Homo sapiens are goal driven creatures. It’s not so difficult to see how we evolved in such a manner. We sit atop of the food chain for one thing and one thing only, and that is what resides on top of our shoulders. Thanks to that nifty little wrinkled thing, we figured out how the world works, and devised what you would call “games/acts” that we manifest in order to increase the standard of our livelihoods and wellbeing.
We learned over time what could aid us, and what could take us out, and quickly employed tools to ease our journey on this little blue dot we call “Earth”
So, we are creatures who 1. Use tools 2. Project an aim. 3. Fashion up goals. And so, for thousands of years, our own activities have boiled down to objectives and the means to reach them. This is the contention point that has humanity accountable for all its history, the good and the bad, and it hasn’t stopped, because the old philosophical question of “Does the end justify the means?” still plagues us to this day, and it should, it should exist in order to hold ourselves accountable, to take the weight of responsibility on our own shoulders.
All of that, coupled with our entrenched sense for competitiveness has driven us across the ages to develop games for leisure time, you know, to get our minds of all the horrific stuff, dealt by both nature’s and our own hand.
Games are an intrinsic part of socialization, for human, mammals and non-mammals alike. It’s built right into us in the first years of life.
Jordan Peterson, a Canadian clinical psychologist, and professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, became visible on my radar a few years back through interacting with other American, and western intellectuals that I follow on cultural and philosophical issues. I was enticed by his arguments and going further through his material on his YouTube channel “https://www.youtube.com/user/JordanPetersonVideos”, I became interested in his arguments on behavioral psychology. It was a shift for me in terms of my biases and my beliefs, to hear views that were deeply thought through by someone with more expertise than me and them pointing to works outside of their own that bolstered their argument and furthered their point.
His observations were most revelatory when it came to talking about his new published volume(well not actually new, it’s been out for a couple of years now, but you should definitely give it a read, it’s a must in my book, no pun intended) “Twelve Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (2018), his first rule is titled “Stand up straight with your shoulders back” and it’s an insight on how human beings should conduct themselves properly in the world, in order to be able to brave through it.
The chapter has vital information throughout, but what stood out to me was, the author being on a press tour for his book, more akin to a lecture I would say, in Kitchener, Ontario, titled “ 12 Rules Kitchener: Hierarchy and Fair Play”. Now before I get into what was said during that event, I have to say I appreciate this format more because he gets to think about his arguments more and more in real time, and make it as digestible as possible without losing their veracity. Books can be a little daunting, but talks at events, not so much.
Anyway, in his lecture, he pressed on the first rule in the book. At one point which has interested me for a long time now, he spoke about how we see, and admire people that exhibit competence in one field or another, and what follows is that we try to emulate that behavior. Even monkeys do it apparently, due to their hierarchical structure that is prevalent all throughout the animal kingdom.
“You admire how they conduct themselves on the field” he said that about Wayne Gretsky and athletes in general. We put a high value on skill and character and the fact that he was what we call “a good sport”. Wayne Gretsky in particular was known for that, and that he helped his teammates also become the best players they could be, he was considered a cultural hero by many. All of that feeds into Play, Reciprocal Play, and Learning how to play.
“We learn to play games with others so that we scale up those games, and the largest scale games are actually our societies” was one of Doctor Peterson’s main points that evening. Playing, but also learning how to play is paramount because it feeds into ethics and how we go about in the world. One interesting thing he noted was that “There is no real difference between a child’s game and the man’s society except at the level of scale”. He is right about this because our games get more and more complicated as we age, but the basics, the foundation is all there.
Jordan’s definition of the ability to play is most striking because it resembles reality, even if some might deny it being so “The ability to play is the ability to take someone else’s position which is to take turn, right? Because if I know I have to take turns now and then, I have to make you as important as me, I have to be able to flip my perspective, it’s unbelievably important, apart from also the ability to adopt a fictional world and to engage in pretense which is to think abstractly”. Yes, abstract play was exactly what me and my brothers did when the corn shed was empty, and we played in it thinking it was a mercenary spaceship fighting the biggest and the baddest in the galaxy.
