The Notes with Andrew Nemr
The Notes with Andrew Nemr
Playing a Good Game

Playing a Good Game

How you play matters.

The topic of this week’s note originated in a conversation with one of my coaching clients. In talking about all the different kinds of interactions they were facing, and how they wanted to approach them, the analogy of the game became helpful. A common analogy, we found the idea of well played game, rather than a game won or lost, to help our thinking. This week I’m working out the idea a little more.

I’m an only child, which basically means I don’t know how to relate to others. The socialization that happens consistently with siblings happened for me only in organized situations like school, dance classes, or sports. Once school or class or the game was over, I was back to my solo world. There was no competition for food, attention, space, or things. I mention the competitive aspect of siblings not with any particularly negative or positive slant on it. Rather I’ve been thinking about how I play with others a lot lately and the metaphor of a game for other aspects of life.


The game is a wonderful metaphor for life. Game Theory tries to make a science out of this. Many apps use the gamification of tasks to drive user engagement. The idea of winning a race is even used as a metaphor for living a good life in the Bible. Every game has goals and rules. The goals define opportunities to score and how a particular player or team wins. The rules often attempt to set a level playing field, defining how a player may go about achieving the goals. It is clear that a player can’t cheat and win. But there is a deeper question that I’m explore here, and that is what does it mean to play a good game?

At Least Two Kinds of Games

Simon Sinek was the first person I heard to popularize the idea of two kinds of games: finite and infinite games. The finite game is one with a specific start and end, the goal is to score the most points (however that is defined), and at the end of time, the winner is the one with most points. Basketball is a finite game. In an infinite game the goal is to stay in the game. Players lose when they can’t play anymore. Becoming the best basketball player you can is an infinite game.

This is true of any act of becoming. Formative processes are hard to quantify in the way a game requires. Rather they are process oriented. They are ongoing, with cycles, learning, testing, adjusting, resting, all part of the process. The only time it ends is when we decide we don’t want the pursuit anymore. If we decide to stop our part in the game, that is not a signal of the end of the game for everyone. The game continues and we may even see others move on in the game, growing and achieving more than we ever dreamed.

In both games the question I’m exploring is pertinent.

What is a Good Game?

To continue with our Basketball metaphor, while the rules of the game are the same for everyone, not everyone plays the same way. There is an aspect of interpretation and creativity between the rule book, the player, and the action of the game itself. We know this to be true as we describe the characteristics of some players. This one plays dirty. That one plays beautifully. Still, another one plays sneakily. While it might be assumed that every player wanted to win, I imagine part of each players growth deciding how they would play toward that goal.

Defining what we are willing to do, and not do, for the sake of a particular goal is imperative. For any game we enter, or find ourselves in, there are a basic set of rules – sets of causalities – that we can learn. Then there are the ways that we can play. We may find examples of ways to play in other players – across time and within our own generation. Ways of playing are often implied rather than explicit. They land in same place as cultural norms or expectations. It isn’t until we scratch the surface that we might find the why behind some of these norms and expectations. They are often based on a set of values of what is important and visions of what the world could be like. However, in a world that is often pluralistic the idea that there is one good way to play may be a stretch. Although I have my own personal thoughts of what playing a good game looks like, my proposition here is that this is a question to answer. It is not only knowable, but necessary to pursue to have clarity in action.

Clarity in action comes from personal integrity. Integrity is a function of integration of beliefs, hopes, and ways. That is that what we think is true, what we aim for, and how we go about it are all aligned. If we hope for a world that is highly connected but live a completely isolated life we may suffer a kind of profound disintegration. It may show up as sadness, grief, or lament, but underneath it, it is a kind of disintegration. If, however, we hope for a world that is highly connected, and do what we can, given our capacity and context, we are acting from a position of integrity. We are doing what we say we believe in.

The good game, then, is one in which we can look back on and say, “Well played.” Not just, “We won!” We can look back and from the time we walked out on the court, to the time we walked off the court, we may be happy with our conduct – win or lose. We can expand this view to include our preparation, our ability to reflect and rest. These, too, are part of how we bring ourselves to the activities we find ourselves in.

The Game of Life

While the metaphor holds, I consider life to be the furthest thing from a game in the frivolous sense. The things of life, even life itself, are much too important to consider loosely. That is not to say that playfulness, humor, and joy are beyond the scope of this endeavor. To the contrary, with the important things in their rightful place, confident play can happen knowing that we won’t cause harm. Humor can happen without sarcasm or ridicule. Joy can be experienced as it was meant to be – a pervasive sense of well-being – that is contingent on the maker of the game and our relationship to them, rather than the circumstances of any particular play.

Can you imagine players in the game of life playing well? Can you imagine what the relationship among the players might be like? Can you imagine how the game would go, from start to finish? How would players be prepared? What would happen to injured players? What would happen to players who wouldn’t normally make the cut? What would happen to the most advanced players? What might this game look like?

I concede that we may not be able to know everything, but I think we can envision much more than we currently do. With envisioning, we may bring to bear our own beliefs, hopes, and ways to the achieving of that vision. Is that too big of a goal? Maybe. But maybe we can each start with knowing what we think a good game is, and becoming the kind of player we would want to play with in such a game. Then maybe we might find another player or two to practice with. Then, maybe, just maybe, we might find ourselves in the kind of game we’ve had envisioned all along.

The Notes with Andrew Nemr
The Notes with Andrew Nemr
Andrew Nemr, a critically acclaimed tap dance artist, explores the intersection of creativity and spiritual formation.
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