Development through Alternation

8.11 Game comprehension and identity transformation

Anthony Judge

In the previous section Thompson draws attention to the need to understand the patterns encoded by more complex games. Jantsch cites Eigen who is investigating the new lessons to be learnt in biology concerning the "game of life". And indeed Eigen has recently co-authored a book on the "Laws of the Game" (135). It is to be expected that such games can encode richer and more dynamic patterns, which is one reason for the resources allocated to war games and the hopes of finding "win-win" solutions attached to world modelling exercises based on game theory.

Xavier Sallantin, a military theorist working on the logic of conflictual systems, has provided a valuable analysis of the nature of the domains to which game theory applies, thus clarifying hidden dimensions underlying reliance on the game perspective (1 36). Interestingly, in the light of the "answer arena" theme of this paper, Sallantin uses a "gladiatorial arena" to illustrate his point. He notes that in that arena the gladiators risk their lives, the rule of the game being that one of them should die, however carefully they study their moves.

Surrounding that arena are the "stands" from which spectators observe, as well as betting their assets on the issue of the game. There are therefore two categories of "players" at such a "circus", one risking existence, the other risking possession. In "vital" games of the first degree, the gladiator risks himself, whilst in "venal" games of the second degree the spectator risks an object he possesses. The distinction between these domains is further clarified by the processes which occur when a spectator daringly jumps into the arena to taunt the gladiators - only to escape back again when the risk becomes too great, as is the case in many "demonstrations". Or when a gladiator jumps into the stands to expose bettors to the reality in which they only wish to participate vicariously, as occurs in cases of terrorism.

Sallantin demonstrates that in terms of logic, the negation resulting from the loss of the "bet" does not have the same status when applied to games of the first degree, involving a co-terminous subject and object (constituting a unity in arithmetic terms) as in the second, where they are distinct (constituting a duality). In physical terms the first terminates temporal existence, whereas the second terminates a spatial relationship (between the bettor and his property) having the character of a cohesive force. He shows that such distinctions are an essential condition for univocal communication, whether in biology or in informatics.

For Sallantin the ontological status of the game has an entirely different meaning if one's existence or identity is liable to be terminated by it. He points out that recognition of this meaning is what distinguishes "militants", whether conscripted or self-appointed, from those who only risk the loss of a possession and may well re-enter a later phase of the game to gain it back twofold. It is one thing to risk loss of academic status in favouring Gandhian non-violence, for example, it is another to risk one's life in the active practice of it.

In games of the first degree a positive relationship to death must be developed which effectively redefines the game. The encounter with death involves a transformative process of great psychological significance for those who undergo it. This is absent in games of the second degree, except in a vicarious sense. Setting aside the problem of counteracting abuses of militancy in any form, Sallantin questions whether a society can satisfactorily order itself without the kinds of commitment and identity-risk implied by games of the first degree. This is the assumption made by those who seek substitutes for such games in games of the second degree. The positive function of games of the first degre is clarified in cultures recognizing the "way of the warrior" - the theme of a proposed international conference which would not simply deny the value of the military perspective (151).

To further clarify the hidden dimensions and degrees of freedom behind the rules of a game, Sallantin draws attention to the possibility that the gladiators might subvert the game, and the expectations of spectators, by seeking death together rather than fighting to live. He illustrates this possibility by locating a "pit of annihilation" in the centre of the arena into which one or both might jump. This then represents a game of degree zero. Although he does not discuss the possibility, presumably this also covers the case when the gladiators blow up both themselves and the observers in the stands.

Sallantin further develops his argument by mapping the arenas into a spheric geometric model which recalls Fuller's preoccupations. He suggests that the limited freedom in the confrontation between the gladiators (resembling that of a tournament "list") can best be represented by a diameter of a circle, where the area of the latter represents the domain of the bettors. The centre of the circle then represents the pit of annihilation (into which a gladiator may jump or be pushed). He then defines a third domain, having a further dimension of freedom, represented by the sphere of which such a circle is a cross-section. The sphere is then the "space" within which bettors and gladiators mentally model and evaluate the progress of the game in endeavouring to assess how best to make their next moves. It is also the conceptual domain in which our own thinking links with theirs in endeavouring to grasp the rules of the game. It is a transdimensional domain in that it permits moves across dimensional frontiers but it also negates the spaces of more limited degrees of freedom in which games of lower degrees become possible. This negating process is counteracted whenever a "position" is taken by the generation of a line representing a possible first degree game. The spheric "trans-spatial" domain is thus one of free interplay of possibilities from which particular games crystallize.

