Today I’ll elaborate on yesterday’s suggestion that by thinking clearly about the way the arbitrary values of game playing interact with the real values of the players we can understand why some games are good, and others are bad.
I’ll consider two games: the hypothetical kissing game described in yesterday’s post, and contract bridge.
Here’s a review of the kissing game: two teenage boys compete with one another to see who can kiss the most girls at a school dance, scoring one point for each different girl kissed, with a bonus of two points for kissing a cheerleader.
It certainly looks like this is a bad game – a game in which the real values associated with boys and girls interacting gets distorted by the overlay of the artificial values of the game. A game in which feelings will be hurt, and kids will be bullied into doing things they don’t want to do. Is there any context in which such a game could be considered a good game?
How about this. The game is played, but not by just two boys, but by several boys and girls, all of whom know the rules of the game, and all of whom freely choose to play. The other kids at the dance also know what’s happening, but are under no pressure to take part. Perhaps under these conditions, the game serves its proper purpose of using the artificial values of the game to stimulate real value in the play. Perhaps this is just the device needed to allow a group of teenagers to stick a toe into the waters of dating and relationship building in a way that’s less fraught with meaning and expectation than a less structured interaction would be.
It’s been a long time since I’ve had a teenager in my keeping, and longer still, of course, since I was one myself. So I don’t know whether such a game would be a good game, but I’m skeptical.
Lets move on and consider something that’s clearly a real game – not something that’s only a game because of my rather expansive definition. Contract bridge.
For my money, bridge is a wonderful game. I play a few hands with my computer almost every day, and I generally read the bridge column in my morning paper carefully. But in the spirit of yesterday’s post, I want to shift attention away from the game itself to the experience of playing the game. And here things are not so clear. It may be a clue to what’s wrong with bridge that, for all my love of the game, I very rarely play it with other human beings. Bridge is a good game, but it can be a difficult social experience.
When I was growing up in the 1960s, my mother taught me to play bridge in much the same spirit as she sent me to “St. Mark’s Cotillion”, a course of ballroom dance classes held in the parish hall of the Episcopal church. Bridge was not so much a game as one of the social graces. Playing bridge was expected in the slice of Albuquerque society that included my mother.
My father didn’t like bridge. But he loved my mother, and he knew that one of his domestic duties was to be her bridge partner from time to time, and often to make up the table when she was instructing her children in this necessary skill.
The trouble with bridge is not that it’s a bad game – it isn’t. But it’s a demanding game. It has a learning curve that is at least as steep as the one I faced (and never climbed) in my ballroom dance lessons. And failures at the bridge table are rather public, and reflect on your partner as well as yourself. I’ve seen more, and more bitter, arguments over the bridge table than I have with any of the many other games and sports I’ve played.
A home bridge game that included my elderly grandmother could be a harrowing experience, as failure at the game was conflated with social failure and the general decline of standards in my generation. At least one of my sisters, I suspect, hasn’t played bridge since the last time she was dragooned into making up a table with my grandmother.
I’ve always enjoyed playing bridge, and sometimes long a little wistfully for a time when bridge games were socially important. When my little bit of card sense would be a social asset, and I’d frequently be invited to help make up a table after dinner at a party.
My daughter (who is also an avid and skillful bridge player) and I got a peek at this world when we spent a week’s holiday at Reid’s Palace in Funchal, Madeira. Reid’s is a stately old hotel where one was expected (back then) to dress for dinner in the dining room. And that didn’t mean smart slacks for her and a sport jacket for me – it meant black tie for me and an evening gown for her. One of the amenities at Reid’s was a card room, staffed every afternoon by the hotel’s charming bridge professional.
But it’s a good thing that this sort of bridge is gone. Because many, probably most, of the people dutifully playing in all those social bridge games didn’t really like the game, and more than a few cordially hated it. Some time in the 1960s, I think, many of those who didn’t enjoy playing bridge simply stopped playing.
By the time I got to college there was still a lot of bridge being played. Many others of my generation and social class had also been taught the game. But the only ones who continued to play were those of us who genuinely enjoyed the game. To the diminishing extent that playing cards was a useful social skill, the slack was taken up by hearts, or pinochle, or spades, or some other less-demanding game.
Is playing bridge a good thing? Yes, I think it is. And it’s a better thing now than it was for my mother’s generation. Because now people are more likely to be playing for the right reasons.