Kate Jones responds:

That was a most enjoyable and stimulating read, Stephen.

I do know of some games that have the underdog condition. They were designed by a couple of Libertarians to show, satirically, the unfairness of the liberal socialist welfare system. One was called Public Assistance, in which the lazy, able-bodied welfare recipient has all the advantages and the poor hard-working citizen gets exploited. The other was Capital Punishment, which satirized the criminal justice system and victimized the honest people while indulging and coddling the criminals. These games got blacklisted by many stores and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court, where the game inventors lost.

We ourselves have a few games where the two players have unequal conditions, but make up for it with differing powers. "David and Goliath" is one of them, part of our Power of Two game. Another of such games, "Aliens and Amazons." is played on the Game of Y board. "Fox and Geese" is a classic of this genre and is included with our Nine Men's Morris game.

You ask many good questions and bring up many familiar examples. I would like to add something from the perspective of my own "Unified Feel Theory".

It has to do with memes and survival. A species that destroys its own kind is doomed to quick extinction, so recognition of one's own kind—kin survival—was the basis for early forms of cooperation and genetic selection. As populations expanded, territorial conflicts led to wars, conquests, and enslaving/exploiting the conquered. Fast forward to the Enlightenment. To have a society where everyone can live freely, safely and happily requires that the tenet, "all men are created equal," is the founding premise. This extends the command, "Love thy neighbor as thyself", into the political arena. Notice it doesn't say "more than thyself", and it doesn't say some animals are more equal than others.

"Fair" is that midpoint of balance between different individuals' needs and desires. A fair price is what the buyer is willing to pay and the seller willing to accept. Equality doesn't mean to take from some to give to others. It means each individual being free to manage his/her own life and support, without the fear of force and fraud from others. It means no wars, only trade. It means no robbing, stealing, raiding, killing, gang warfare, not even in the institutionalized form of government decree. What a man owns, earns, builds, makes, is his alone to do with as he chooses. There is no justification for penalizing the more productive and more able to give the losers unearned benefits. The so-called "leveling of the playing field" really translates into putting impediments before the more able to handicap them so as to give the weaker a greater advantage.

Now why do we give handicaps in games? To encourage the weaker player to participate against the stronger. It's only a game, even though "winning" is symbolic of survival and flourishing. In real life, there need be no losers. Some just win more than others. In rational relationships, everyone wins.

You do not improve the breed, develop an art, advance a sport, by limiting the best to make the worst "feel better". The envy factor (understandably one of the deadly sins) always enters in, a throwback to our primitive evolution, and games are set up to minimize envying the victors. We do that by making them "earn" their win through hard work, practice, discipline, and finding the most appropriate area for maximizing their particular genetic endowment. Tall? Play basketball. Agile? Running and gymnastics. Smart? Strategy games and science. Dancers and figure skaters are generally not tall; the mid-size, compact center of gravity is more physically suited for their performance. Tiny? Jockeys.

That's why there are divisions by age, experience, status, to allow competition between as closely matched players as possible. The psychological component of competing when you believe you have an equal chance, rather than going in knowing you'll be slaughtered, can bring out a better performance. And that's why the natural-born abilities, not medically or technologically enhanced, are acceptable and admired, while outside enhancements are considered cheating. We're still thinking in terms of prize bulls. Contests select for the one most capable. All these reality shows are sickening, since the survival quality being selected for is popularity, so the others won't vote you out. Kipling said, "And neither look too good nor talk too wise." Keeps envy at bay.

Games of chance are acceptable, even preferred, because ability is removed as a factor. No one is consistently "lucky", and every dog will have his day. Humanity has had a history-long fascination with the element of chance, fate, destiny, the will of the gods, the vagaries of nature. The unpredictability of chance removes the need to feel inferior to someone else's greater physical and mental endowments. Feeling inferior is prompted by our Darwinist/reptilian brain programming, our "selfish gene", which will then seek other means of preserving itself: deceit of various kinds, forming into gangs, sycophancy towards the stronger, assassinations—the whole force and fraud panoply. Nowadays the weak and poor have managed to enslave the strong and rich through guilt, and where guilt is not enough, by government enforcement. Too many humans are still motivated by their most predatory instincts.

