Games people play

I was doing yet another sort through some boxes in one of my closets and tossing out old things I no longer needed.  How did I ever accumulate so much junk?  At the bottom of a box was a stack of game manuals, some from the late 1980s.  Most of these manuals were the rules and mechanics of playing all sorts of role-playing games or board games. One game that wasn’t there was Monopoly.  I hated that game.

You remember Monopoly, right?  A game that almost always ended up with someone getting really pissed off as one player inevitably ended up crushing all the others by ruining them financially.  Most families have that one relative that takes the game too seriously and read all the rules and understood the game mechanics way too well and always had the advantage.  It’s usually that distant cousin you rarely see and can’t stand and this just solidifies that distaste.

Well that cousin grew up.  Those early lessons in understanding game mechanics and manipulating the rules don’t just apply to board games.  We rarely think about life in the terms of game mechanics but some do and they do quite well for themselves.

Nearly everything in your life comes with prepackaged and predetermined rules.  Your job has rules.  Break enough of them and you’ll lose your job.  Driving has rules.  Those that don’t follow the rules either get a ticket or wind up in an accident.  Social interactions have rules.  You break these rules and you might end up all alone.

Those things that don’t have rules?  Either they do have rules and you haven’t realized it yet or some enthusiast is eagerly working out the rules right as we speak.

But two aspects of life have the most rules and have the most effect on our lives; money and politics.  Sure there are other games out there.  There’s science, there’s fame, there’s religion. But money and politics, those are the one’s that can affect all the others.  In all of these games is a cousin that knows how to work the rules.  Money or trade was the first game that we played.

The idea was simple.  Use tokens of exchange to represent value and trade those tokens in order to facilitate trade.  What’s wrong with that?  You provided labor or made something of value and someone paid you for it.  But along the way that cousin noticed something.  Money itself could be made to “work”.  Money couldn’t do anything itself of course but money in motion or the promise of money, well that could move mountains.

In the last century and particularly in the last 50 years, that cousin noticed that manipulating and skillfully moving money around could generate even more money than actually doing any physical labor or producing anything tangible.

So much money in fact that you couldn’t make enough physical tokens to represent all that money.  That money was now just notional numbers floating around in some digital ledger.  Cousin had totally figured out the rules of how to make more money and where the rules were sketchy then cousin made new rules to make even more money.

But somewhere along the way the rules got a little too complicated.  They contradicted themselves and suddenly the money began to eat itself up and shrink.  Cousin didn’t know what to do because the rules that covered this flatly stated that the game was over.  But Cousin also played another game.

I could get into a sophomoric argument of when and where it started, who’s to blame, and what’s the solution is but the game of politics is almost as old and complicated as the game of money.  You could look back in history all over the world and see similar examples and read as the political game became more and more complex and finally one way or the other collapsed either due to outside forces or internal pressures.

Where did our particular game start?  Some said it was a group of jealous old men at the start of the country creating rules to favor their interests.  Others point to the Civil War and the ascendancy of the federal government, and others point to the World Wars and the Great Depression making it obligatory that the political game become more important to ensure our survival.

Any way that it started it was ripe and ready for Cousin to enjoy and use.  We elevated politics from a homespun art form to a sort of science.  I say a sort of science for although we have good solid principles to look at, I don’t think we can quite claim that we can predictably look at politics and determine an outcome based on current conditions and applied forces.  At least most people can’t claim that.  Don’t expect the experts to admit to that.

But nonetheless amazing things have been done.  For example we created a system where spending money was considered to be free speech.  We mastered the art of the backroom deal and the wisdom of when and where to apply pressure to arrive at the desired outcome.  We could take a small sample of opinions from everyday folk and extrapolate the results to determine what an entire state or even the nation was thinking and postulate that this candidate would win where that other one would not.

Cousin played this game as well.  When one has a significant amount of money you can’t help but play this game.  Money attracts attention in a way that few other things can.  People that don’t have money figure that just being around money will lure money towards them and sometimes they’re right.  People that play the political game know that money helps quite a bit.

Cousin argued that the money game was broken and needed the political game to “fix” it.  Cousin knew that the money game could help the political game keep moving and expanding.  So new rules were written and the money game was fixed.  For the good of every one of course.

But now the political game was broken.  Those amazing polls, that nuanced science that could foretell the future, suddenly was blind.  Those political calculations that said this candidate should run instead of that one, those assumptions that underpinned the very rules of the game had suddenly yielded up an unexpected result.

Now the professional class that plays the political game for a living is at a loss as to what to do.  The rules had been followed yet the results were not as they should have been. According to the rules of the game something bad is about to happen.

Cousin won’t suffer.  Cousin never suffers.  Money forgives many sins, it pads Cousin against harm, and insulates Cousin against the worst effects and what’s great is that now, Cousin can make an infinite supply of money.

But for those that don’t understand either the political game or the money game….

As ever they will be the ones that suffer first and the most.  One thing that you may notice is that when you put away the monopoly board that you’re always missing  a piece.  The thimble, or maybe a couple of plastic houses, or a couple of dollars go astray here and there.  No monopoly board ever remains intact and yet even though some of the little pieces of the game may be lost or damaged the game continues.

Insulted? Angry at the notion of plain every day people being considered to be nothing more than pawns or tokens?  Me too.  Why aren’t we doing something about it?

What am I trying to say?  Do I have a plan to fix it all?  Of course not.  That would mean that I played the game (one or the other).  Clearly I don’t play.

But maybe it’s time to flood the game with millions of new players.  Maybe it’s time for people who never thought that they had a stake in the game to get in.  By themselves they would not win, they might not even win in big groups but maybe, just maybe they can force a rewrite of the rules.

Improbable?  True.  But is it better than just being a pawn and waiting for the dice to roll to determine where you will land?

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