Playing games with life

How aware are we of the games we play, the rules, purpose and our roles in them?

Recently I had permission to spend a couple of days outside regular roles and routines, which lead to some particular insights into games I play, how I play them.
All the activities across the couple of days were fun and from others’ accounts, I wasn’t the only one who enjoyed them and benefited. Activities included:

  • Sifting through boxes of archived photos and written correspondence from the last few decades,
  • A picnic with friends and family – many who hadn’t met – in a park by a lake near my new home in Fremantle,
  • Acting as a newly-recruited ‘secret agent’ for the “Agency for Happiness and Silly Hats” completing missions as part of a real-life game. Missions were generally some act of kindness or silliness, intended to benefit strangers.

There was a quality I experienced in the activities which was very allowing – of self, others, and relaxing expectations and roles a little. The sense of allowing was through accepting the evidence of photos, school reports, notes of gratitude, or reading of family history that affirmed who I was as a person, the life I have had, the consistent qualities and behaviours. And, in seeing that as past history with evidence of significant changes, allowing the possibility for different present behaviours and unpredictable future trajectories.
The day, game and picnic only had loose structures, and not a particular set of clear purpose, too many rules or defined way to win. In the game especially, the missions described in mysterious envelopes and text messages required me to interact in ways that were far outside my routine, specific, yet also open enough that I had to decide how to complete them. For example, buying and giving flowers, seeking autographs, writing letters, or spending $50 to benefit those in need, but how that was achieved was mostly up to me.
That I had given myself time to review photos, and that others had expressed their affection through game design, or picnic participation, created (for me) such significant space to be differently, yet also coherently. I think the term ‘mixed reality’ sums this up nicely – not just mixing real and virtual, but old and new, historic and future, present and potential. This mixing and openness evoked a strong sense of mystery and possibility. Enabling this for others as they have for me, is something I am inspired to do now more often.
Playing and enjoying also prompted reflection on the games and rules that I play daily. In those games, the rules, roles and “hats” I wear are defined – some unconsciously, some very purposefully. For example, being an effective professional facilitator enabling others’ development, or dedicated practice guided by well-documented lineages, or the ‘rules’ of conversation between a buyer and seller at the supermarket checkout.
It just reminded me to be aware of those rules, roles, games, purpose, and how I play them and how they play me. How much I am stuck within roles or routines that are chosen from a limited set of possibilities and assumptions.
It seems what’s remarkable is not that this happened once or across a couple of days, but that it’s happening, always actually. I am playing imaginary games with vague or specific rules and logics, generally aligned with some form of self-survival or reward for myself or others at the end of it. These rules and purposes that justifies the effort in playing it.
And that it’s possible within exactly the same location and social context (especially when wearing a silly hat and given time and permission to pursue missions) to behave completely differently, following different rules, without particular expectations about how it will turn out and create un-imagined positive benefits and new relationships.
What seems more true, most of the time, is that we have no idea what the game is, who else is playing what their rules and intentions are, or how it will work out. This sense of mystery and not knowing brings my attention to the rules, roles and purpose, and how I am playing in any moment. In the midst of every act of flower-giving, autograph-seeking, photo-sifting, bread-buying, bike-riding and niece-chasing there is the possibility of playing.
Now by playing, I mean both: a) playing with the purpose, rules and roles in the midst of it, and b) consciously creating something definite (a purpose, a rule, a role) to run with for a period and then reflect on the effectiveness of it and continue or change it. The trick I think, with playing, is not to get too caught up in it.
Which brings me back to Year One in 1984, as documented in two rediscovered school reports: (July) “…is a very competitive little boy and sometimes has to control his emotions when his performance is not up to his required standard” and (December) “…always gives his best effort. He is learning to control his desire to always win and to accept defeat sometimes”.
Perhaps the reflections in this blog post, like other reports, evidence and assessments from mentors, colleagues and friends, will be another useful data point in a decade or to hence, to reflect on how the game of life is being played ? 

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