To hear Dana Stevens discuss her lifelong indifference to competitive games on Slate’s "Culture Gabfest," click the arrow on the audio player below and fast-forward to the 23:40 mark:
This is one of my most vivid childhood memories: My brother and sister and I are playing in some neighbor’s front yard, arguing about what game we should play. One kid makes the case for freeze tag, another for Simon Says. At some point I suggest, “Why don’t we play Puppies and Kittens?” There’s some interest in this proposal, until I explain how Puppies and Kittens works: Everyone just crawls around on the ground pretending to be a puppy or a kitten. “That’s not a game!” everyone scoffs.
Forty years later, I can still summon at will the confusion and shame of that moment. It was then I first realized something that has been a constant in my life ever since: I don’t get games. Whether it’s professional sports, board games, video games, or Pin the Tail on the Donkey, rule-based zero-sum competitions leave me utterly indifferent. I am both envious of and puzzled by the joy games bring to others. If there's something in the human genetic makeup that predisposes us to create artificially structured conflicts in which to test our excellence—which seems a fair assumption, given the long human history of sports and games—that gene must've gotten switched off in my case.
This is in no way a polemic against sports or games. If anything, I’m embarrassed about my indifference to them. For one thing, it’s so stereotypically girly. Though of course many women are passionate about games and many men couldn’t care less, our culture functions on the assumption that this is a male-controlled domain, and reinforcing that bias is galling. But gender politics aside, not having any fluency whatsoever in the language of sports is just uncool. Whenever a sporting event or game comes up in my life—a gift of tickets to a baseball game, a holiday afternoon round of cards with friends—I revert to the social anxiety of that moment when my puppies-and-kittens idea was shot down. Will I be able to pay close enough attention to trick the others into thinking I understand the rules, which I can pretty much guarantee I don’t? At what point will it be socially acceptable for me to admit I don’t care about the outcome and abandon the proceedings? Rather than revisit these questions, I usually find something to do that will allow me to participate in the social unit while ignoring the game. (Monopoly players won’t complain if you insist on going to the other room to make a pie, as long as they get to have a slice when, incredibly, they’re still playing Monopoly two hours later.)
I know there are others like me, men and women out there who feel the same way. But while sports lovers can always bond over sports (that ever-present conversational fodder is something I envy them at times) we non-lovers never head out to non-sports bars to chat about our non-love. What does it feel like to be one of the gaming-indifferent, both in relation to the culture at large and inside one’s own head? What are those of us who ignore this whole area of human endeavor not understanding about the rest of you? What are we missing out on? Is the absence of sports from our lives a net loss or a net gain?
Sam Anderson’s fascinating New York Times Magazine piece about his on-again, off-again addiction to “stupid games” explored the psychology of gaming from the inside. Anderson let even a non-gamer get a vivid sense of what it’s like to crave the repeated experience of, say, stacking virtual cubes one onto another (which to me sounds as tedious as its manual-labor equivalent). One theme that came up again and again in Anderson’s experiential account, as well as in his conversations with game designers, was the relationship of games to time. Many definitions of game—a surprisingly difficult term to pin down—cite this temporal element. A game is a way of organizing, marking off, and controlling time, as well as, of course, a way of passing the time (or, in Anderson’s self-castigating account, wasting it).
The non-gamer’s sense of time is also altered by any kind of sport or contest, but in the opposite direction. Rather than making life seem zippier and more purposeful, games will magnify any pre-existing sense of existential ennui: Never does the clock tick slower than when that Uno deck or Xbox console comes out. For Anderson, “games create boundaries in which meaning exists,” thus providing an escape from the anxiety-producing patternlessness of everyday life. For me, it’s the very introduction of a pattern that provokes anxiety, pointing up the arbitrary nature of all human endeavor. Why obey these rules rather than any others, or none at all?
I’m conscious of this sense of artificial purposefulness whether I’m watching sports or participating in them. But spectator sports at least have something to offer that no game I participate in ever would: the aesthetic beauty of sheer athleticism. I’ve been known to tweet rhapsodically about the Olympic figure skater Johnny Weir’s “Bad Romance” routine, or Secretariat’s legendary 31-length victory in the 1973 Belmont Stakes. When the Olympics start later this month, I’m sure I’ll marvel at the performance of the odd gymnast or swimmer. But what I’m responding to is the beauty and power of the human (or equine) body in motion, abstracted from the context of competition.
Is it competition that’s the problem, then? I suppose the game-averse can’t discount the possibility that their resistance boils down to pure wimpiness, a desire to hide from the harsh reality that there are winners and losers in this world. But I’m not averse to every manifestation of conflict in real life. I’m as competitive as the next person when it comes to my work (both in the positive sense of “striving for personal excellence” and the negative sense of “miserably comparing myself to every other writer who’s ever lived”). And lord knows I’m open to the moral catharsis of a righteous action-movie ending. It’s only at the moments when competition starts to be regulated and quantified—which includes, in my field, both the postseason jockeying of year-end Top 10 lists and the film-industry Super Bowl that is the Oscars—that the alienation creeps in.
In the end, the costs and benefits of game-indifference probably balance each other out. When I hear a pair of friends raucously debating a troubled player’s slump, or happen upon the fabulous lexicon of terms associated with the card game Hearts, I can sometimes feel a pang of jealousy at the richness of the language of sports and games—the call-in shows and bus-stop conversations, the whole apparatus of postgame analysis and gossip and strategy—and at the connection those who speak that language seem to share. On the upside, though, electing not to devote much attention to this part of life saves a whole lot of time. But then again, who’s to say however I’m spending that time is any more worthwhile than rooting for the home team or stacking digital blocks? Thanks to YouTube, it’s never hard to find takers for a quick round of Puppies and Kittens.