The Dysfunctional Game

         Learning-games have no necessary relation to their content, and can be constructed to teach even the most immoral and disastrous lessons. Those which embody an essential contradiction between the learnings of their content and of their process are perhaps a special class, which might be called “the arrested reflexive,” for no such game is complete in itself unless it deals with and resolves the contradiction.  But in general, a dysfunctional game is not defined by content or contradiction, but by having a dysfunctional purpose.

         Perhaps the basic example is the kind of game Eric Berne talks about in Games People Play – a fixed (“unscripted”) and endlessly repeated drama, a pattern of transactions usually centered on one person or involving a pair, whose successful completion reinforces some portion of the player(s)’s neurotic adjustment.  “Every (such) game … is basically dishonest,” says Berne, for two reasons.  First, the game is rigged.  It is not a free play, nor even an equal and free competition.  Instead, the central player, who is also unconsciously the gamekeeper, shapes or interprets every move of every player to bring about a predetermined outcome (whether this makes him the loser, or the winner with a success neurosis, makes no difference).  Second, and perhaps even more important, the game is ulterior: no one admits that a game is being played, and if any outsider suggests this, the gamekeeper denies it.

         We all play much of our lives this way, from dependence in the dyad to racism at large; and it is accurate to such games "learning-games," for in them we learn precisely the definitions of self and the behaviors that they support and reinforce.  Thus, whatever the specifics of our neuroses, on the process level we learn to be non-progressive in our growth, and to play rigged and ulterior games. All of this may well be a model for the dysfunctional learning-game in general.

         "The unexamined game is not worth playing" and "Don’t bet when the fix is on" are ancient precepts for healthy learning.  A functional learning-game is to be discussed as such and learned from; people use it to change their selves and their behavior; and in general it must be open in its outcomes.  The kinds of games and gamekeeping I discuss work towards this; but the will of the players is also necessary.


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