- We originally started playing any game because we found it fun, not simply to win.
- In almost any competitive endeavor, participants and spectators prefer playstyles that focus on a fast, fluid, and creative offense to overly-defensive ones. The implied social contract in all games offers a compelling reason why.
- True joy in playing anything comes from moments rather than winning.
Estimated reading time: 6-12 minutes
Okay, so at first glance, the question from the title is ridiculous, right? We play to win. “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing,” and all that. Well, maybe it’s not that simple…
I’ve previously written about The Inner Game of Tennis, an excellent book about overcoming your own self doubt to perform your best. In it, author Timothy Gallwey asks which game we’re playing, “Fun-O” or “Good-O.” In the former, we’re engaging in the activity for the joy inherent to it. In the latter, we’re playing to prove to ourselves and others that we’re superior, usually to reinforce an identity. Ironically, we often do better when playing “Fun-O” rather than “Good-O.” But, that’s not the main point of this piece.
Instead, let’s think back to a time when every game we played was a form of “Fun-O.” As children, if we were lucky, we only had to play the games we liked. At the very least, those were the ones to which we gravitated. We picked these activities because they provided enjoyment, often fueled by spontaneity and unpredictability. This motivation was probably similar for art, music, and any number of other pursuits. It wasn’t until some authority figure told us, “Hey, you’re really good at this,” Or, “You should get better at this,” that we started to play the game of “Good-O.”
So yeah, games were originally intended to be…fun.
Duh, right? But where we’re going to explore this further is through the way some people equate particular playstyles with moral character.
Quick, who’s more fondly remembered, the Showtime Lakers or the Detroit Bad Boys? Both were dominant forces in the NBA during the 1980’s, winning multiple championships, but with very different approaches.
The Lakers embraced fast, fluid offense via quick passing and lightspeed transitions, while the Pistons did the opposite. They tried to slow the game to a crawl, make it as physically bruising as possible, and flirted with the line between fair and foul play. Both worked incredibly well. But, (spoiler alert) few outside of Detroit miss the “Bad Boys,” while many still wax poetic about the days of Magic and Kareem.
We can see this dichotomy reflected in nearly every competitive endeavor, from soccer to Super Smash Bros. to chess. Early in a game’s lifecycle, it’s played with almost reckless abandon. Offense, offense, offense! Fast! Exciting! High scoring! In soccer, for example, teams in the pre-WWII years commonly played with two defenders, three midfielders, and five forwards. Scores like 6-3 were commonplace. Defensive play was an afterthought.
As a game matures, along comes some enterprising individual who wants to win, and discovers that the general neglect of defense offers a huge competitive advantage. So, they lean hard into the defensive side of the game, slowing it down, choking the life out of it, and generally making it more boring to both play against and watch.
This works incredibly well for a while, but because the universe demands balance, the tide eventually shifts back towards teams and individuals who grow highly competent at the defensive side of the game yet retain an exciting and fluid offense capable of thrilling spectators. This isn’t easy to do, but it’s why teams like Arsenal’s Invincibles and the ‘96 Chicago Bulls are still spoken of in hushed tones of admiration.
But, why don’t we like more defensive styles?
I’ll admit that I’m guilty of some emotional overreach here. In my teens and early twenties, it wasn’t uncommon to hear me say that I “hated” the way Jose Mourinho’s teams played soccer, or that they were “ruining” soccer, and I frequently looked down upon opposing college teams who opted for a highly defensive style. I’d say things like, “They suck,” or, “They don’t play the game with honor.”
To be clear, this wasn’t fair of me. In an endeavor where people actually want to win, they generally pick the approach that gives them the best chance of doing so. While this is perfectly valid, part of what motivated me to write this piece was wanting to understand why I felt this way, and why it’s a relatively common viewpoint.
While there are of course individuals who grow to love an overtly-defensive style of any game, whether through contrarianism or a genuine appreciation for the skill of containing and stifling creativity, most people prefer to witness at least some offensive execution. Not many would go back and watch an NFL playoff game that finished with a final score of 12-6 from only field goals, or the drab 1994 World Cup Final that Brazil won on penalty kicks after a 120-minute nil-nil snoozefest.
