“Jodido, pero contento!” was my first eye-opening lesson of the game of life. It means “screwed, but happy” in Spanish and reflects the attitude of the powerless Latinos I met in South America when I began working there forty years ago. It was easy to understand the message, as most countries in that hemisphere were run by dictators then, and this humorous cynicism of the populace disguised their attitude of hopelessness.
I found the culture there was quite different from what I had been exposed to growing up in the United States. Their law is codified, not based on English common law; their toleration of blatant corruption called “dando y dando” (giving and giving) permeates all levels of society; and their celebrations seemed more lively, genuine, and happy. But the one thing we had in common was the “game.” Wherever I went, the people were playing the same game we play in the U.S. So, it was rather easy to fit in there.
Dr. Eric Berne summarized his work on transactional analysis in the book, Games People Play. In this book about the subliminal interactions between individuals, he invented names for many of the common psychological games we humans play amongst ourselves. Although he gave catchy names to what he called “life games,” he didn’t give a name to the general game of life, which I suggest we call “Dominion.”
The name may be too cynical, but I’m sure you will recognize how it is played. Using Dr. Berne’s analysis and advice, I would like to convince you to try to give up playing this very counterproductive game. But that’s your decision. It takes great will power and constant self-control to extricate ourselves from the game, because we have been playing it our whole lives.
Most of us are comfortable doing so. But to escape the addiction of playing Dominion requires a rigorous twelve step program that hasn’t been drafted yet. Our fascination to the game is similar to what we experience in gambling: an illusory payoff that stirs the imagination and promises happiness. Most of us become victims, conned by our own con!
Dominion is a game of manipulation of others. It requires using very subtle maneuvers among the wary. But as one becomes powerful, careful regard for nuances is abandoned, and more vicious tactics are employed. At the highest level of power, total disrespect for the weaker players is the norm. I don’t have to mention history’s specific examples of how Dominion is played by religions, governments, industrial cartels, business monopolies, union leaders, educational organizations, plantation owners, ship captains, military leaders, and so on. Even at the lowest levels of society we witness the manipulation by parents, siblings, children, friends, confidants, and gangs.
All for the direct or indirect benefit of the manipulator, but with the supposed purpose of improving the lot and future of the manipulated. Some form of the game is always advocated by our community’s leaders in order to control, secure, organize, and educate the rest of the citizenry. The “play’s the thing,” for commoner and king!
So, let’s review the rules, the strategy, and the tactics. The rewards of winning vary. The importance of the rewards to the players determines the amount of risk to be undertaken and the amount of investment to be made. The level of competition depends on how determined each player is in gaining dominion. The very aggressive player becomes much more creative in finding ways to win, while the tenacious underdog struggles ferociously not to lose. The objective of the game obviously is to win and gain psychological control over the loser. The longer the game is played, the likelihood increases that the most ambitious player will be successful in gaining total domination.
The rules are simple: all’s fair in love and war (until the losing player no longer wants to continue playing from a weak hand, then the winner looks for a new challenger and throws down the gauntlet.) Challenges are accepted between contestants when a dispute over control looms. The advent of a new member to the family, a new neighbor on the block, a new student in the class, a new employee at the factory lunch room, etc. creates the opportunity to start a brand new (and may be more exciting) game. Someone always fancies him/herself as the dominate person of the group. This dominance cannot be seriously challenged by interlopers until it is clear that a challenge will be accepted in the group.
Other members, losers to the dominate player, may be eager to witness a challenge and assist in creating an opportunity. Loyalties swing subtly at first, but if the challenger has the moxie to put up a serious challenge, more overt support is offered.
The game never ends until the group is disbanded. Leadership or dominance may change hands, new blood may be infused into the group, and the function of the group may change dramatically, but as long as a number of the same people are involved, the game will continue. Like a major league sport, the players come and go, their leaders come and go, the success of the team comes and goes, but the league goes on as long as there are players eager to participate and risk their health playing the sport. And we “interested” spectators cajoled by many diverse motivational schemes continue to follow the sport and to contribute the financial where-with-all to the owners to pursue the game of fielding a team.
There may be legislated rules approved by the owners’ group and the players’ union to control the interactive owner/player relationships, but the game of dominance amongst these personalities continues to be played along the fringes of these rules. Creativity within the ground rules (or outside) helps the dominant maintain control.
