The Game: The Essay

David LeGault

I’ve been playing The Game for most of my life, and by the end of this paragraph, you will be too. The rules are simple: everyone in the world is playing The Game whether they know it or not. The object of The Game is to never think about The Game. Whenever you do, you lose; you must say “I lost The Game” to another player—or to all of the players, or to someone new who does not know the rules—and the game begins again. Social media didn’t exist when The Game began, but now that it does, public posting is a suitable admission of defeat. The point is the shared confession. The point is finding new players. The point is that The Game goes on forever.  

The origins of The Game are unknown, in part because the game itself is so hard to define. The rules are simple, but the semantics of them become complicated: Is it one continuous game, or does a new round begin whenever someone loses? Is there a grace period after a loss, or does the announcement itself cause other players to think about it and therefore “lose?” Does The Game begin in its current form, or can we trace it back to other mental games that have existed for centuries, such as “The White Bear Game” that appears in Tolstoy’s letters, describing it as “stand in a corner and not think of the white bear.”? Fyodor Dostoevsky, in an essay first published in 1863, mentions giving yourself a task “not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.” Outside of Russian novelists, all other origin stories are equally hypothetical: Was it students at Cambridge in the 1970s trying to envision a game that exists outside game theory? Was it two British engineers forced to spend a night on the train platform, trying to distract themselves from bad circumstances? Was it Laurence Sterne’s 1759 novel, Tristram Shandy, that also posits white bears as intrusive thoughts that we must try to avoid? Was it a schoolyard game that slowly spread like a disease, never recorded officially until its first mention in a blog post from 2002? Regardless of origin, the challenge is clear: The more you try to avoid thinking about The Game, the more difficult it is to avoid. The Game forms its own anxieties, creates mnemonics that have you losing The Game at the strangest times: at the sound of a friend’s voice, or at the smell of a bad diner from Northern Michigan. The Game is the bear that stalks just outside of consciousness, walking in the shadows of your life. 

I had gone years without losing (never winning, exactly) until I received a message from a high school friend, someone who I haven’t heard from in over a decade. The message reads “my father read your book and loved it,” that he’s “glad that you are doing good,” that he was “very proud to have known you.” It’s that finality that I’m writing toward: the “proud to have known you” with its air of conclusion. I think of the two of us being eight years old and digging clay out of the creek behind my parents’ home, about years later when we spent every evening and weekend snowboarding, or sharing a seat on the bus to cross-country meets, or driving two and a half hours to a halfway decent store to buy CDs. I think about all of these memories, and it is here, in this moment of mourning, that The Game returns. It is here, in this moment, that I lose. 

The thing about The Game is you do not choose to play it. The same way you do not choose your family, do not choose where you are born. Tolstoy did not choose Russian aristocracy any more than I chose Michigan’s Upper Peninsula: a part of the continental US roughly the size of Maryland that doesn’t always appear on maps. Its entire population is smaller than the daily shoppers at the Mall of America, spread across hundreds of miles of relatively untouched forest. Parts of this place are beautiful: surrounded on three sides by the Great Lakes, hosting chains of waterfalls, endless miles of trails, and winter snowfalls that threaten to swallow it whole. Other parts of this place are hideous: unemployment at almost double the national rate, the obligatory drug and crime problems that such statistics produce. Perhaps more damning is the boredom that comes with no jobs, no development, months of seemingly endless winter. Perhaps that does a better job of describing the rampant alcoholism and addiction: the things we do to wreck ourselves, our plans for escape. You do not choose where you are from, even when you don’t fit into it: my interests were not in hunting deer but in playing video games; the most beautiful place in the world, and I spent most of my time there hanging out in basements and garages. You do not choose where you are from, but you choose if you want to stay. I, like most, chose to leave, which creates a vacuum where fewer jobs are created and even more move away. And though I return here often, I can see the slow decline, tracking its progress as storefronts close, as the most pertinent news is in the obituaries. And though I chose to leave I still find myself drawn to its familiarity, and the fact that it is dying has left me feeling unanchored, a memory that I watch as it slowly drifts away. 

You do not choose to play The Game, but you do get to choose who you play it with. My friends resist categorization: a place so small that niches could not form: kids who would play football and be part of a punk rock band; honor roll students who went into the woods with home-made bombs; who ran cross country and dedicated Wednesday nights to PvP matches with online guilds; who competed in Odyssey of the Mind competitions while also giving my name to the police whenever they were caught trespassing. With a place so empty, you are given two choices: to be swallowed up in the whiteness, or see it as a canvas for which to write upon. I am telling you now that I feel it in my heart that the first choice is true. I write this now to remember a time when I believed in the second. 

