Social games

An interesting thing about playing board games is that in order to get the most out of the game, you have to pretend that you mostly care about winning the game. And not, for instance, about enjoying yourself, making your friend happy, or being cooperative or trustworthy outside of the game. This is sometimes uncomfortable, and causes real conflict, because everybody does care about things outside of the game, and people vary in how thoroughly they are willing or able to pretend otherwise for the sake of the game.

Sports are similar: to enjoy soccer, you have to pretend for a bit that you want to get the ball into the goals so badly that you are willing to risk being hit in the face by a soccer ball. You might even be playing soccer because you think it will improve your health. Inside the soccer, you just care about scoring goals (I think—I don’t actually know how soccer works, in part because I am unable to suspend my preferences about not being hit by balls).

I think social interaction is often similar. Suppose you go out to lunch with a group of work colleagues. The group chooses an outside cafe, overlooking a river. You talk about what kind of boats you are looking at. You talk about how much it must cost to rent property like this. You talk about what other eating options are nearby, and so on. Do you care about kinds of boats? Probably not. Are you going to go home and look up real estate prices for fun? No. You might care a bit about the quality of eating places nearby, but Yelp will probably inform you better than this group. You are adopting a kind of fake, short term interest in the topics, because you have to be interested in the topics to play properly at the social interaction, and thus to enjoy it.

Sometimes I don’t like these fake goals in socializing. Perhaps because you can’t be explicit about them the way you can about soccer and board games. Or perhaps because the real goal is often to be closer with people, and to understand what they really care about, and pretending together that you care about something else feels like an active obstruction to that. It’s just hard to sit there with a straight face and pretend I care about boats, when really I just want to be closer to the person I’m talking to and am willing to adopt any stance regarding boats to get there. Pretending we both care about boats together without acknowledging it makes me feel less close.

So I thought about ways to improve this. Two I know of:

1. Be explicit about your real goals in socializing. This works best if your real goals are not embarrassing, and if your partner is comfortable with explicitness. It’s not that weird to say, ‘I’d like to know you better. Want to tell me more about why you came here?’ It is that weird to say, ‘I find your body overwhelmingly appealing, and am interested in sleeping with you. I’m happy to talk about literally anything, if you think will increase my odds’.

2. Try to talk about things that you really care about at least as much as the social goals at hand. This means you can talk about the weather with people you don’t care about at all, but if you want to become close friends with someone, you have to talk about what you want to do with your life, or how you will escape prison this evening, or whatever. This isn’t such a bad heuristic on other grounds.

On the other hand, there are reasons that it is common to adopt fake goals in pursuit of your real goals, and it’s not clear that I understand them well enough to abandon them.

5 responses to “Social games

  1. I think I disagree with your model of social interaction. Among people who don’t know each other well, the point of small talk is for everyone to exchange Bayesian evidence that they are reasonable, trustable people who would make good allies / friends / lovers / etc. The reason it’s hard by default to be weird and come out and explicitly say this is that being weird is Bayesian evidence in the other direction (that you’re some weird person who has weird motives for talking to people).

    For that matter, I disagree with your model of soccer. I think you have an unusually strong preference for not being hit in the face with a ball; it’s really not that bad. Kind of exhilarating, really.

  2. As a teenager I used to have vague intuitions about games, goals and social interaction that made up some sort of shallower, more confused version of this post.

    The first time I read Goffman (the Fun in Games paper first, and later Frame Analysis) I felt an oxytocin-like sense of familiarity, and he still remains among the authors that helped form my vision the most.

    Perhaps you’ll also want to give im a shot!

  3. I think “you have to pretend that you mostly care about winning the game” is a strange way to put since a large part of the enjoyment in playing board games is the process of trying to win (plus occasionally winning is also fun). This is an enjoyment you can experience even if you don’t care about the social benefits (for example when playing against anonymous opponents online). Certainly you can also play for social value and the two goals don’t contradict each other. Regarding conversations, I think the more the participants honestly care about the topic the better it is for socializing. Although there are situations when you have to talk about relatively boring topics because not talking at all would be too awkward (also because such a conversation can sometimes present an opening for switching to an interesting topic).

  4. alexisgallagher

    Explicit is shallower than implicit. Literal is shallower than figurative. People connect more deeply when their direct focus is not on connecting. You learn a lot more about someone from how they describe a city than from how they describe themselves.

    IMHO, the big question to ask is _why_ all of this is so, not how to improve this basic reality or the social norms that flow from this reality.

    But I think to understand it, the framing of “pretended” vs “real” goals is fundamentally unhelpful. Since “pretended” goals lead to realer connections, “pretended” is a misleading word. Also it does not match the subjective experience of the pretenders, who would describe a very different kind of thing as “pretending to have a goal”.

    I’d agree Goffman is good on all of this.

  5. Play is practice by pretend.


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