Sallantin then points out the need to correlate the conceptual freedom of the trans-spatial domain with the verbal domain within which consensus is established. For a game to be possible, all involved must be "attuned" in a consensus on the rules, on a reference polarization, or on a direction of the game.

This is most evident in fixing a convention for the interpretatation of the codification of a "bit" in informatics, as being signaled either by "switch on" or "switch off". A similar convention is necessary to specify which pole of a battery is to be considered "positive" or "negative". Sallantin's striking example of the fundamental nature of this question is that of a referee who asks two players before the game whether they understand the rules. Both nod their heads. However one comes from a culture in which, unknown to the referee, a nod indicates a negative, not an affirmative. For players to be in agreement, they must first be in agreement about the significance of the verb "to agree".

Sallantin argues that any such consensus is intimately related to the physical phenomenon of resonance. There is an ontological correlation between verbal agreement and the physical resonance expressing that agreement or in the syntony between sender and received: "Il faut necessairement que le signifie et le signifiant de la concordance concordent, sinon la concordance signifierait la discordance."

Each of the four "universals" so defined for any game are then interpreted by Sallantin in terms of four distinct ways of being:

  • being in time or existing;
  • being bound by a force to some totality sharing a common characteristic;
  • not being, or being absent, for lack of an appropriate space within which to act; and
  • being "that" of which the meaning is the subject of a consensus.

The first three are aspects of the fourth. Sallantin suggests that the fourth may be represented by a hyperspace, as an affirmatory polar complement to the negatory function represented by the centre of the sphere. The development of the system through increase in its negentropy is then a function of the settings or levels on which the consensus is based to determine the nature of possible games. Sallantin suggests that when the processes of society as a whole are seen as a game, the four different domains (vital, venal, conceptual and verbal) may then be associated with different aspects of society (military, economic, political and social, respectively). His use of "military" needs however to be seen as signifying any creative confrontation with the risk of the loss of identity.

His insights cast a fruitful light on the arguments of previous sections. Once again the need for a fourfold grasp of a system through distinct "languages" is demonstrated. Use of a spheric model ties in with earlier arguments concerning a non-linear container, as does his insistence on the importance of resonance in interrelating the participants. Note however that consensus understood as based on resonance is quite different in nature from a static, superficial consensus where there is no understanding of the resonance dynamics which make it possible.

"Le consensus ne peut etre le fruit que de la clarte qui est 1'expression optique de la resonance. Tout accord de surface reste precaire et vulnerable; il faut aller au fond des problemes pour dissiper les malentendus. La souffrance qu'engendrent ces desaccords contraint la pensee a un approfondissement en vue d'elucider la racine des contradictions."

It is this constraining force which is a vital aspect of the human and social development process.

Prior to the end-game, the dynamics of the game may be seen for each participant as an exciting alternation between conditions of "advantage" and "disadvantage". With the termination of the game and the alternation process, the identity of one participant is "exalted" and that of the other is "extinguished", crushed or dissipated. There is a distinct transformation of state, achievement of which is usually the object of the game, whether sought or feared as a resolution of uncertainty. This change of state constitutes a form of development. According to conventional thinking, winning is obviously better, since it ensures immediate "development" (for the winner), whereas losing is to be avoided at all cost (as an unwelcome increase in personal "entropy"). Winning is perhaps the most widely accepted social indicator of development. Development theorists seek "win-win" solutions to avoid the unfortunate loss of identity, or the continuous generation of "losers" in a two-class society: we should all be "winners".

The preoccupation with winning is also confused with the cult of the new, the cult of youth, the cult of the beautiful, the cult of "bigness", and the cult of "wealth". These reinforce each other so that achievement of any is to some degree an achievement of the others. Unchecked, such cults respectively favour: the exploitation of non-renewable resources and the erosion of collective learning, the rejection and institutionalization of the elderly, the avoidance of unbeautiful realities (including toxic waste dumps, slums and the deformed), the inhibition of grass-roots initiatives, and the marginalization of the poor. It is precisely this obsession with winning and the avoidance of loss which obscures a more fundamental alternation process on which long-term human and social development may well be grounded.

The problem with win maximizing is that success tends to be due to the deployment of a particular set of attributes which confer advantage under particular environmental conditions. The winner is however trapped by these attributes when the environment changes and other sets of attributes have an advantage. New "winners" then tend to emerge from the pool of "losers". It is in fact in this pool that are conserved those "psycho-social genes" governing attributes not currently manifest. But whilst the winners have relatively little freedom within their defining attributes, new forms can emerge from the pool of losers into which all winners must eventually be reabsorbed. In terms of long-term human and social development there is therefore in operation an ecocyclic process. Focus on a single game merely offers insights into a portion of that cycle - a broken cycle. It does not show what happens to the winner after reaching the state of identity exaltation, nor to the loser after having been exposed to identity extinction.