What are the strategies employed in a game? The initial strategy is to gain the confidence of the other players so that they create in themselves a perception of you as a serious, likable, intelligent and trustworthy person. Any preference another player has seeking unique character traits must be observed, and skillfully demonstrated by you as part of your overall character.
The more influential the other player, the more attention should be paid to providing the responses desired by this player. Suppose a player has a preference for bigoted humor. In your one-on-one relationship you must exhibit an awareness of this kind of insulting humor and provide samples that show “genuine” acceptance of that type of humor as very funny. The ability of identifying a mercurial person that fits with all sorts of personalities must be cultivated.
The hierarchical structure of the game determines the culture, e.g. school classroom, corporate boardroom, orchestra hall, military boot camp, etc. This culture in turn provides a specific set of rules governing player interactions and establishes what is acceptable informal behavior between the beginner and the advanced player in that culture. And like a board game the culture describes the convoluted path to ascend to the cherished position which recognizes a “winner.” Or rather the dominant “star” player for ongoing games.
The main strategy then becomes adopting the consensus modus operandi of the other players long enough to obtain their confidence. When you have that, you can begin to introduce your suggested alterations in playing that enable you to gain influence over the whole team. This may happen through becoming buddies with the most dominant player. Or, if there is major opposition to him/her, by joining the leaders of the unruly faction.
Notice, however, that you must align yourself with the current dominant players whether they are “insiders” or “outsiders.” Of course, alignment doesn’t guarantee future dominance, but in our bi-polar society it places you on the path to inherit the strength of the powerful extremists, whose fearlessness is frequently perceived as leadership and who currently possess the airs of power.
Most important though is to seem to possess an almost fanatical attachment to the “prime directive.” Every group of our human species adopts a reason for unifying themselves. Perhaps it is survival, or seeking salvation, or redeeming others, or educating the young, or understanding the universe. None of these groups blatantly purports to dominate others. That may be the by-product of the activity of the unified organization, but it seldom is the stated purpose.
The zeal you put forth in support of the prime directive and your relentless pursuit of its implementation must be recognized by the others, even though these acts are merely the deceitful, cunning, and superficial means to an end. The more genuine your simulated efforts, the sooner the acceptance of your influence. Of course, those who are dominant will distrust your seriousness at the outset because they, too, are not sincere players. But their tenure of dominance may have led them to boredom, indifference, or even carelessness, so that an opportunity for an ambitious successor is always possible.
As to the tactics, there are many, but there is room to mention only a few. In all our human relationships the most disarming personal qualities are sincerity, honesty, civility, unselfishness, patience, and humility. Constant portrayal of these attributes in whatever you do is uppermost. Doubt and suspicion about your ultimate motives may creep into the minds of the other players. But until there is proof that you are driven by less than scrupulous motives, you are likely to be believed as the authentic example of the qualities and friendliness you are showing.
Most players are blinded by the overpowering belief that other players have agreed to play “fairly,” so they will not distrust you. Quite likely they will enjoy the camaraderie with such “friendly” and “decent” participants as you appear.
Particularly if you can provide them a ready example of sincerity and earnest helpfulness. Yet even if you do encounter some reluctant support from the other players resulting from their observing your potential talent in early, successful “moves,” a serious effort to gain their confidence will pay off eventually.
In many games like those played in the family and at school, the players who are professionally involved will provide you with many extra chances to learn the game and become clever at playing it. These older players like to give you a handicap at first for your inexperience while maintaining their dominate positions. Small size, youth, and innocence can buy sympathy from these helpers in learning the game. Beauty, talent, intelligence, and obedience also merit special consideration from the discerning players who are playing the game as instructors and mentors.
Attention-calling behavior may test the more experienced, older players, but it rarely buys success at the game unless the masochistic perpetrator is looking for a “punishment reward.” Deviate behavior is frowned upon in all games and is penalized in most. In the game of Dominion it may lead to a surprising amount of temporary success, but it seldom leads to permanent success. This is the result of achieving dominion over a few people at first, but needing always to expand the size of your influence.
The desire for absolute dominion is an unquenchable fire for continuous conquest or the Alexander-The-Great complex. This usually requires such deceitful tactics and abuse of power that the conspiracy to dethrone the incumbent champion of the game grows with each subsequent conquest.