What I want to see are games that do not reward the reptilian brain but the cooperative, mutually rewarding forms of relationship we need to build a healthy, survival-worthy society. By all means let there be obstacles to overcome, but not have it be the defeat or destruction of the play partner. A game should end with all participants feeling good about not only themselves but about the admirable co-players. We need to learn to take pleasure in seeing others do well, instead of in putting them down. This is the new paradigm I've been campaigning for these last several years — non-predatory games.

Your comments are invited. Email to Kate Jones.


Stephen Sniderman rebuts:

In your response to “Fair Game, II,” you make several provocative statements about fairness in society. In some cases, I agree completely. For example, I believe that in an ideal society, each competent adult would be “free to manage his/her own life and support, with no fear of force or fraud from others.” That sounds lovely. I also agree that “fair” is “the midpoint of balance between different individuals’ needs and desires.”

But I must respectfully disagree with the following: “There is no justification for penalizing the more productive and more able to give the losers unearned benefits” (emphasis added). Ironically, everyone agrees that we have to give some people “unearned benefits.” Those people are called children. And we have to “penalize” the more productive to do so. Parents, guardians, and the state must spend resources and energy to provide for the needs of their own and other people’s children. Of course, most people, including me, believe that this is a privilege, not a penalty or a burden.

As soon as we remember the simple fact that our species cannot survive unless we take care of our helpless (and unproductive) young, we can start to see the problem with characterizing the less productive and less able as “losers.” Everyone readily recognizes that kids are people whose potential has yet to be tapped. It is intuitively obvious that we must give the young support and encouragement until they are capable of functioning on their own.

The key question is, are there adults for whom the same is true? And if there are adults who, through no fault of their own, cannot fulfill their potential, what should society’s attitude be toward them?

My answer to the first question is yes, there are many such adults, adults who have been severely handicapped by all the obvious and subtle ways that society limits individuals to certain jobs or activities or social status or neighborhoods. My answer to the second is that we should do everything we can to clear the way for every individual to reach his or her potential.

For me, that doesn’t mean “putting impediments before the more able to handicap them so as to give the weaker a greater advantage.” It means getting rid of the impediments which keep the members of various groups from fulfilling their destiny. What impediments? To me, the most obvious and virulent are poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia, ghettoization, discrimination, stereotyping, and bigotry. I believe these are all still incredibly powerful and pervasive barriers in the United States in 2007. I believe that these factors account for most of the violence, abuse, dysfunction, hate crime, and self-destructive behavior that keeps individuals from developing fully, so I believe that we should be doing all we can as a society and as individuals to eliminate those obstacles.

Clearly related to this list are more subtle impediments, such as gender roles, labeling, glass ceilings, tradition, family expectations, pseudo-scientific assumptions, and sanctioned attempts to justify the status quo, which have almost as much power over people’s lives as various forms of hatred. We are led to believe that groups, not individuals, have unchangeable limitations, so we expect members of one group to fail at math and another to succeed at sports. We encourage members of one group to become engineers and another to become teachers. We’re surprised when the members of one group succeed at chess and the members of another succeed at dancing. And lo and behold, the vast majority of the members of these groups live up to our expectations. To me, these are nothing more than self-fulfilling prophesies which cause far more harm than good.

Until all these obstacles—the vicious and the well-intentioned—have been cleared away, I don’t see how we can know who the most (potentially) productive and able human beings are. They could be hidden in the ‘hood, in the barrio, in a nunnery, in a sweatshop, in a rehab center, or in some closet. While we’re waiting for that ideal society you describe, I firmly believe we are perfectly justified in asking the most privileged people to give “unearned benefits” to the least privileged. (How is another debate.)

After all, those children who start out with important advantages—good nutrition, strong values, loving family, sound parenting, solid education, safe neighborhoods—didn’t “earn” these benefits either. They were just lucky. So I think it’s completely fair to expect them, as adults, to share the wealth. More important, I think such noblesse oblige is good social policy. Otherwise, how will we ever find the most talented, most vital, most intelligent, most creative, and most able people in the world to help us solve our problems?

Your comments are invited. Email to Stephen Sniderman.

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

The Life of Games
No. 4 (April 2007)
©2007-2020 Kadon Enterprises, Inc.