A new dimension may be added to Sallantin's analysis by introducing the concept of "degree of identification" for this is basically what distinguishes gladiators from bettors. (It would be fruitful to explore Atkin's (72) description of communication geometry as a framework for identity of different degrees.) The identity of the gladiator tends to be engaged in the game, through his physical "self-bet", to a far greater degree than that of the bettor. But clearly if the bettor's self-image is identified to a very high degree with his possessions, which he then loses, then he too may well be psychologically destroyed by the outcome of the game. What is interesting about this kind of identity "death", which R.D. Laing has shown to be a powerful existential experience, IN that it opens up the possibility of a "rebirth", if the player can then reformulate his identity on a new foundation. The winner, once exalted does not however have access to this possibility of rebirth, which necessarily requires a destruction of the set of characteristics by which his identity as a winner is defined. Even if the winner wins in a new game he merely confirms and extends the exaltation of his identity, but he does not renew it. It is the difference between a quantitative and a qualitative development. The latter calls for a fundamental transformation based on a radical "mise en question" following real loss.

The loss phase can be related to the learning process. As Kenneth Boulding points out: "Disappointment forces a learning process of some kind upon us; success does not." (152, pp. 1 33). There is then a need to change the image of the world in some way (152, p. 145). He suggests that science itself "is essentially a system of organized learning from disappointments" (152, p. 135). Beyond the play on words, there is even value in the link between "appointment" (as a win-phase) and "disappointment" as the loss-phase which must necessarily follow it.

By designing strategies to minimize disappointment, there is clearly the risk of minimizing learning. Again, Boulding notes: "One of the most striking phenomena of the human learning process is the extent to which it is self-limiting. Far beyond the physiological capacity of the human nervous system, we learn not to learn. We paint ourselves into a tiny corner of the bast ballroom of the human nervous system." (152, p. 1 56-7). This then implies that we learn not to engage in transformative development.

This suggests that long-term human and social development is based on a process involving risk of identity loss, winning and losing. Periods of losing are then as important as periods of winning to the development process. Just as "small is beautiful" so "decay is also ok" - a fairly obvious remark with regard to ecological processes. Real strength, in military terms, comes with the ability to accept loss and the lessons it brings, including the ability to be weak and disorganized. Real weakness results from an identification with the need to win always and be permanently strong - in judo terms, the inability to take a fall and learn to lose as part of a larger process. Development through alternation between the conditions of winning and losing is then associated with the ability to "disintegrate" at will and to "reintegrate" at will - without long-term identification with the forms used in this process.

This recalls the arguments of de Nicolas, discussed earlier, concerning the fundamental importance of sacrifice as part of the renewal of form in the Rg Veda. Educating a child, for example, involves an understanding of when the child should lose and when the child should be allowed to win - accepting the fact that at some stage it will no longer be a question of "allowing" him to win. The teacher must eventually accept the opportunity of identity loss as a real loser if the student is ever genuinely to experience the nature of the win portion of the cycle and learn how to use it responsibly. The teacher, like the parent and the psychoanalyst, must accept rejection if the student is to be free.

The win mind-set is partly responsible for the inadequacy of the response to economic cycles. Troughs are necessarily experienced as regrettable, and efforts are necessarily made to maintain peaks - but it would probably be extremely unhealthy to eliminate the cycle, even if that were possible. The problem is that the transitions and associated transformations are spastically forced upon the relevant actors for lack of any sense of the developmental significance of any cycle involving loss. To employ a biological metaphor, deciduous trees are a more advanced evolutionary form than evergreens precisely because of their ability to engage in a cycle of leaf loss and subsequent regeneration. The combustion engine is possible because it integrates a cycle of ignition/combustion with extinction/evacuation, in which the latter makes possible the power strike of the former portion.

Loss phobia and win mania, which are themselves integral and necessary features of a larger alternation cycle, obscure the nature of that cycle and its significance for human and social development. It is unfortunate that lack of awareness of such cycles may well contribute to the ambiguous status of widely used techniques common to political "re-education", business executive "re-motivation" (in Japan), religious "conversion", and military manpower "training". In these highly successful processes, whose phases are now well-defined, "stripping" of identity is one of the techniques applied as a preliminary to forcing the person to "win-through" to a new understanding and self-image (142). Greater understanding of such cycles is required to determine to what extent the "manipulative" nature of such techniques of "human development" is acceptable, under what conditions, and to whom - and whether more acceptable processes can be envisaged.