Chaos theory, however, precludes the human achievement of long-term domination. Some weakness in the maintenance of the system of control (constant winning the game) permits the inevitable introduction of the ideas that lead to the development of better players of the game. All great empires have become unmanageable due to the complexity in playing an extensive game of Dominion. One human mind, as accomplished as possible, cannot continuously dominate the vast accumulation of ideas assembled by the other players. Still, there are those who feel that they are anointed to lead all the others, and they go out and assemble the resources to try to do so. This gives those of us called iconoclasts, subversives, mal-contents, and even revolutionaries a great opportunity to join the game! We may be no better at playing, but the wrestling for domination piques our missionary zeal, and off we go.
The stakes are high, and the risks incalculable. Even the rewards cannot be reliably anticipated because of the law of unintended consequences. Nevertheless, undaunted by the wisdom of history, we find some worthy cause to justify our joining the game.
Achieving the noblest goal of slaying the dragon and saving the fair damsel in distress doesn’t guarantee a life without further challenges from our brothers and sisters who love this game! Our self-respect is unfortunately based on attaining success in convincing others to listen to us, pay attention to our ideas, follow our directions, and give us what we need (or just want!)
We may become bored losers, recalcitrant participants, and “give-away” players, but each day we return to the table and present ourselves for the “action.” We can try our best to avoid playing, but sooner or later we find ourselves tricked into becoming a player. Humans are very susceptible or vulnerable to the excitement of playing, always possessing the hope of winning.
The Marquis de Sade described the two extreme players in the game. In his crude and prurient works Justine and Juliette, Justine, a saint raised by nuns, was the “loser.” Her sister, Juliette, a sinner raised by prostitutes, was the “winner.” For the goodness in her approach to life Justine was abused, violated, exploited, humiliated and tormented in all possible ways imagined by de Sade. Juliette, on the other hand was instructed to be deceitful, corrupt, lascivious, cruel, violent and sadistic. But she was “rewarded” with physical pleasures, wealth, power over others, and worldly success. If there was any reward for playing, Justine received hers in the after-life, while Juliette received hers during the present life.
De Sade depicted the most depraved scoundrels in both stories, who always debased their victims by the standards of his powerful enemies, the government and the church. But his message is clear to those who can read him today: people will always play the game despite the illusion of winning or losing “big time!” And in spite of the warnings from others about the futility and addiction of playing.
Dr. Berne recommends avoiding such games, even though he is aware of the human propensity to play games. However, if life is a game itself, how can we avoid playing – short of committing suicide? Whether or not our goals are noble, our participation honorable and “sportsmanlike,” can we avoid entering the game? We are dealt a hand that may, or may not, include top cards. We may have been born with the natural instincts and skill to play our hand to improve the chances of “winning” and gaining resources to continue to play. And we may be adept at this game without knowing why.
If our cards are lousy, we usually stay at the table, although we feel badly about losing all the time. Feeling frustrated by not winning causes many other unhealthy anxieties. The only way to continue playing without losing your mind would be to celebrate equally both winning and losing, especially the latter, because there are so many more losers than winners. But we don’t do that. Although many of us would like to refuse to “ante up,” we haven’t yet found another activity that replaces the game. There are minor “win-win” games of short duration, but these usually end up segueing back into Dominion.
The solution recommended by Dr. Berne is that we honestly acknowledge that we are too deeply involved in this game. Once we have done that, we must “psych” ourselves out of playing it. That assumes of course that there is a serious option to Dominion. However, in our modern society an inordinate amount of respect is paid to the winners. Their success is exaggerated in the media. Their heroic lives become models for the younger generation. It is impossible to escape the hype that surrounds a successful player. In our efforts to emulate these winning role models, we increase our intensity to achieve some domination over others for whatever rationalization we employ.
We quickly forget that we are playing a friendly game whose outcome doesn’t really matter to those born 50 years in the future. Oh yes, it counts in today’s sorting out of who’s ahead in the human race using financial and power-wielding criteria, but being ahead for awhile doesn’t have much impact on the ultimate “standings.”
We may accept the promise of an after-life reward for the overall achievements in this human existence (however you want to define “achievements”), but we can never be sure that there are rewards at all, at any time except now and right here. With such uncertainty (or certainty that there are no humanly describable rewards given somewhere else at some other time,) we must grope for why we play the game and how we might occupy ourselves otherwise should we finally decide not to play it. Think about that option and remember my Latino friends: enjoy being screwed in the game of life; it’s the usual consequence of playing Dominion!