Game Theory

Your own children don’t have to merit or achieve their relationship with you, either, however dysfunctional it is. Parents can be embarrassed by their children, or envious of their achievements, but they don’t tot up the evidence of their social utility and decide how they feel based on that. It’s all far more atavistic. You don’t expect them to be other than whoever and whatever they are.

My children find losing at games a challenge, even party/pub games whose purpose is entirely to formalise, and thus ease, social interaction. We were summoned to a gathering of friends, last weekend. Their dozens of children were playing Mafia, a game where two secretly assigned murderers pick people to kill and the rest of the players have to try and work out who they are and hang them, before they are all murdered. The kids are kind of inexpert, though they play it with enthusiasm. They exhibit a terrifying mob mentality. Somebody will shout “Let’s hang Danny: he looks shifty!” and they’ll all gleefully vote to lynch him.

Meggie, who is now 14 and one of the older ones, was unjustly hanged. I could tell she was finding this very difficult, so much so that I had to take her out of the room so she could rant and cry without disgracing us. (I tend to hover in the background at these gatherings.)

I felt very sorry for her, because I get it: she wants to be able to demonstrate her intelligence by arguing her case convincingly and thus persuading people not to lynch her, and by manipulating the consensus. She’s frustrated by the happy, obstinate senselessness of her friends and feels excluded and picked upon; she wonders if they don’t like her. She also knows she’s being a brat and is worried that now everyone will despise her.

In contrast to me, Jo, usually the more flexible and charitable parent, is shocked by Meggie’s antics. Growing up, her father was far more provoked by sore losing than by any other bad behaviour: lying, cheating, stealing, cruelty: all paled into insignificance beside the sin of being unsporting.

I don’t think it is a co-incidence that my father-in-law’s father, Jo’s grandfather, was a stern and unforgiving missionary in the puritan mould, who expected the highest moral standards from his children, because this attitude, passed from father to daughter, smacks of the old simplistic and dismissive Christian attitude.

Isn’t it just a way of allowing the winners of this world to revel in their dominance without taking responsibility for the effect they have on others? They’re like bullying Regency bucks who can sleep with whoever they like because they know they’re better duellists than any of the husbands they cuckold. The winners make the rules, especially those to do with manners. As the historian Alan Brooke once said to me, “when they say ‘he died well’ they just mean he didn’t give the hangman any trouble”.

Of course, playing and losing games, surviving psychologically, and being able to maintain your relationships with the people who beat you, is an important rehearsal for the trials of life, but it’s a hard-won lesson and it takes time to get it right, and anyway, you learn it for yourself not for the benefit of the beautiful people.

Meggie is trying. she’s struggling with this, but she wants to get it right. She wants to be good. I guess I’ve seen (and caused) so many fuck-ups, that this has become my much compromised and negotiated approximate definition of virtue. The good guys aren’t those who do good; they aren’t even those who try hard to be good and fail; they’re simply those who’d like very much to be good, even though they fail all the time.

At least, I hope so, for my own sake.

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