Feature Article

Fair Game
by Stephen Sniderman


Those who study play as a serious subject have proposed that games serve many valuable purposes for the individual and for the society, including tension reduction, wish-fulfillment, sublimation of aggressive tendencies, rehearsal of survival skills and role responsibilities, socialization, diversion from boredom, exercise of the body and mind, and development of "character" (leadership, cooperation, etc.).

I have no quarrel with any of these claims. I have no doubt that games serve these and many other valuable purposes in any culture, but I would like to propose another, rarely mentioned, and perhaps more fundamental, function that games serve. Simply stated, games help us understand what our society means by fairness.

That is not to say that playing games teaches us to play fair (although in many cases, of course, it does do that), but that through games — because of their abstract, "trivial," non-political, non-threatening, non-permanent status — we can come closer than through any other human activity to grasping what "fair" means. Nothing else gives us a better chance to come to grips with this extremely elusive but all-important notion.

On the one extreme, play (that is, non-competitive fun) cannot serve this purpose. Unless an activity involves the possibility of someone winning and someone losing, there is no reason to cheat or play unfairly. Can we "cheat" at Ring-Around-the-Rosy or Patty-Cake? Would we cheat playing Fetch with the dog?

On the other extreme, we cannot afford to worry about the deepest meaning of "fairness" while we are indulging in activities — like business or politics or academics or law or war — that might affect our livelihood or the safety of ourselves or our loved ones.

When we are involved in making money or gaining power or defending our lives, we are unlikely to be able to step back and look objectively at whether a rule or restriction is "fair" — we will notice first if it hurts or helps us. (For this reason, students often call any low grade "unfair" and any high grade "fair.") In fact, most people would say that in such cases, it is our job, our duty, to pay attention to benefits and liabilities, not to underlying structure.

But when we play a game for recreation, we generally do not perceive that the outcome will change our lives in any significant way, so we can more easily recognize the inherent (im)balance of forces, the (un)equal opportunities available to each player to accomplish the goal, the situations that would give one player or team an (un)acceptable advantage. In fact, our desire to win is — in the vast majority of cases — subordinated to our desire to maintain the integrity of the game, to keep it "fair." How else can we explain why people who are losing generally do not resort to cheating?

A Defining Trait of Games

Notice that understanding fairness is not the function of particular games but of games as a class (excuse the pun). The same "lesson" is built into tic-tac-toe, chess, Monopoly, Scrabble, tennis, and baseball because all are based on the principle of fairness. If games have nothing else in common, they have this concept at their heart. Fairness, in other words, is a defining trait of games.

To demonstrate this fact to yourself, try to think of any other human activity for which the same can be said. The frequency with which we hear the expression, "Who says life is fair?" suggests that most of us do not expect any experience other than a game to have this quality. Life, we might legitimately argue, is necessarily (inevitably, unavoidably) "unfair." We are not created equal — in looks, in health, in power, in ability, in family, in wealth, in any way that determines our fate as human beings. And our political, educational, social, religious, and legal systems do little to mitigate these inherent inequalities (and often exacerbate them).

So we devise and play games. We know, even as children, that we have more money or nicer things or a better home life than some of our classmates and that others have similar advantages over us. But we are likely to feel — from envy or compassion — that, in some ideal world, no one should start out ahead of anyone else. Our fates would then be determined by skill or merit or "character," not the luck of the draw.

Games, of course, can create that ideal world, at least in theory. At the beginning of a game, we like to feel that all players have an "equal" chance to win — or we will be reluctant to participate as players or observers. That is, we want to believe that the game itself does not favor any participant, that the game is neutral with respect to the players.

Evidently, this kind of neutrality is one of the key characteristics of "fairness." Even the most cynical couch potato, the most disillusioned observer of lifeís inequities, while watching Sunday football, demands that the players follow the rules, that infractions receive appropriate penalties, that the rulebook gives neither team an edge, that the umpires and referees make calls even-handedly and competently. Whoever said that (The Game of) Life must be fair? Everybody.

