The Madness of Playing Games

By: Dr. Sam Vaknin


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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. Granted, in a few millennia, with space travel and space habitation, the walls of our cells will have practically vanished (or become negligible) with the exception of the constraint of our (limited) longevity. Mortality is a blessing in disguise because it motivates humans to act in order "not to miss the train of life" and it maintains the sense of wonder and the (false) sense of unlimited possibilities.

This conversion from madness to game to myth is subjected to meta-laws that are the guidelines of a super-game. All our games are derivatives of this super-game of survival. It is a game because its outcomes are not guaranteed, they are temporary and to a large extent not even known (many of our activities are directed at deciphering it). It is a myth because it effectively ignores temporal and spatial limitations. It is one-track minded: to foster an increase in the population as a hedge against contingencies, which are outside the myth.

All the laws, which encourage optimization of resources, accommodation, an increase of order and negentropic results - belong, by definition to this meta-system. We can rigorously claim that there exist no laws, no human activities outside it. It is inconceivable that it should contain its own negation (Godel-like), therefore it must be internally and externally consistent. It is as inconceivable that it will be less than perfect - so it must be all-inclusive. Its comprehensiveness is not the formal logical one: it is not the system of all the conceivable sub-systems, theorems and propositions (because it is not self-contradictory or self-defeating). It is simply the list of possibilities and actualities open to humans, taking their limitations into consideration. This, precisely, is the power of money. It is - and always has been - a symbol whose abstract dimension far outweighed its tangible one.

This bestowed upon money a preferred status: that of a measuring rod. The outcomes of games and myths alike needed to be monitored and measured. Competition was only a mechanism to secure the on-going participation of individuals in the game. Measurement was an altogether more important element: the very efficiency of the survival strategy was in question. How could humanity measure the relative performance (and contribution) of its members - and their overall efficiency (and prospects)? Money came handy. It is uniform, objective, reacts flexibly and immediately to changing circumstances, abstract, easily transformable into tangibles - in short, a perfect barometer of the chances of survival at any given gauging moment. It is through its role as a universal comparative scale - that it came to acquire the might that it possesses.

Money, in other words, had the ultimate information content: the information concerning survival, the information needed for survival. Money measures performance (which allows for survival enhancing feedback). Money confers identity - an effective way to differentiate oneself in a world glutted with information, alienating and assimilating. Money cemented a social system of monovalent rating (a pecking order) - which, in turn, optimized decision making processes through the minimization of the amounts of information needed to affect them. The price of a share traded in the stock exchange, for instance, is assumed (by certain theoreticians) to incorporate (and reflect) all the information available regarding this share. Analogously, we can say that the amount of money that a person has contains sufficient information regarding his or her ability to survive and his or her contribution to the survivability of others. There must be other - possibly more important measures of that - but they are, most probably, lacking: not as uniform as money, not as universal, not as potent, etc.

Money is said to buy us love (or to stand for it, psychologically) - and love is the prerequisite to survival. Very few of us would have survived without some kind of love or attention lavished on us. We are dependent creatures throughout our lives. Thus, in an unavoidable path, as humans move from game to myth and from myth to a derivative social organization - they move ever closer to money and to the information that it contains. Money contains information in different modalities. But it all boils down to the very ancient question of the survival of the fittest.

Why Do We Love Sports?

The love of - nay, addiction to - competitive and solitary sports cuts across all social-economic strata and throughout all the demographics. Whether as a passive consumer (spectator), a fan, or as a participant and practitioner, everyone enjoys one form of sport or another. Wherefrom this universal propensity?

Sports cater to multiple psychological and physiological deep-set needs. In this they are unique: no other activity responds as do sports to so many dimensions of one's person, both emotional, and physical. But, on a deeper level, sports provide more than instant gratification of primal (or base, depending on one's point of view) instincts, such as the urge to compete and to dominate.

1. Vindication

Sports, both competitive and solitary, are morality plays. The athlete confronts other sportspersons, or nature, or his (her) own limitations. Winning or overcoming these hurdles is interpreted to be the triumph of good over evil, superior over inferior, the best over merely adequate, merit over patronage. It is a vindication of the principles of quotidian-religious morality: efforts are rewarded; determination yields achievement; quality is on top; justice is done.

2. Predictability

The world is riven by seemingly random acts of terror; replete with inane behavior; governed by uncontrollable impulses; and devoid of meaning. Sports are rule-based. Theirs is a predictable universe where umpires largely implement impersonal, yet just principles. Sports is about how the world should have been (and, regrettably, isn't). It is a safe delusion; a comfort zone; a promise and a demonstration that humans are capable of engendering a utopia.

3. Simulation

That is not to say that sports are sterile or irrelevant to our daily lives. On the very contrary. They are an encapsulation and a simulation of Life: they incorporate conflict and drama, teamwork and striving, personal struggle and communal strife, winning and losing. Sports foster learning in a safe environment. Better be defeated in a football match or on the tennis court than lose your life on the battlefield.

The contestants are not the only ones to benefit. From their detached, safe, and isolated perches, observers of sports games, however vicariously, enhance their trove of experiences; learn new skills; encounter manifold situations; augment their coping strategies; and personally grow and develop.

4. Reversibility

In sports, there is always a second chance, often denied us by Life and nature. No loss is permanent and crippling; no defeat is insurmountable and irreversible. Reversal is but a temporary condition, not the antechamber to annihilation. Safe in this certainty, sportsmen and spectators dare, experiment, venture out, and explore. A sense of adventure permeates all sports and, with few exceptions, it is rarely accompanied by impending doom or the exorbitant proverbial price-tag.

5. Belonging

Nothing like sports to encourage a sense of belonging, togetherness, and we-ness. Sports involve teamwork; a meeting of minds; negotiation and bartering; strategic games; bonding; and the narcissism of small differences (when we reserve our most virulent emotions aggression, hatred, envy towards those who resemble us the most: the fans of the opposing team, for instance).

Sports, like other addictions, also provide their proponents and participants with an "exo-skeleton": a sense of meaning; a schedule of events; a regime of training; rites, rituals, and ceremonies; uniforms and insignia. It imbues an otherwise chaotic and purposeless life with a sense of mission and with a direction.

6. Narcissistic Gratification (Narcissistic Supply)

It takes years to become a medical doctor and decades to win a prize or award in academe. It requires intelligence, perseverance, and an inordinate amount of effort. One's status as an author or scientist reflects a potent cocktail of natural endowments and hard labour.

It is far less onerous for a sports fan to acquire and claim expertise and thus inspire awe in his listeners and gain the respect of his peers. The fan may be an utter failure in other spheres of life, but he or she can still stake a claim to adulation and admiration by virtue of their fount of sports trivia and narrative skills.

Sports therefore provide a shortcut to accomplishment and its rewards. As most sports are uncomplicated affairs, the barrier to entry is low. Sports are great equalizers: one's status outside the arena, the field, or the court is irrelevant. One's standing is really determined by one's degree of obsession.


Also Read

Games People Play

Notes on the Economics of Game Theory


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