I’m really interested in games these days: what they teach us, how we play them, and why we like them.
There are games that are meant to be won, there are games in which the journey is as important as the outcome. Some place emphasis on luck and some on skill and most are a combination of the two. Some games teach us how to strategize and others how to deal with unexpected challenges. Games are metaphors for real life. They are ways in which we examine ourselves in theory to find out what we think and do in reality.
When I was a kid I used to cheat at Candyland.
I would “shuffle” cards to ensure that they came up with the best colors for myself. It was like flying and dragging oneself through the mud at the same time. I knew exactly what I was doing and I still couldn’t help it. I wanted to win and I hated being subject to the chance system of whatever gets drawn out of a pile. I wanted the control, and I hated the idea that I could lose no matter how hard I tried. Fairness meant a lot to me and if the entire game was rigged to offer random chaotic dispersal of riches, well, I couldn’t handle it. In an unfair world I provided myself with any advantage I could.
This is still true about me. I hate to lose. And I really hate losing when there seems to be nothing I can do about it.
But mixed with the raw need to get ahead was something else. I loved this one card: a blue queen.
She was translucent. She was magical. She was pure and blue and cold and ice. Her hair almost disappeared into thin air. She captured something that my tiny little self couldn’t articulate but desperately wanted to hold. It wasn’t the furthest jump along the board. In fact, in some cases, it actually pulled me backwards from the actual winning of the game. But I didn’t care. I loved her. She was enchanting. Little girls’ desire to be princesses aside, there was something alluring about the idea of this blue enchanting lady. She reminded me of the Snow Queen and the White Witch from Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. She was a symbol of beauty but also of power. I kept searching for her in part because I wanted to win, but maybe even more because I just wanted the thrill of drawing that card. I wanted it because I felt like it was something I wanted to become.
And that is also still true: when I find something aesthetically, emotionally, whatever-ly, that seems to catch me, I just can’t shake it. I have to hold onto it if at all possible. And until it’s obviously impossible, I just keep clinging to the path towards it whether or not it moves me forward or backwards.
Game designer Bruce Shelley is quoted as saying “great game-play is a stream of interesting decisions the player must resolve.” Or put another way, given motive A and B how do we proceed?
With Candyland it turns out that everyone knew what I was doing. They humored my cheating because they thought it was funny and they didn’t mind letting me have that blue queen. And so I was able to persist in the semi-delusion that special card was drawn so often by me not because I was a cheater but because it was on some level mine. I won often not because the adults let me do so, but because I was smart enough to beat an unfair system. It reinforced a moral compass in which there is value both in being the best but also sticking to the aesthetic ideal that draws you, evening if seemingly backwards from the goal that everyone else seems to be pursuing.
A rehearsal process is kind of like a game. We set up rules and define parameters. We receive guides about how to proceed and we play it as best we can. Usually, there is some external measure that defines a “win” or “loss.” But often that external measure is simply one of many factors the players have to weigh. And depending on what kind of room you’re in, what box you’ve opened, you’re either fighting against the folks that surround you, or joining forces to get to the other side.
I want to think of theater less like a task to accomplish and more like a game. I want to invite the audience into that experiment and see what they do. I want to believe that there’s a way to play in which the process is a tool, one that I know I can engage in again and again, to grow and get better. Which takes the pressure off “winning” this particular round.
So watch for some experiments in the coming months… Maybe you’ll be invited to play.