Life is a game.
Since we inhabit a world of limited resources, our daily lives are full of zero-sum interactions where one party walks away with a prize while another leaves the table empty-handed; games with winners and losers. If you and I want the same spouse, the game is on. If you and I want the same job, the game is on. If you want to argue against this way of seeing the world, the game is on. There is no denying it, even when you do.
The following is a slightly edited extract from Hanzi Freinacht’s book ‘Nordic Ideology: A Metamodern Guide to Politics, Book Two’. This is the second book in a series on metamodern thought, a work of popular philosophy that investigates the nature of psychological development and its political implications.
Yet, many of us frequently fall victim to what I call “game denial”: the inability to perceive, or a negligence of, the logical and behavioral rules that regulate human relations. Game denial is when you ignore or “wish away” certain uncomfortable truths regarding human relations and how reality works. Or simply when you deny the realities of life and forcefully impose your own “ought” upon what “is”.
In a subtle sense, your crime is against truth itself. And when the truth has been sacrificed for a few candy bars worth of emotional reward—people start dying as the consequences of your false assumptions begin to manifest. And from there on you are stuck with defending your lala-land from actuality, making things even worse.
Game denial is, to this day, rampant. And its victims are not necessarily dead; it has victims in all walks of life, all scarred by unsustainable and unrealistic social relations, expectations and moralistic impositions of “what ought to be” upon what “actually is”. Crimes against actuality are crimes against humanity, against all life on our planet.
Since game denial often “sounds nice”, it may be more convenient to defend in a public debate (because you can easily take the moral high ground), but in actual reality, in a given context, it tends to have negative or otherwise unsustainable consequences. You pretend that the world works by rules which it does not.
Game denial can show up in so many ways because life is always open to interpretation and reinterpretation. And of course, there is not one “set” game in life in which “God” crowns the winners. But the fact that life has ambiguity is a mixed blessing: It means we can make more favorable interpretations and save our positive self-images, but it also means the leeway to deny obvious competitions and conflicting interests is huge. And because there are such strong psychological forces driving us towards game denial, we all partake in it.[i]
It is difficult to overestimate just how powerful these inner pressures are. For instance, if we all of our life have felt oppressed and hurt in soft and sensitive places by norms that dictate how a “beautiful and feminine” woman should be, how compelling and satisfying does it not seem to make up a way to disqualify that game altogether, branding it as false, immoral and ultimately unreal? If we are bad at sports, how good does it not feel to be rid of all anxieties about our physical inferiority by denying that game?
Game denial means to hate the game and try to eradicate it. It can take the form of liberal political correctness or, in its extreme form, crude communism. But the game won’t go away. You can’t eradicate it with a “let’s all be friends”. What about me and that other person who wants the same spouse, but only one can get her by winning her heart? Whether or not we have friendly relations with one another, there is a game with a winner and a loser—this is true even in polyamorous relations. It is bound to happen everywhere in samsara (as Eastern traditions have named the worldly realm of suffering), all the time.
Recent research has revealed an evolutionary struggle even between the pregnant mother and her fetus—the growing child’s evolutionary interests are somewhat different from those of the mother (who may increase the chances of spreading her genes by having more children, and hence not be too drained by this particular fetus). No matter how profoundly symbiotic and loving a relationship, there is always an inescapable element of struggle. A game.
To try to eradicate the game is only a form of individual or collective repression, and it will always produce pathological results—namely oppression. Whatever game you want to repress—like capitalism—this can only be done by activating a grosser level of game—like the game for political totalitarian power. Communist states repressed the mechanisms of “games for profit” by playing a much crueler game for political power.
But oppression is not the worst part of game denial. Oppression can be toppled; evil reigns can end. No, the worst part is that denying the existence of the game means that the game cannot be described, taught and learned. The game is hidden away, made taboo. Hence, game denial is in the service of the privileged elite, making the game less fair by serving those who already know the rules and deceiving those who do not. They’ll never know what hit them.
Let’s take some examples of prevalent game denial. This list may insult a lot of readers and offend moral convictions. Brace yourself.
- Free immigration for all! All immigration is always good for everyone involved: the immigrants, the receivers, the left-behind!
- Game denial: All societies have limits to how much immigration they can manage, and which kinds of immigration; and higher immigration rates often create fiercer competition at the bottom of society, hence harming its most precariously situated citizens.
- A Universal Basic Income that would cover a lower middle-class wage, the sooner the better! It would free all, and a creative explosion of solidarity would occur, and we would usher in a golden age of love and innovation!
- Game denial: The labor market is a complex game of power relations and for people to sustainably perform less-than-rewarding but crucial tasks (e.g. cleaning blood off hospital floors), there must be a complex system in place of penalties, hierarchies and rewards. If you wreck this system, welcome to the Soviet Union. Stalinism next. Or worse. (Not saying that all such initiatives are game denial, but many are.)
- The LEFT is good, always and forever! If only the evil powers of greed were stopped, we would have high wages, safe employments, no unemployment, free immigration, high social benefits!
- Game denial: Does not compute. If you have high wages, safe employments and high taxes, then business becomes extremely inefficient, so people can’t really buy anything with their money (hello Soviet). If you have free immigration and social benefits, the system gets bogged down with costs and fosters resentments in the working locals, and you get ethnic violence and the rise of populist anti-immigration parties. And if wages are high, the immigrants won’t be able to compete to enter the market. The bogged-down economy fosters clientelism. Greek economy next. Or worse.
- Feminism! If only men were kind and polite and respected women and stopped using “master suppression techniques” (as described by the social psychologist Berit Ås) and didn’t greedily enjoy the oppression of women by means of patriarchy, this would make society fair, women unafraid of sexual assault, work-life satisfying and intimate relations much more functional.