It isn’t clear how The Game ends, or if it even can. Online rules state that The Game can only end when the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom announces “The Game is Up” on live television. Others suggest that it must be the Queen. It’s difficult to say how it ends when we don’t know how it starts, exactly. Instead we rely on regional variations and house rules. My version of The Game requires saying “Damn it, the Game,” instead of simply announcing a loss. But if our way of playing The Game is different, are we even playing the same Game at all? I don’t believe there is a way to end The Game: Even if the end was announced, would that stop us from remembering? Would that stop our sinful nature to think about exactly what we are trying to avoid? Presumably, the only way The Game could end is if we collectively forgot its existence. Ironically, this is also the only way to win: to do such a good job that the Game cannot be remembered, that the victory wouldn’t even be acknowledged or celebrated. 

But forgetting doesn’t protect you from The Game. We are all the result of dendrochronology: earlier versions of ourselves hidden like the rings of trees, showing us the years of growth, drought, or disease. It only takes the sound of bad punk rock, the smell of cigar smoke, or a Facebook message ending in “proud to have known you” to make me fifteen-years old again. Because there’s something about Clone High reruns on digital cable and hot tubs and minimal parental supervision that I will always find appealing. Something about spending weekends seeking out the worst possible movies to rent, or answering bizarre questions out of a journal jar, or jamming on a pump organ that I will always be drawn toward—especially when I have the choice to do these things whenever I want, especially when I never take myself up on the possibility. As these impulses return, so does The Game. 

The best possibility of The Game’s origin comes from “Finchley Central,” another game of mental gymnastics, though one with actual rules, strategy, and competition. In this game, players take turns naming London Underground stations, and the first one to name Finchley Central is the winner. Of course, the challenge of the game is in seeing how long it can go before anyone decides to win. The game becomes more exciting with each turn: the true goal of the game is to win exactly one turn before your opponent. Members of the Cambridge University Science Fiction Society claim that in 1976, they modified the rules so that the first person to think of the station loses. From here, the game evolved from one of strategy—to know your opponent well enough to delay victory as long as possible—into one of mental fortitude. It went from a traditional, albeit absurd, game into one that defies definition. It went from a harmless way to pass time into an inseparable part of ourselves.  

When we talk about games, we are talking about simulation. We play them to escape into worlds of military conquest or Atlantic City real estate. We play them to master a strategy or new way of thinking. We play them to spend time with our friends and not think about a world without clearly defined rules, where things are not so easily controlled, where the lines between winners and losers are harder to define. But even games creep into “real life,” creating conflicts that exist off of the tabletop: the logistical challenges of getting five adults together to play a six-hour game of Risk over two weekends; a board getting flipped when an in-game action is taken personally; the mental gymnastics that must take place when the strategically best move screws over a spouse. The Game is perhaps the only game built entirely of these intrusions—the gaming equivalent of breaking the fourth wall. Not simulation, but augmentation. Whether played intentionally or unintentionally, The Game’s rules rest entirely in the realm of gamesmanship and honor. A player loses whether they announce it or not, which makes the confession of failure the only measure of fair and honest play. If not for these announcements, we can’t know if someone is winning or cheating. And if we are all playing The Game, it is only in defeat that we know what we share, the reminders of what we’re trying to forget. 

Damn it, The Game. It seems I’ve lost again. I’m sorry I’ve placed its burden upon you, or reminded you of the things that never die. Damn it, The Game, while I mourn my friend who—even now!—I could call. Damn it, The Game, because I know I won’t. Facebook has done the heavy lifting for us: I know all about his move to Montana, his graduating law school, his recent marriage. I feel I know him still, but of course I’m recalling an inner layer: I fear reconnecting for the fear that what I’d find—or what he’d see in me—might be unrecognizable. Damn it, The Game, because many old friends are gone to me. The Game is a thing that we all carry with us like our childhood: the thing that still connects us, the thing that connects us, even when we forget. Damn it, The Game, because games are supposed to be fun, even the ones that show you what you’ve lost.


Headshot | David LeGault


DAVID LeGAULT is the author of One Million Maniacs, a book of essays on the power of collecting. Other recent work appears or is forthcoming in The Normal School, Hotel Amerika, and The Rupture. He lives in Michigan where he is working on a book on how games shape our lives.