The shame of finite games

In his book Finite and Infinite Games, James Carse wrote: “There is a humiliating memory at the bottom of all serious conflicts.” Our progress through competitive finite games – from one attempted victory to the next – is, as he describes it, a constant effort to resurface old wounds and show the world that we do not deserve the shame they carry. “We feel the need… to prove to [our audience] that we are not what we think they think we are.” In other words, as I read it, Carse is claiming that our struggle up the social hierarchy – or even our waging of war against each other – is at its core, about our desire to be fully recognised and appreciated.

But, as Carse also points out, there is a contradiction implicit to this effort. In order to have the desire to win and show our audience that we are worthy of the title we seek, we must accept that we “actually are the losers the audience sees us to be.” Imagine, for example, we are aiming to be promoted at work. The university promotion ladder is a particularly good example, because the award of a new title – senior lecturer, associate professor, professor – does not bring with it a new role. The primary function of a university title is to indicate that the recipient is worthy of it. In this sense it is a rather pure finite game.

To be in with a chance, the academic who is say, a lecturer, must study the criteria for a senior lecturer and provide a written narrative that argues they already are a senior lecturer, it is just that the university has not yet caught up with this fact. If we understand the applicant to be driven by the desire to be fully recognised and appreciated, what they are really wanting is affirmation from the university that their contribution has been seen and given the stamp of approval. Now, unless they are the archetype academic as defined by their university, their narrative will have required considerable distortion in order to fit the narrative they feel is needed to succeed. Lucky breaks will have been talked up as if they were brilliantly executed manoeuvres, years of hard work on elusive topics will have been ignored as they did not result in recognised outputs, the role of others in their achievements will have been underplayed, and so on (see here for more on this).

So, if they are awarded the title, there is the pleasure of being noticed, but an accompanying suspicion that it was not them that was noticed. If they are not awarded the title, there is the double blow of not being noticed, and having shown interest in winning a game which they subsequently lost. The temptation for losers is to point out the absurdity of the game – except, of course, for fear that if they do so they will forfeit their right to play again or greatly damage their chances of winning. Also, having played and lost, they sense that whatever they say will be unintelligible to their audience. Hillary Clinton said there were times when she wanted to “never to leave the house again” after her defeat in the US presidential elections. What could she say that would not simply affirm her humiliation was deserved?

In the promotion scenario, both winners and losers are also, rather quickly, repositioned as losers of the new game that appears before them. To play it – and attempt to gain an even grander title – is to acknowledge that you are, at that moment, a loser. This is what I think Carse means by needing to accept our role as losers in order to take competitive finite games seriously. We must, at the beginning of each stage and during moments of defeat, acknowledge that our audience – those who grant the title we are seeking, is right to withhold the title from us.

And so, competitive finite games carry an undercurrent of shame. We are forced to simultaneously position ourselves as worthy and unworthy, and give an audience the right to decide our fate. If they judge us unfavourably we asked for it and if they judge us favourably that was only because they did not really see us.

When we are overwhelmed with shame we, like Hillary Clinton, want to hide from view – swamped with a suffering that cannot be articulated. But eventually, our shame may morph into an energy that propels us forward. It is either a renewed sense of vigour for the game or shame’s counterweight: anger – I’ll show them! There is an extraordinary scene in the BBC series The Honourable Woman, in which the Israeli business woman at the centre of the series is face to face with the Palestinian leader of a terrorist group. Both have suffered enormous harm at the hands of the other’s people. In her case, the most personal of these harms were ordered by the man before her. He describes the injustices he has suffered with self-righteous fury. He then asks her why she does not pick up the knife on the table between them and kill him. She replies that whenever she experiences yet another loss or humiliation she thinks, “I deserve it.”

She is locked in a shame that prevents her playing the game being offered, he is locked in an anger that gives him no other choice. Her shame is on one level shocking and undeserved – just as was Hillary Clinton’s – but on another level it serves to break the cycle of destruction. It is as if she chooses to own those humiliating memories and carry their unbearable pain as her offering to the world.  She does not, as in the opening quotation from Carse, constantly revive those memories in service of further conflict.

Is there a way out? That is, can we transcend both shame and anger, thereby avoiding the suffering hidden inside finite games? I am not sure if that is either possible or desirable. But, an infinite game perspective can throw a new, and perhaps helpful, light on these emotions. What it suggests is that shame is fundamental to competitive finite play, like a secret vein that runs through it. When we feel shame, we may do well to celebrate it for what it is – the recognition of our complicity in a social drama that is both serious and absurd. Shame is, if you like, the truth-teller, the route back to our humanity and vulnerability. Anger, on the other hand, projects our pain on to others. This too has truth – especially when we have been another’s pawn – but when it demands vengeance, it sets up an internal battle. We must now pretend to overlook the absurdity of the game itself in order to maintain our passion for playing.

Shame is very unfashionable. It is however, very human. It resonates with the first time we learnt that there were rules we needed to follow if we wanted to be accepted. We only learnt this when we violated those rules – rules we did not know existed – and were rejected for doing so. No matter how gently we were redirected, the message was clear – to get by in this world you will need to change who you are. To lose shame therefore, at least when reflecting on your victories and defeats, is to lose the sense that you exist, over and above whatever society has taught you to be.  It is also to turn your back on the knowledge that we are actually only fully recognised and appreciated in the spaces between finite games – when we and others let down our guards and the warmth of being together and feeling free floods over us.

Note: All Carse’s quotations are from p. 73 of the 1986 Free Press edition of Finite and Infinite Games

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