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Cooperatively Competitive

Brian Campbell | 16 Apr 2012 17:00
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One of my favorite examples is from the film The Princess Bride - the incredible duel between Inigo Montoya and the Man in Black. This is no mere sword fight. These two are clearly both masters with a blade, but as we watch them test one another, exchange strategies and compliments, trade flourishes and quips, and turn the tables on one another ("I am not left-handed!"), something becomes very clear: Behind the flashing blades and flashier grins, these men aren't just fighting. They're playing.

Valuing play over competition sometimes means letting someone take back a bad move or recover from bad luck.

Make no mistake, this is still a fight. In the end, there is a clear winner and clear loser. But how many times could either man have easily ended the fight but didn't? Each had the chance to show his incredible skill, to use some of his best tricks, and to learn from his opponent. By unspoken agreement, each gave the other the chance to play. The result was a fight that was incredibly satisfying, on both sides.

Contrast this with Inigo's fight with Count Rugen, the man who killed his father. Shorter, less flashy, more direct - pure competition. This isn't for fun, this is for keeps. In the end, the satisfaction is quite different, and quite one-sided. "Prepare to die," indeed.

An example of my own: Over New Year's, some good friends and I had a Magic: The Gathering tournament among ourselves. At times, we fell into the competitive pitfall - short, hurried, unsatisfying games. But one friend and I didn't get the chance to face each other in the tournament, so we had a casual side-match. The first game, I was low on mana; it was over fast. The second, it was her turn to come up short. Rather than allow another "foregone conclusion" game, I waited. I put out a few critters and toys, sure, but I didn't press the advantage. After a turn or two, she asked why I wasn't attacking.

All I could think was, "Why would I?" We both knew I could end the game, but where's the fun in an ending you already know? I hadn't seen what her deck could do, and she hadn't gotten the chance to show me. After just a short wait, she was making a comeback; we both showed off our cool toys, and the game ended much closer. I don't even remember who won. I remember a great game, in which I played more than I had the whole weekend.

It was a cooperative competition. We allowed each other room to truly compete, and got to see each other's best. Valuing play over competition sometimes means letting someone take back a bad move or recover from bad luck. Sometimes, it's seeing an opening to end the game and not taking it (yet). Sometimes it's more than "not using our tournament deck," but instead trying not to always use our tournament brains.

I might give up a win doing that, but so what? I'd rather lose a good game than win a bad one. I'd still know I "really" won, and the other player can enjoy a brilliant comeback. In the end we can put off (or even give up) winning to spend a few more moments playing. We lose nothing, but look what we gain:

We all get the chance to show what we can do. People put a lot of energy and time into getting ready. When we come together, it's not just to decide a winner. It's to show off all that work. Leave room for everyone to have that chance. We all brought our best toys, shouldn't we get the chance to play with them?

We get to really be with our friends. Toning down the "business" of the game lets us focus on the company, not just the activity. For my part, it could have spared me the shame of spending that weekend playing Magic, and later realizing I hadn't even bothered to ask a friend about his new job. (Sorry, Eric!)

We learn a lot more. Losing because of flawed strategy or execution can teach us a lot. Losing to bad luck, or just being completely outclassed, teaches us nothing (and it's no fun). Easy wins are just as useless - they won't reveal our hidden weaknesses or teach us how to recover from setbacks. We end up better at competitive play specifically by not being as competitive.

We gain fun. It's simple, but I can't stress that enough. In cooperatively competitive play, fun isn't a limited resource anymore. Your fun adds to mine, and vice versa.

Cooperation and Competition are two beasts living in each of us, and both need to be fed. Competition, by nature, is a bit more aggressive at feeding time, and things can go all "food chain" pretty fast. With care, it's possible for Competition and Cooperation to peacefully coexist ... and even play nice together.

When it's tournament time? "Prepare to die!" When it's over, and we're among friends, we should remember: Competition may often be our means of play, but it doesn't have to be the meaning. It's fine to play to win, but we should remember which - winning or playing - is the point.

Brian Campbell is a musician and teacher in NC. He is not left-handed, either.

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