The foundational elements of a healthy society are laid when people see the need for discipline, cooperative effort, team spirit, and the camaraderie born of mutual devotion to achieving a common goal. Cultivating the vital quality of learning how to become goal-oriented is key to success.
Games, which contain all the activities necessary for learning this process, can be seen as a reflection of life. Play, therefore, is universal to all creatures. Animals whose survival strategies depend upon flight, like horses and antelopes, frolic. The species that hunt, such as dogs, cats, bears and humans play- fight; birds practice formation flights. Like all mammals, human children are hardwired for playing. Play functions as an environment where they begin learning what their roles in life will be. Play and games are vehicles by which society passes on the mores and values that contribute to the formation of character and standards of the society. If you want to know a lot about a culture, look carefully at its children's games. Historically in our culture, as part of social conditioning, girls begin as little mothers-in-the-making, encouraged to play with dolls, to play house, and engage in other domestic activities that tend toward more passive behavior. Boys’ play tends to mimic the hunting activities of adult males. Their activities tend to be vigorous and competitive. Their play usually involves running, wrestling and other activities of endurance and targeting. In the past, boys would play with spears, throw stones or shoot arrows. Statistically, today more boys play violent video games than girls. Although girls now compete in competitive sports, their early play still tends to reflect more traditional activities. Changing attitudes toward women now enable girls to exercise different choices from childhood that more broadly shape their expectations of self and others.
It is inherent in human nature to strive for improvement, both in the self and in the formation of social hierarchies. Playing, especially organized games, encourages both. The nature of all games is competition and the honing of skills. They provide the structure and rules by which play takes place. Sports are games with individual elements of physical proficiency. Team sports offer aspects of strategy, leadership, cooperation, luck and camaraderie that are all attributes of life in general. One of the high values of sports is that they offer opportunities to develop talents necessary for successful targeting. They are not only a manifestation of animal energy and power used to develop greater strength, stamina and other physical attributes, but they are also a safe outlet for our aggressive nature. Sports mimic war and provide many of the same psychological effects of war without the destruction. The Olympic Games were created exactly that purpose. They engendered greater cooperation within the diverse societies of a broader culture, which they still provide 2,500 years later. Because games improve capacity and efficiency, they provide a certain balance in our lives. The ancient Greek ideal was a sound mind and a sound body. It is in our collective interest to provide playgrounds, the necessary equipment at other facilities, and rewards for outstanding sportsmanship to encourage others to play games. Crime is sufficiently reduced in societies where sports and other games are supported. This is particularly important for youth. Sports, and all goal-oriented games that are competitive, require physical skill and ability, mental discipline and awareness to be successful. They are extremely useful in preparing youth for functional adulthood.
The systems that comprise modern society are essentially various forms of games. All have a set of goals or objectives to obtain desirable outcomes, methods of operation to accomplish goals, and collections of rules that best facilitate the desired result. Effective institutions will maintain order and create a system that incentivizes those behaviors that produce what they want to achieve. Ideally, if everyone follows the rules, everyone does better. However, some individuals learn to game the system by taking advantage of the rules to gain personal power at the expense of others or of the institution itself. Adding controls to prevent gaming usually doesn't work because introducing more rules makes the system more complicated, harder to understand, and less practical. It also introduces loopholes that create more possibilities for gaming. Gaming the system goes against the purpose of a system while giving the illusion of staying within the rules. It weakens it by leeching vital qualities, causing it to be less effective and to lose public trust, setting up the conditions for the system to pass out of existence.
A broader and more pervasive example of gaming is found in corporate capitalism. It is best defined by the sardonic twist on the Golden Rule: ‘Those with the gold make the rules.’ The industrialists in the United States widely practice it. They use their extensive financial ability to manipulate the outcome of the federal government through a lack of resident regulation, income tax enforcement, and a variety of other illegal activities. In the last 30 years, the wealthy in American society have used their wealth to manipulate the political structure in ways that benefit only themselves. Because the economic system is global and deeply interrelated, if this trend is not corrected, the economic and political systems of the collective global society will likely collapse. It is, of course, also possible it will evolve into a more extensive system of global governance. In the systemic adjustments that are likely to follow the COVID-19 pandemic, we will see how this plays out. It promises to be a wild ride.
In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith advocated for free economic capitalism based on individual competition and mutual interests. He postulated that there would be a balance between the competing interests of individuals within the society, calling it “the invisible hand.” Smith critically examined the moral thinking of his time and suggested that conscience arises from society's social relationships. His theory was that observing others makes people aware of their behavior and the morality of their actions.
In healthy individuals, empathy is the moral faculty that holds self-interest in check, whereas competition is the faculty that supports self-interest. A critically important equation left out of Smith’s discussion is an understanding of the spectrum of selfishness/altruism, which greatly benefits those who are amoral. Unscrupulous people have no compassion or self-restraint. They seek their approval from others of similar philosophy. They set up the conditions for system collapse by dismantling traditional institutions; manipulating information; and using dishonesty, intimidation, confusion and other methods to further their short-term self-interest. The effect on a democratic country is like letting snakes loose in a room. We observed this phenomenon during the Trump administration is the United States from 2016-2020, and it threatens to become the course of action deployed by the current version of the Republican Party that is supported by the conspiratorial thinkers and the rise of domestic terrorism.
John Nash, the brilliant mathematician who won the Nobel Prize in 1994, was the subject of the book and film A Beautiful Mind. Nash extended game theory* to include more complex situations and showed an alternative to the ‘winner takes all’ model. In the ‘Nash Equilibrium,’ all the players can gain or all can lose. No player(s) can gain an advantage by independently changing the strategy without the other player(s) knowing and cooperating with it. Nash’s theory shows that to do otherwise ultimately destroys the game. This is the basis of effective strategic thinking and an extension of Adams Smith's theory. It can be applied at every level of decision making, whether personal, political, social, or global.
* Game theory: the branch of mathematics concerned with the analysis of strategies for dealing with competitive situations where the outcome of a participant's choice of action depends critically on the actions of other participants. Game theory has been applied to contexts in war, business, and biology. – Oxford Languages2