The interesting piece of information was that we, from childhood, have these benchmarks of high competence and try to incorporate them into our own behavior, but we don’t emulate the individual per say, we are able to distil all that encompasses the behavior of an individual to the level of abstraction. We see it with 3-4-year old’s when they “play house” they do the best they can but they still maintain their own sense of self throughout.
One thing that he pointed out that helps little children socialize in that manner is “Rough& Tumble Play”. It’s not only seen as beneficiary to us homo sapiens, but we also see it as a mechanism for adapting to our social groups across all different types of species, the most documented being rats. Rough& Tumble play should be encouraged because “It teaches them how to engage in reciprocal interactions, right at the level of the body, it’s not abstract” he thought of it as being more akin to “like you’re teaching them to dance”. And the absence of such activities shows in the inability of children to integrate well with their peers, due to their uncertainty and absent mindedness while on the playground.
Reciprocity is the name of the game here, because we humans are not playing only one game, we are playing a whole set of games, and we repeat them, which indicates a form of infinite play, where winning in one doesn’t guarantee your success in another.
“There is a demand for reciprocity because of repeated games. It looks like this is the basis for the evolution of ethical behavior” He made this clear as we as a society and even our close social circle, depend on reciprocity, if the hierarchy lingers on its absence, the tables turn, and we see it with chimps as well, if they are ruled by a chimp that does not exhibit reciprocal behavior from time to time, inferior chimps will band together and overthrow him. So you could say that the inexistence of reciprocity between individuals is pointing to a kind of deviation from the norm.
Doctor Peterson crystalized the rule by saying, “Play fair, or no one will play with you” And he put forth a poignant situation where that behavior is encouraged even if we sometimes fail to do so. He imagined a father at his son’s hockey game and it ending in a loss. Now the father’s words of encouragement would be the following “It doesn’t matter if you win or lose it matters how you play the game!” This would be the ideal, the gold standard of short pep talks, and we should incorporate it more and more, despite our nature in the moment of putting the blame on something or someone else.
He ended it with this piece of knowledge which rounded up the discussion on the rule “ Life is not a game, life is a sequence of games, and whether you win or lose is not as important as whether or not people invite you to play the game, and if you conduct yourself properly and nobly” this is where being a good sport comes in ” People will invite you to play more games” and round and round the world goes.
Now, Jordan Peterson is not the only voice to be making the same argument about this subject, there are many others, of which I’ll pick only one, just because I read his book and need to get it out as it is fresh in my mind and may not stick in the long run, but let’s hope it does.
His name is Simon Sinek who is also a Canadian, (ha maybe there’s a link there, who knows). He is a motivational speaker and author and mainly occupies his time advising companies and entrepreneurs about ethics in the business world. In his book “ The Infinite Game” he talks about having worthy rivals, in business and in our personal lives, but for the purpose of improving ourselves, not to dangle our achievements in front of each other, a friend across the aisle you could call him/ or her. Sinek talked about two of the most impressive female tennis players of the mid 1970, and their interactions that made them better at what they do.
“From the mid-1970’s into the 1980’s, Chris Evert Lloyd and Martina Navratilova were two of the dominant players in women’s tennis. Though they were competitors when they met on the court, each driven to win, it was the respect they had for each other that helped both of them become better tennis players. “I appreciate what she did for me as a rival to lift my game” Lloyd said once, speaking fondly of Navratilova “And I think she appreciates what I did for her.” It was because of Navratilova that Evert had to change the way she played. Worthy rivals push us on the right path.” This just goes to show how the right mind-set helps to push us further in our field of work and in our personal lives. When playing a game, either it be a board-game, some silly game you found on the internet where the instructions give you a headache, or professional play, people will remember the way you conduct yourself within the game, not your tag, or the number on your shirt.
2. “12 Rules Kitchener: Hierarchy and Fair Play” a Jordan Peterson Lecture. https://open.spotify.com/episode/6jykjBTfRgY6vpiGb6WxZM?si=jFNfFKD4TM-fmwdirBUgeA
3. “The Infinite Game” by Simon Sinek. https://simonsinek.com/