I come from a family of gamers. Growing up we played everything from whiffle ball and football, to Monopoly and Canasta, to the more obscure Rail Baron and 1776, to the iconic Dungeons & Dragons. My childhood sometimes felt like a search from one game to the next, those open, shapeless hours in between remarkable for their shameless lack of formal purpose. In many ways, our lives are like games. That is, we make up the rules. Every single society is a great collection of rules of our own invention, both written and unwritten, that we choose, more or less, to follow just as the baseball player agrees to round the bases counter-clockwise. Following the rules allows one to play the game, and playing the game allows one to create. I play by the current rules of the English language, for instance, not because I am afraid of receiving a bad grade from God but because I wish to have what I write understood by others.
Where games diverge from life is in the winning. In actual games, the winning gives the games a focus and a direction. The clarity of goal lines and checkmates is addictive. Why can’t life itself have such clarity? There are days I have yearned for one eternal competitor to defeat, a foe against whom to hurl all my creative energies and whose demise will bring about a triumph of everlasting contentment, as if I had enacted my own private Second Coming.
Writing can provide such illusory goals. The agent, the publishing deal, the award—each objective can appear trophy-like from a distance. Yet the moment I view any part of life itself as a game to be won I feel the hollowness of loss. In that moment I lose the freedom to create, for I have called the world a place where any creation can be judged as valuable or valueless. Now I am no longer free. Now I must win to be happy, for those are the new rules of the game. The price we pay for such imposed certainty is far worse than the hours of boredom or uncertainty; now it is as if we have chained our wrists to the bedpost so as not to risk painting something ugly.
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