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The Madness of Playing Games

If a lone, unkempt, person, standing on a soapbox were to say that he should become the Prime Minister, he would have been diagnosed by a passing psychiatrist as suffering from this or that mental disturbance. But were the same psychiatrist to frequent the same spot and see a crowd of millions saluting the same lonely, shabby figure - what would have his diagnosis been? Surely, different (perhaps of a more political hue). It seems that one thing setting social games apart from madness is quantitative: the amount of the participants involved. Madness is a one-person game, and even mass mental disturbances are limited in scope. Moreover, it has long been demonstrated (for instance, by Karen Horney) that the definition of certain mental disorders is highly dependent upon the context of the prevailing culture. Mental disturbances (including psychoses) are time-dependent and locus-dependent.

Religious behaviour and romantic behaviour could be easily construed as psychopathologies when examined out of their social, cultural, historical and political contexts. Historical figures as diverse as Nietzsche (philosophy), Van Gogh (art), Hitler (politics) and Herzl (political visionary) made this smooth phase transition from the lunatic fringes to centre stage. They succeeded to attract, convince and influence a critical human mass, which provided for this transition. They appeared on history's stage (or were placed there posthumously) at the right time and in the right place. The biblical prophets and Jesus are similar examples though of a more severe disorder.

Hitler and Herzl possibly suffered from personality disorders - the biblical prophets were, almost certainly, psychotic. We play games because they are reversible and their outcomes are reversible. No game-player expects his involvement, or his particular moves to make a lasting impression on history, fellow humans, a territory, or a business entity. This, indeed, is the major taxonomic difference: the same class of actions can be classified as "game" when it does not intend to exert a lasting (that is, irreversible) influence on the environment. When such intention is evident - the very same actions qualify as something completely different. Games, therefore, are only mildly associated with memory. They are intended to be forgotten, eroded by time and entropy, by quantum events in our brains and macro-events in physical reality. Games - as opposed to absolutely all other human activities - are entropic. Negentropy - the act of reducing entropy and increasing order - is present in a game, only to be reversed later. Nowhere is this more evident than in video games: destructive acts constitute the very foundation of these contraptions.

When children start to play (and adults, for that matter - see Eric Berne's books on the subject) they commence by dissolution, by being destructively analytic. Playing games is an analytic activity. It is through games that we recognize our temporariness, the looming shadow of death, our forthcoming dissolution, evaporation, annihilation. These FACTS we repress in normal life - lest they overwhelm us. A frontal recognition of them would render us speechless, motionless, paralysed. We pretend that we are going to live forever, we use this ridiculous, counter-factual assumption as a working hypothesis. Playing games lets us confront all this by engaging in activities which, by their very definition, are temporary, have no past and no future, temporally detached and physically detached. This is as close to death as we get. Small wonder that rituals (a variant of games) typify religious activities. Religion is among the few human disciplines which tackle death head on, sometimes as a centrepiece (consider the symbolic sacrifice of Jesus).

Rituals are also the hallmark of obsessive-compulsive disorders, which are the reaction to the repression of forbidden emotions (our reaction to the prevalence, pervasiveness and inevitability of death is almost identical). It is when we move from a conscious acknowledgement of the relative lack of lasting importance of games - to the pretension that they are important, that we make the transition from the personal to the social. The way from madness to social rituals traverses games. In this sense, the transition is from game to myth. A mythology is a closed system of thought, which defines the "permissible" questions, those that can be asked. Other questions are forbidden because they cannot be answered without resorting to another mythology altogether. Observation is an act, which is the anathema of the myth. The observer is presumed to be outside the observed system (a presumption which, in itself, is part of the myth of Science, at least until the Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics was developed). A game looks very strange, unnecessary and ridiculous from the vantage-point of an outside observer. It has no justification, no future, it looks aimless (from the utilitarian point of view), it can be compared to alternative systems of thought and of social organization (the biggest threat to any mythology).

When games are transformed to myths, the first act perpetrated by the group of transformers is to ban all observations by the (willing or unwilling) participants. Introspection replaces observation and becomes a mechanism of social coercion. The game, in its new guise, becomes a transcendental, postulated, axiomatic and doctrinaire entity. It spins off a caste of interpreters and mediators. It distinguishes participants (formerly, players) from outsiders or aliens (formerly observers or uninterested parties). And the game loses its power to confront us with death. As a myth it assumes the function of repression of this fact and of the fact that we are all prisoners. Earth is really a death ward, a cosmic death row: we are all trapped here and all of us are sentenced to die. Today's telecommunications, transportation, international computer networks and the unification of the cultural offering only serve to exacerbate and accentuate this claustrophobia.


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