anything else) operate in the real world. For one thing, of course, losing at a game is not like losing at life. The feeling of defeat and humiliation in a contest will dissipate in time, perhaps in a matter of minutes. Unfortunately, we are much more vulnerable in the real world.

There is little in common between coming in last in Black and White and living your whole life in poverty. Clearly, a student who takes on the role of a “black” in the game is not risking very much.

In addition, we don’t know what chance anyone (whatever their background) has to succeed in life.

In fact, we don’t even have a useful definition of “success” (as we do in a game) that would allow us to determine who “wins” and who “loses.”

But even if we did, we have no universal agreement about how to measure someone’s odds of achieving a particular goal. Many observers (like Jesse Jackson, Andrew Hacker, and the authors of Inequality by Design) have concluded, on the basis of various kinds of evidence, that African Americans (and others) who are born in poverty have virtually no chance (on their own) of “making it” in our society, whereas others (including Clarence Thomas, Colin Powell, William Raspberry, and Thomas Sowell) take the position that through hard work, initiative, and perseverance almost anyone can build a fine life for themselves.

This disagreement tells us that the forces lined up against African Americans (or any other group) are not readily observable. When Rodney King was beaten by police officers, some people perceived that event as part of a pattern of race relations in this country and some saw it as a wild aberration. We have no way of determining—objectively—how much discrimination any particular group faces, so we can’t judge how much of a disadvantage they have.

As a result, we can’t agree if blacks (or women, gays, Downs Syndrome children, the elderly, or any other “disadvantaged” group) suffer from truly “unfair” circumstances that need to be artificially compensated (through anti-discrimination laws, affirmative action, Head Start, handicapped parking spots, senior citizen discounts, etc.) or if they are Davids who have the opportunity to achieve a glory-filled success by overcoming long odds.

If we could agree that some groups have very little potential for “succeeding” in life (say a 1 in a million chance) and others have much, much better odds (say 1 in 4), I believe we would also agree that the underdog’s disadvantages in this case were unfair and deserved compensation of some sort, even if we still disagreed about how to make the situation more tolerable.

It is not, I believe, the concept of fairness that is the problem—our disagreement stems from the difficulty of figuring out what kinds of obstacles various groups have to overcome and determining the likelihood of their overcoming these obstacles on their own. By contrast, all of these things were obvious in Black and White, the game.

Other underdog games?

It’s worth noting that there are very few games like Black and White—competitions which deliberately favor one player/team over another. Actually, I can’t think of a single one. That dearth suggests to me that we tend to favor “evenness” as a culture, and we tend to associate an equal start with fairness.

Wouldn’t it be fun to invent some “uneven” (or underdog) games and see how they play? Isn’t it time to stop trying to make every playing field level? If we can agree that underdogs have built-in (if intangible) advantages—less pressure, chance for greater glory—then we don’t have to work so hard to equalize players’ chances of winning. Think of the new possibilities that could then be available to game inventors and players.

More important, by creating such games, we would give ourselves the opportunity to explore our theories of fairness. At what point of “unevenness” would we say that a game is unfair? Why? How severe a disadvantage would we be willing to accept?

How would it feel to win (or lose) an abstract strategy game in which the rules themselves make us a clear underdog or a clear favorite? And what would our reactions to such games tell us about our social and political lives?

Here’s a quick way for you to begin the process—try a game of Underdog Chess (or Checkers). After you set up the pieces, one player removes any piece of either color from the board. The other player then chooses to play Black or White (Red). If nothing else, the opening moves of the ensuing game will not be canned or overly familiar to either player. If you try this game, let us know what happens.

What’s the bottom line?

So, are we any closer to understanding fairness? Well, perhaps a little if I’ve successfully shown why some theories are inadequate. As you’ve probably noticed, though, I haven’t given definitive responses to many of the questions I’ve asked. In some cases, I haven’t even offered tentative answers on key issues. Instead, what I’ve tried to do in this essay is to explore some aspects of fairness that have tantalized me for a long time.

The only claim I feel certain about is that games can and should provide the key to understanding fairness and justice, two vitally important but complex and challenging concepts.

If we can’t understand why we consider certain advantages acceptable and others unacceptable in games and sports, we have virtually no chance of gaining insight into some controversial issues that seem to hang on our notions of fairness, including racial profiling by the police force, sexual harassment in the workplace, equal-pay-for-equal-work issues, the Boy Scouts of America’s stand on homosexuals, the place of gays in the military, the use of drugs to enhance athletic performance, and so on.

On the other hand, if we can understand what makes us judge a game situation as fair or unfair, we have a greater possibility, I believe, of coming to grips with these and other crucial questions of social justice.

Some feedback and dialogue about this article appear on the following page. Your own comments are invited. Email me.

"Fair Game, II" by Stephen Sniderman35 | 36 | 37

The Life of Games
No. 4 (April 2007)
©2007 Kadon Enterprises, Inc.