From time to time it is worth pondering the purposes of rules. A few months ago I listened to an audiobook from an Afghan-American who sought to educate fellow Americans on the traumatic last couple of centuries of Afghan history, and the central metaphor that he used was a type of polo game that serves as the apparent national sport of the country that amounts to an exceptionally violent game that is seemingly without rules. This game is Buzkashi, which literally means “goat pulling” and the point of the game is to pull or drag a goat in a field full of players all playing individually to score points when the goat has been put into a goal. It is not true, though, that this game is without rules. To be sure, the game has few rules, but not no rules. There is, after all, a goat that has to be pulled or dragged, and there is a goal that one has to reach, and there is a field where the scrum between different individualistic players takes place. The result is a chaotic affair, but one which has a certain logic as there is only one goat and to get points that goat has to be pulled by someone into the goal, and various national versions of the game in Central Asia often include additional rules that make it a competitive team sport rather than a more anarchical individual one or that forbid audience interference as well as not deliberately whipping or knocking another player off of the horse.
The point of a game, obviously, is to win. This provides structure to even the most anarchical of games that one will play, since for a game to exist there has to be a field of competition as well as victory conditions. Even the most brutal of imaginary games, such as the Battle Royale games that are enjoyed in literature and contemporary gaming have rules that pit the players against each other in a battle for survival where the last one standing ends up victorious and where there are often manipulations of the field of gameplay to force the last few players into a smaller and smaller area so that the game can be brought to a conclusion. At times, rules are deliberately vague in order to encourage people to have the creativity to think of new strategies that can be used to win. I have experience in this myself when I was part of a team that won an ASCE competition because we thought creatively about how to use the materials we were given to work with to create a structure made out of index cards that was able to support three saucers, no easy task. When people creatively exploit the vagueness of rules, either such habits become more common as they are found to be successful–such as the different approaches that are used to do the high jump now than were done in decades past, or they are written out of the rules so that no one else can succeed that way again, as when Hines Ward had one of the most successful careers of any wide receiver while also being an immensely chippy blocker to help other receivers as well.
Humorously enough, something of the nature of Buzkashi became recognized by Americans serving in Afghanistan over the past couple of decades, as it became an inside joke among soldiers there that every day was a Buzkashi day because someone is trying to get your goat. This is a shrewd observation, and one worth pondering on. Part of the appeal of more anarchical games or spaces where a great deal of debate is encouraged on the internet is precisely the fact that everyone wants to get others’ goats everyday. The point is to win, and the subjective feeling of winning results from having gotten someone’s goat, having created arguments and pointed out facts and interpreted them in such a way that one demoralizes one’s opponents. But the game is never over. You go to bed and wake up to the playing field and different players are moving around and you have to go and get the goats of overs again and again. The job is never done, the game is never over, the goat never owned in perpetuity. To know this and to recognize this is important, because it shapes the way that we respond to the gameplay.
Once we know that the game is meant to last and that it is never really over, we can adjust our thinking process accordingly and to focus on the shrewd knowledge of our opponents as well as the way that we need to both pace ourselves but also adopt strategies that allow us to know our opponents and their vulnerabilities as well as our own. Knowing that the game is a long one and not merely a short one means that it tests our stamina and resilience more than it does our quick-thinking and quick-acting tendencies. To align one’s approach to the games that one is playing is of the utmost importance, not least because the goal is to win, and you have to know what the winning conditions are in order to be successful. Wisdom is involved in such matters, and reminds us once again of the way that life and games often intersect in ways that we do not automatically understand, especially if our understanding of either games or life is not very profound.