If you are losing at a finite game, there are two ways you can win within the rules:
- Change your opponent: defeat them by circumventing their advantages, coerce them into make fatal mistakes, or overpower them by whatever means are allowable within the game. For example, in a political contest, you change your opponent when you are able to stick a label on them like lyin’ or crooked or racist. In a war, you change your opponent’s resolve by killing their forces. This doesn’t always work because some games are pretty tight with the rules; I don’t know of many things one can do within a chess match to change the opponent aside from dubious methods of “psyching out” the opponent.
- Change yourself: this is the generally accepted method of defeating your competition in future instances of the game you are either losing or have already lost. You change your own tactics, practice your own skills, train harder, and so on. Become better somehow.
The third way is to change the rules of the game. Whether or not this is successful depends entirely on the consent of the other players in the game. This happens all the time in online multiplayer games where an update “nerfs” some aspect of the game to improve balance or when you are playing a friendly game and need to improvise a little bit to keep the game going. Either the players agree to the rule changes, or they stop playing. More likely, the game is played to its end and then the rules are changed for the next iteration to prevent the same strategy from winning again. When participants in a political contest talk about campaign finance reform, it’s always for the next election rather than the one taking place right now.
When one tries to change the rules in the middle of the game and does not receive consent from the other players, that is cheating. However, if you see that your opponent is breaking the rules and consent to keep on playing (perhaps the rules provide for some kind of penalty), then the opponent is not cheating and you are still in play. A professional hockey player who drops his gloves and starts punching an opposing player is not breaking the rules of the game. The rules allow for that. Of course, he’s going to receive a penalty or other sanction. But if hockey fights were truly against the rules, then the moment one breaks out, the game would stop and the local police would be called and the assailant would be facing criminal charges. Although this can happen in extreme circumstances, it’s not a common outcome of a hockey fight.
Not playing is the fourth way to go, and it should be distinguished from accepting a loss. Not playing is walking away from the table without conceding a loss, even if the other player(s) yell “forfeit!” as loud as they can. It’s also the hardest thing to do in many serious games. It’s easy in recreational games. I barely have a handle on the rules of Go. I’m not going to play in a highly competitive game of Go. Isn’t that easy? But what happens when it’s a political contest? A war? Isn’t political apathy a bad thing? Doesn’t pacifism mean the fascists/communists/fundamentalists win? Hey buddy, my human rights are on the line here. The only requirement for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.
How, then, can we ever listen to the Buddhist monk telling us to let go of suffering when the struggle is real? How then can we respect Ghandi when his commitment to pacifism is strong enough for him to tell the British to let the Nazis slaughter them?
“I do not want Britain to be defeated, nor do I want her to be victorious in a trial of brute strength, whether expressed through the muscle or the brain.’ Your muscular bravery is an established fact. Need you demonstrate that your brain is also as unrivaled in destructive power as your muscle? I hope you do not wish to enter into such an undignified competition with the Nazis. I venture to present you with a nobler and a braver way, worthy of the bravest soldier. I want you to fight Nazism without arms, or, if I am to retain the military terminology, with non-violent arms. I would like you to lay down the arms you have as being useless for saving you or humanity. You will invite Herr Hitler and Signor Mussolini to take what they want of the countries you call your possessions. Let them take possession of your beautiful island, with your many beautiful buildings. You will give all these, but neither your souls, nor your minds. If these gentlemen choose to occupy your homes, you will vacate them. ‘If they do not give you free passage out, you will allow yourself, man, woman and child, to be slaughtered, but you will refuse to owe allegiance to them.”
― Mohandas Ghandi, 1940
How can a good progressive liberal not participate in a shouting match on the internet with a proud Brexiter or Trump supporter? It’s difficult. I am still working on wrapping my head around this. But I know there is value in taking this fourth option, and I can understand it in the context of one of my favourite games being referenced on one of my favourite television shows. In the Community episode “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons,” the party does not defeat Pierce through changing him, themselves, or the game. It’s when they stop playing. Pierce is defeated not by dice rolls in the AD&D game or by an out-of-game display of superior charisma, but when he loses his audience.
It is one thing for a person or faction to lose a contest according to accepted rules, but true defeat comes not with infamy but with irrelevancy. It’s difficult to understand and even more difficult to practice, but the art of not playing is perhaps one of the most important to master.