- Game denial, again: For this line of reasoning to compute, displays of male prestige, status and power must stop being sexually and emotionally alluring to women and hence desirable to men. As long as these traits are found desirable (as plenty of experimental research suggests is the case: women genuinely prefer high-status, in some sense “dominant”, males), men can only stop using at least some strategies for social self-advancement at their own expense. The games of everyday life are denied.
- A wave of spirituality and “higher consciousness” will transform the world! In one way, this is very advanced and complex, in another way, very simple: a kind of perennial wisdom, that people wake up to a simple but profound message of love and acceptance!
- Game denial: This one (or any version of “millenarianism”) is quite common in more spiritually inclined people, but also, by analogy, in socialists and environmentalists. Here and there, many interesting and intense spiritual movements, waves and rebirths have waxed and waned throughout history. Most of them have been fool’s gold, ending up in grievous mistakes and betrayed hopes. Some, such as Christianity and the other world religions, have caught on long-term and led to some lasting moral transformations. But none of them have been unambiguously good, and none have led to anything as fantastic as was imagined. This is because the games of life, with winners and losers, are still there to be played, even if people become a little nicer.
- If people turned away from the materialist competitive worldview of our age, there would be enough for everybody and people would be happy!
- Game denial.
- A playful, creative schooling system which emphasizes growth and joy rather than the dull reciting of facts! No discipline needed! Ever!
- Game denial.
- If the US just stops being imperialist/interventionist, there will be a peaceful and solidary international order instead!
- Game denial.
- Everyone has something unique to contribute in this new economy! There is room for everyone!
- Game denial.
- If only people learned about animal suffering, they would support the end of animal slavery!
- Game denial.
- Interfaith dialogue will bring an end to religious conflicts!
- Game denial.
- No military intervention is ever needed or justified!
- Game denial.
- All animals (humans) are created equal!
- Game denial.
- The meek shall inherit the earth!
- If you mean cockroaches, you might be correct. Otherwise, go to “game denial”.
You get the picture. I suppose a lot of this sounds familiar?
It’s not always easy to tell game denial apart from more legitimate forms of idealism. A rule of thumb, however, is that game denial very often arrives in the company of her twisted little sister: moralism—being subtly (or not so subtly) judgmental and self-righteous.
The alliance between game denial and moralism works in cunning ways. They help each other staying in the background, so that neither has to come out in the light and get busted in all their obviousness. For instance, in academia and critical social science, there is a presupposition of a pro-immigration, leftist economics, radical feminism, anti-militarism, anti-disciplinary view of education and a few other taken-for-granted opinions.
When you go to the liberal sociological seminars, listening for instance to Judith Butler’s advanced, learned and very initiated talks about feminism, all focus is on the specifics of the argument, on the masterfully crafted critical social theory and research. All of this creates a thick smokescreen concealing any number of game denials. All the left-wing game denial stays in the background and limits the discussion.
There is no focus on, and no leeway to discuss, all this game denial baggage (because it would be seen as morally wrong, and whoever brings it up is seen as impure). The underlying moralism covers up the game denial. And the game denial covers up the moralism because the fact that the games of life are hidden away makes the moralism appear as common sense and decency.
I’m not saying that Judith Butler’s feminism will kill a hundred million people. I’m just saying that other kinds of game denial, like communism, did and that game denial is always a harmful or at least dangerous business.
Not believing in game denial and its ubiquitous presence is in itself a form of game denial. The reason people do all the game denial is often that it is a useful tool for them to win the small struggles in everyday life: for moral worth, for admiration, for power, money, sex and status—or just to avoid shaming and judgment, or to have the solemn pleasure of shaming and judging others.
Ironically, it is because people are always in a game that they can win by denying its existence. Of course, there are other reasons, such as lacking intelligence or relevant perspectives. But the social rewards of game denial are part of it—and they should not be denied. It is as if many of the progressive intellectuals are “bribed” by the social rewards they can attain by taking part in game denial. These are emotional and cognitive bribes that distort thinking processes, discourses and truth seeking.
Real kindness needs to make sense; it needs to compute. If the numbers don’t add up, they simply don’t. Hence, any kindness that does not compute is a disguised form of evil.
But it should also be noted that game denial is not only an intellectual form of self-deceit; there is also such a thing as embodied game denial. For those of us who have suffered from low social status during our upbringing and may be lacking in the psychological trait assertiveness (being able to stand up for oneself, etc.), we may unconsciously be preparing our bodies and minds for the impact of a social defeat. This sets our minds and bodies up for trying to win over reality by being kind or nice, a part deep inside of us keeps folding over and submitting, trying to deny that a competition or confrontation takes place.
The first victim of game denial is the truth. Its next victim is the innocent child who has to suffer the consequences of your lies. Crimes against actuality are crimes against humanity and all life on our planet.
Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and the upcoming books ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of History’ and ‘Outcompeting Capitalism’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on his facebook profile here.
[i]. People sometimes invent little games to get around game denial. Why do we love sports? After all, the outcome of a football game hardly makes any difference in concrete reality—if a ball was in a goal net or not, how many times, or if a Ethiopian guy ran a sprint in 0.1 seconds less than an American did. The reason we love these arbitrary sets of rules is that, in this particular setting, no game denial is possible. Games are fun because they curb game denial; and that goes from chess to Ping-Pong. We are even prepared to engage in otherwise “meaningless” activities, only to get rid of the ambiguities of life in general, where anything and everything can always be reinterpreted in a million ways. Did I win the debate? Am I a good person? Is she a better person than me? Am I worthy? Did I succeed?