Thursday, November 7, 2013

Game theory

     Maybe because I get a steady trickle of aggrieved emails from religious sorts, flabbergasted by this new world of ours, but I found myself thinking about games Wednesday. You know, games—Monopoly, Risk, Scrabble, Trouble, Clue, Life—played with tokens and dice, folding boards and decks of cards. 
     Games have rules. You know, rules. Pass Go, collect $200. Seven tiles in your rack, no more, no less. The queen goes on her color. 
     You have to play by the rules. Oh, with some games, you can alter the rules, a little, if everybody agrees beforehand. In our house, the fines in Monopoly go into the middle, a payday when you land on the otherwise dull Free Parking space. A common house rule. If you have the letter that a blank is played to represent in Scrabble, you can swap it for that blank on your turn. Thus blanks are recycled, and the games are higher scoring. 
     But you can't break the rules, you can't make up new ones as you go along, or cheat. There was never much of that in our household anyway—we respect games— though occasionally, when very young, a boy would toss the board over in a huff or stalk off, unhappy with a certain turn of events. I remember being aghast, just horrified. What about the game? Quitters lost all respect.
      The metaphor of games, and their importance, is the best way I can understand those who are deeply bothered by same-sex marriage. Because at first glance it's ludicrous to be upset by this. Why care that people you don't know are forming unions that don't affect you? Not in any real sense. It doesn't raise your taxes, or pollute our air. And it's already happening. Where's the harm?
       Yet the anger, the outrage, the sputtering indignation. It reminds me of myself finding a game spoiled. And that I think the idea of games, of their importance, can help us understand what is happening here. Forget religion, or bigotry, or morals, or the other buzz words thrown around. Those are symbols, tokens, cards. Faith could lead you to embrace same-sex marriage as easily as forbid it, morals to respect other people rather than condemn them for some bedroom practice. What is at issue here is a certain game, a set of rules, an understanding of how things are supposed to be. The way American life as it has been played, up to now. The way they grew up playing it. It's always been played this way. The rules are on the box lid, put there by God, no less. The game is fun and beloved, the time passes and nobody challenged it. Nobody would dare, introduce a third die into Monopoly, a few countries on the Moon in Risk. The right to gaze into the bag before picking letters in Scrabble. And yet here are these people, these newcomers to the game, wanting to do this new thing that is just completely contrary to how we've always done things. Changing the rules after play has commenced.
       I sympathize with the purists, I do. In the framework of the game, it all makes sense. It hurt to scrap the game. I remember clearly. Our oldest, the last time we played Monopoly, a few years back, bought one property of every color and refused to trade. So nobody could get houses and nobody could win. "It's a real estate trading game!" I said, hotly. But no, he enjoyed messing it up. Big smile. We played for a while, but the game was a stasis. It was suddenly pointless, stupid, endlessly circling the board, and play petered away in animosity. I was truly mad at him, spoiling our Monopoly game for reasons that struck me as perverse. How much more angry then are people who see their whole idea of how life should be played, of what the rules are, rules they grew up with, spoiled by this group of people they consider perverse already, just for existing?  No wonder they're mad. 
      I'm not apologizing for the vocal opposition. I'm trying to understand them, to grasp why they cling to this irrationality. And why bother trying to understand them? They lost, forget 'em. Why grant them the respect they deny others? For that very reason. Because they expend so little energy trying to understand my view, or the view of gays and lesbians who now have won these civil rights. It's an effort I wish they'd make. The golden rule says, "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you." I would have them try to understand a bit harder, to take a little of the energy they use defending themselves, clinging to the fading status quo, and attacking the change and instead try to grasp what's going on here. And perhaps find the sympathy waiting there. But since they don't, I will, if only to show them how it's done, if only for the satisfaction of understanding a little better myself. It's cool to figure out what's happening. I wish more people could see that. When you realize that gay marriage is like introducing apartment buildings into Monopoly, like scribbling a third level of rents under those for the houses and hotels, you get a glimpse of how strange this all must be for some people. No wonder they're indignant. 


  1. Just remember the words of a British actress, Beatrice Campbell, from the 1890s I believe:
    "I don't care what these dear people do, as long as they don't do it in the street & frighten the horses."
    When I looked it up, I was curious, did she have a first name, as she was always just referred to as Mrs. Campbell, it turns out she was speaking of gay people.

  2. I think that marriage should be redefined to be between me and a gorgeous actress (I have a list). If the legislature will just pass that needed piece of legislation, I'll vote to reelect them. What are my chances?

  3. Neil, I would add this corollary: People assuming a certain set of rules for love, family, marriage and sexual behavior are only playing one of the "games." Other games with different rules, more rules, less rules have been played by humans for millennia. Not only in some foreign heathen culture, but right in their towns, by people they work with, eat dinner with and go to movies with. And yet, our society still functions, people still eat at McDonald's, obey traffic lights, and for some reason watch Two and a Half Men. The only difference is now we walk around with our eyes open a little wider, and we can see a little further.

    1. We continue to watch Two and a Half Men because it's still funny.
      Not as funny as when Charlie Sheen was on, but still funnier than 90% of the rest of the comedies.
      And 1000% funnier than Saturday Night Live!

  4. I think the game metaphor is right on. It reminded me of the saying "I'm taking my ball and going home". So I Googled that particular saying, and the definition was: "I want to be in control of the situation and if I can't then no one is going to be allowed to be happy about the outcome." In other words, nobody should have the right to crash their game.

  5. Humans still have instincts, one of which is the need to reproduce often appearing in the form of lust. This instinct pushes us to desire sex, want to obtain it and to increase our chances push others who may have it more often. Gays, the young, models are too often associated by the majority with ease of access to sex and therefore are envied. I love the theory described above of the need of humans to adhere to rules (and thus use tradition). I agree with it. But I also think there are secondary undertones also built in other instinctual behaviors. - Alain

  6. Four years late, I'm chuckling at the devious delight your son must have felt as he rendered the Monopoly game a pointless exercise -- on one hand, he re-affirmed that monopolies are dangerous and succeeded in promoting a fair marketplace where it was very very difficult to crush the competition. On the other, everybody in Atlantic city remained homeless due to lack of housing though his efforts. Hmm...

    1. I laughed too, Bill. A classic case of the son putting the father in a headlock. On the other hand, Neil deserves a rematch.

    2. When I played Monopoly as a kid, my cousins and some of my friends would just take an orange five-hundred-dollar bill from the bank and place in the middle, and replace it with another whenever someone landed on Free Parking. Thus making it into a winning Lotto ticket, back in the days when lotteries were still far in the future.

      Fast forward to the Sixties, when Monopoly became a diversion for the drunk and stoned, or as one friend put it, the stunk and droned. I once set a hotel on fire with lighter fluid, leaving a permanemt scorch mark on the board. But it was my house, my board, my rules...or lack of rules. Anarchy subsitiuting for rules.

      I'm pretty sure that arson happened in 1970, a time when rules were being broken every day, boards were being flipped over, and a lot of players were either stalking off or refusing to play at all.


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