Game-inspired Language

Our language reflects this view of games. We borrow expressions from game-playing to discuss equity in other realms. On the positive side, we refer to something being "cricket," to "a level playing field," to being a "good sport" or a "team player," to giving someone "a sporting chance" or "a fighting chance." Honest people "lay their cards on the table," "call a spade a spade," and "play by the rules."

On the negative side, we refer to "foul play," "hitting below the belt," "a low blow," "a sucker punch," "dealing from the bottom of the deck," "stacking the deck," "card stacking," "a shell game," "loaded dice," "a cheap shot," "a dirty player." A dishonest person has something "up his sleeve" (like a player cheating at poker).

Other expressions related to fairness have crossed over from games and sports to affect the way we think about life. For example, when someone tries to take advantage of us by stretching the "rules" of society inappropriately, weíre likely to say, "So thatís how you want to play?" or "Two can play that game," implying that we can justifiably (and without feeling guilty) retaliate in kind.

Similarly, we use the basketball expression, "No harm, no foul," to make sense of non-game situations in which someone has ostensibly violated the code we live by but no one gets hurt.

We say "May the best man win," even in non-sports contexts, meaning that we hope that pure luck or illicit activities donít determine the outcome.

We use the baseball umpireís "I call 'em as I see 'em" when we have to make tough judgment calls in real life.

We invoke Grantland Rice ("Itís not whether you win or lose, itís how you play the game") as a moral precept transcending sports.

And when we started a social program to give "disadvantaged" kids a better chance of succeeding in school, we named it Head Start, after the childrenís practice of giving their speed-impaired buddies a compensating handicap in a race.

An Ideal to Strive for

Games, then, are our touchstone. Life may not be fair, but as long as we have games, we will always have a way of measuring how unfair life really is. With the model of games, we cannot pretend that other aspects of our existence are the way they should be. More important, games provide us with an ideal to strive for. We know what life ought to be because we see the way games are.

Thatís why, when games fail us, when players cheat or shave points, when officials make the wrong judgment or are shown to be corrupt, when the rules are flawed or circumvented, when the match is fixed, our world is threatened in fundamental ways. That's why the Black Sox have that name, why Pete Rose was not allowed to be inducted into the Hall of Fame for all these years, why Mike Tyson was (temporarily) banned from boxing and Ben Johnson from track and Tonya Harding from figure skating, why colleges are put on probation for recruiting violations, why Mark McGwireís accomplishments were suspect when he admitted taking Andro. We canít stand our sports to be (publicly) impure because we intuitively know that they are our guide, our North Star, our moral compass. If we canít appeal to games to tell us what is right and just and fair, there is nothing else to appeal to since the other candidates — religion, morality, law, culture — are inevitably tainted with real-world-itis, with the struggle for power and survival.

Necessary and Sufficient?

So do games serve this purpose effectively? Do we in fact understand fairness merely because we play games? Has our experience with chess and baseball taught us all we need to know about decency and integrity? More important, have we learned to transfer these lessons to larger social contexts?

Clearly, the answer to each question is no. Thatís not how it works.

The existence of games is necessary, but not sufficient, to give us a cultural definition of fairness. In other words, we would not have the foundation for grasping the concept of fairness if games did not exist. By their very nature, games hold the secret to our legal system, our religious principles, our educational practices (such as admission and grading), our business ethics, our moral standards, our democratic ideals. But playing or observing games and sports, by itself, does not guarantee that we will comprehend every nuance of these complex and challenging concepts.

To do that, we must carefully and systematically examine our play, look objectively at what we intuitively call "fair" and "unfair," find the patterns that make sense of our intuition, then see how we can apply these discoveries to our social and political life.

"Fair Game" by Stephen Sniderman25 | 26 | 27

The Life of Games
No. 3 (March 2004)
©2004 Kadon Enterprises, Inc.