Games, like sport, operate according to subtle moral codesby Benjamin Markovits / March 4, 2020 / Leave a comment
One of the features of being an expat is that you have to work out the rules to other people’s games. Even after living here for 20 years and watching whatever sport you can watch for free on terrestrial TV, I couldn’t tell you why, in rugby, one team sometimes gets a penalty. It makes me wonder what other cues I’m missing, when there isn’t a ref around to blow the whistle. Because if you’re willing to stretch the definition, almost everything looks like a game—a trial whose outcomes don’t matter much, except that it serves as a test of qualities that do.
The problem is that England has a lot of different cultural subgroups that play slightly different versions of the same game. A friend of mine recently described a visit to someone’s house in the country. They’re the sort of people, she said, who, when you get there, give you a job to do—fetching wood, feeding the furnace, walking the dog… The sort of people she preferred, by implication, are the kind who offer you a drink when you arrive. Of course, both of these are tests in a way. Are you the kind of guest who mucks in? Are you the kind of guest who adds to the general jollity? Maybe neither?
Manners are one kind of game, but it works the other way around, too: most games also involve some unexpressed code of behaviour. When I first started living here as a semi-grown-up, in grad school, I used to listen to the late Nicholas Parsons on Radio 4’s Just a Minute but had to stop for stress-related reasons. All that buzzing and interrupting—you imagine yourself sweating through the minute on air, trying to think of fluent things to say.
What makes all this worse is that you don’t really win the game by winning the game. Contestants let all kinds of deviations, hesitations and repetitions slide, if they can’t think of anything funny to object to. But at the same time you have to want to win, otherwise the faint thread of tension that holds the thing together goes slack. In other words, to play it right you have to try to win but not so hard that you actually…