And, I think I know why.
We may subconsciously believe that those who play in a certain way violate the social contract inherent to the very idea of a “game.”
Remember, games are supposed to be fun, otherwise nobody would play them. I’ll be here with deep insights like this all week. While we understand that at the level of professional sports, winning becomes a job, we still like to see games retain the joyful, creative element that drew us to them in the first place.
The sad reality is, it’s often incredibly effective to slow a game down and frustrate your opponent into making mistakes you can exploit. In fact, if a team or individual executes this strategy proficiently enough, only the very best at the level in question can overcome it. But, here’s the problem.
Despite the effectiveness of strategies like these, they remove all the joy. And aside from those who value winning at all costs, this often doesn’t sit well with people. If in order to win, you need to make a game so agonizing to play against you and so uninteresting to watch, was it really worth it? I suppose if your identity is highly tied to winning or avoiding losing, or if there’s a giant pool of prize money for the victor, you would say yes. But, while we may allow fun-sucking strategies when the stakes are perceived to be high, there are clearly limits.
To that end, if you play like a member of the “Bad Boys” in weekly pickup games of half-court basketball or five-a-side footy with your friends, you’ll quickly find that nobody will want to play with you anymore. Your desire to win has ruined the game, people won’t tolerate it.
Would you do this to win?
On a favorite strength training podcast of mine, Stronger By Science, the hosts veered off topic to bring up a somewhat suspect strategy one player used in an attempt to win a chess match. Faced with the prospect of losing to a five-year-old prodigy, one middle-aged player resorted to some technically legal underhandedness in an attempt to avoid defeat. Given that the multi-match tournament had progressed well past midnight, he saw his young opponent starting to grow drowsy, so he began stalling for longer and longer between moves, hoping that his adversary would be disqualified for falling asleep.
I don’t remember if that strategy worked, but I don’t think it really matters. If your best bet for winning is to hope a child falls asleep before beating you, did you really win?
Joy comes from moments
The “win at all costs” brigade would likely say yes, but come on. No identity is worth protecting that strongly. Because while money, status, and identity may lead us to lose sight of this, the true joy of playing comes more from moments than results. Quick, did the Bulls win the game when MJ did this against the Lakers? Did Arsenal win against Newcastle when Dennis Bergkamp did this?
I’m pretty sure the answer is yes in both cases, but I deliberately didn’t check. It doesn’t really matter, because these iconic moments will live on regardless. They were such pure, spontaneous expressions of skill and grace that anyone who witnessed them live will never forget their feelings in the moment.
On a more personal level, take a look at this 15-second video, featuring one clip from my college soccer career and one from my Super Smash Bros. Ultimate online exploits. In both, I immediately let out an involuntary shout of excitement after executing the maneuvers in question. I couldn’t help it. After seeing something in my head a split before it happened, pure joy came from the unpredictability and uncertainty of the situation. “Will this work? Yes!”
To go from having practiced techniques, to finding yourself fully immersed in the flow of the game, and then spontaneously taking advantage of an opportunity to implement what you’ve learned against real competition…what an experience! And that feeling, more so than winning, is why we truly enjoy games. And at least subconsciously, we all know this.
We need to fight the urge to crack a smile if we belt one in from 25 yards or drain a three-pointer after crossing up a defender, even if we’re in the midst of getting our butts kicked. Just ask any amateur golfer. You can stink up the course for 18 holes, but even one beautiful shot out of a hundred will have you coming back for more.
Yes, winning is important too, but have you ever experienced a victory where the overriding emotion was relief, rather than joy?
That’s what we’ll talk about next week in Part 2.
Before you go, I’d love to hear from you! In your athletic career, what’s a moment of spontaneous skill (like the nutmeg I shared in the final clip) that you’ll never forget pulling off? And in your opinion, in the “five-year old chess player falls asleep” scenario, would the victory have been worth it? Reply to this email and let me know!