I was playing a basketball-shooting game with my 6-yr old son and was winning, as you might expect, and it occurred to us that something important was missing, so we adjusted the rules. We let him have two shots of the basketball for every one of mine, and the games suddenly became equal, going down to the very wire, and we both had a blast.
And a lightbulb went off in my head.
We generally think of rules–for games, for driving, for meetings, for society, for life–as things that need to be fixed and the same for everyone. In that lies their fairness. It gives everyone the same structure to work in, we say. But that is not always good.
For example, a person playing a given sport who just happens to be physically gifted and have access to the best training advice and equipment probably has an advantage over the person who does not have those, even though the rules of the sport are fixed for everyone. Which is to say there are other rules, social rules, genetic rules, rules of accident, that intersect and influence the rules we ourselves make up. Or you might say the structure our rules make can never extend far enough to overcome the influence of these other rules that slink around the edges–Soccer rules, for example, pretty much stop at the end of the field, etc., and can’t control whether your mom has the necessary minivan that gets you to all those practices.
So the rules we can’t control might overpower the rules we can: but maybe that’s only if you see the rules we can control as fixed. If we saw them as malleable–as tools for us to adjust, steering wheels, paintbrushes, shock-absorbers, sails–things might be different. There might be a way to let the person who is less gifted or has fewer resources or no mom with a minivan enter into a mutually beneficial relationship with the person who has all that stuff. The point of the rules, that is, might not be to give everyone the same structure, but to give them all the same kind of special thing that happens within that structure–the same kind of beneficial engagement.
This implies a rethinking of the purpose of the game. Instead of aiming to win, dominate, defeat, control, triumph, accumulate, the purpose would be to engage. To be involved with, to commune, to struggle together, to bring your skills to bear, to share, to embrace, to sigh. To lose yourself in the glory of the moment, etc. To leave the arbitrary plane onto which you were deposited by forces too complex to comprehend and to enter into a shared plane you create with another, whom you otherwise would be unable to play with, in ways you can understand, because you made them, and in ways you have influence over, because you made them, and so, in ways you can adjust continually. That’s the good stuff. That’s what fixed rules exclude people from.
So what if we had these sans-a-belt rules that accommodated any individual? Is that like the handicapping we do in horse racing, where we put more weight on you if your jockey weighs less? Not exactly. Is it like making the fast person wear clown shoes to slow her down so the slow person can compete? Not that, either. It’s more like the environment changes so the fast person can be fast and the slow person slow and the race still fun. Or the light jockey and the heavy jockey can both go without extra weight. More like if there were a person on a horse in England, a person singing in Russia, and a person knitting on a plane crossing the international date line, all in the same game.
More like this idea I had years ago that I call the Universal Game Translator. The idea was to use a computer system to integrate the various internal systems of every computer game–something that would translate the outputs and inputs, the units of play, the languages of each, into a story the other game could understand, such that you could play Tetris on a PC, and I could play Civilization II on a Mac, and we could engage in real time, your nimble shape twists being translated into roads or cities on my map of the pre-Roman world. The point wasn’t to do this so that I could enter into your Tetris game via the wormhole of Civilization II and wrestle with you and defeat you, it was so that we could both escape our personal game structures and engage with each other in a kind of meta-game where the process of becoming was shareable.
The limitation of the Universal Game Translator is that it assumed it could only work with computer games. What we need is something that would connect non-computer games with computer games. And non-games with games. Why is it that people should only play with people like them? Fifth graders with fifth graders? Tetris player with Tetris player? Why can’t I as a skilled mature athlete find a game in which I can play against an awkward youth, and it be fun and challenging for both? I can, if I let myself think of the rules of the game as a kind of Universal Engagement Translator.
There’s one small catch. And that’s that people are in a process of change. I can’t play Tetris all the time. At some point I need to move on, let my growing edge do just that, grow, and play a different game. Our adjustable rules have to allow for that, or we all stagnate. Our rules should maybe even make that easier, or when would we ever learn anything new?
Ah, learning. That reminds me. Learning, and the curriculum thereto attached, and the rules we use to work together, and the norms we use to regulate society, in fact the whole psycho-social surround–all this stuff we made up and we can adjust. It should all be part of the Universal Engagement Translator. So everyone gets to contribute in their way and at their growing edge and be equally engaged. And that is the kind of world we want to live in, one in which the point is not to exclude by procrustean norms in the name of fairness of structure, or that is, to win, but to include by protean metmorphoses, or that is, to engage and grow. Engagement and growth as human rights.