Justice as Fun-ness

by John Holbo on May 17, 2007

Our 5-year old, Zoë, is very bad at losing at games. Today she wept copiously, following a painful defeat in tic-tac-toe. (In her defense, she was exhausted and feeling frazzled for independent reasons. But really: one should chill, when it comes to this game.) Zoë: ‘It’s not FAAAAIIRRR!’ Daddy [against better judgment]: ‘Why isn’t it fair?’ Zoë: ‘Because I tried my very best, but I still didn’t have fun.’ There is something to that, as a theory of justice.

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derek 05.17.07 at 7:23 am

A strange game. The only winning move is not to play.

How do humans go from Zoe to the sort of fan who can follow his team through twenty years of losses?


ajay 05.17.07 at 9:43 am

“It’s not the despair. I can handle the despair. It’s the hope…” John Cleese, “Clockwise”.


jay bee 05.17.07 at 11:24 am

I assume it would mean that inequality could only be justified if the less advantged have fun?
It might work as a theory of justice but it’ll be harder to live up to as a theory of parenting


thag 05.17.07 at 11:46 am

what I hear is an echo of the sort of jolly-hockey-schtick you hear in the creches and primary schools.

“Don’t worry, Johnny, just try your best and you’ll have fun!”

It’s an intellectually inept blend of the desire to downplay competition (“the point is not to win, the point is to have *fun*!”), combined with a desire to encourage effort.

But then–exactly *why* am I suppose to increase my efforts in the game? Surely that means: increasing my intensity in trying to win, in the sense in which winning is defined in the game?

No, no: we can’t say you should try to win, because that would be competitive.

Well then, am I increasing my efforts because increased efforts will increase my *fun*?

Yes, dear, that’s just the ticket!

Well; this sucks: I tried my very best, and I still didn’t have fun.


Matt 05.17.07 at 11:52 am

If you didn’t always say “Ha! I your Face!” after you beat her in such games it would probably help, John. Your little “victory dance” is probably a bit much, too.


Soullite 05.17.07 at 11:55 am

You were playing Tic Tac Toe. It’s virtually impossible to have fun playing Tic Tac Toe. Either you it’s an endless stalemate, or one player is so deficient they will always lose.

Which brings me to the most thought provoking aspect of this article: Why is it the dear poster likes to beat up on 5 year old girls?

Derek, people become conditioned to failure. For instance, if the poster plays Tic Tac Toe with this child every day, and they always lose, the child will see failure as the natural outcome of any endeavor. If she becomes a sports fan, she will likely pick a team that does poorly, because failure is natural to her and it’s all she’d be able to relate too.

It should also be noted that in real life, with real stakes, people don’t accept constant losing. They instead try to change the game, resorting to violence or cunning to win in another way (In games, this is called cheating. In life, this is called innovation). As such, perpetual loss of any single group is likely to cause crime or rebellion resulting in a loss of stability to society over-all.


Russell Arben Fox 05.17.07 at 12:35 pm

Caitlyn, our seven-year-old, hates to lose too, John: not just in the way all children have a hard time losing, but in that it really seems to offend her deeply, as though she is somehow aware of the precarious (il)logic of any meritocratic and/or competitive distribution scheme. “I didn’t get the same Clue cards which Megan did, and I didn’t roll the numbers she did!” she’ll wail about her older sister winning again. “Justice” doesn’t even enter into it. I’ll turn them all into good utopian socialists yet.


John Holbo 05.17.07 at 12:45 pm

She makes us play tic-tac-toe. She has this wooden set. Little wooden x’s and o’s. But she hasn’t quite got the ‘you should think about what your opponent is planning to do’ thing down yet.


norbizness 05.17.07 at 12:47 pm

Well, at least you have the “Life is pain, princess. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” line that was unavailable to people of our generation growing up.


Barry 05.17.07 at 12:52 pm

Um, some people here missed what she said. She said that she didn’t have *fun*, not that she didn’t *win*. It might be that she really meant that she didn’t win, but it could also be that she expected fun, and didn’t get it.


Adam Roberts 05.17.07 at 12:53 pm

“I tried my very best, but I still didn’t have fun” is interestingly ambiguous between “I tried my very best at playing tic-tac-toe, but I still didn’t have fun” (which is to say: “a game of tic-tac-toe is supposed to be fun; but this one wasn’t”) … and “I tried my very best to have fun, but I still didn’t have fun.” The latter poses a question about one’s own capacity for fun; the former about the fun-ness or otherwise of tic-tac-toe.


magistra 05.17.07 at 12:56 pm

In playing any game with a small child it makes sense to choose one where they will get to win some, but not all of the time. So you either stick to ones that are decided completely by chance (like Snakes and Ladders), or ones where you can (sometimes) deliberately and surreptiously lose. My husband reckons draughts (checkers) is not bad for losing quickly, when it all gets too much for your child. Chess, which he is attempting to teach her, is trickier. When the child gets old enough to notice you’re trying to lose (or at least to gloat over the fact you’ve made a dumb mistake), you can then switch to normal combat mode.


Rich Puchalsky 05.17.07 at 1:01 pm

Zoë just summarized the entire plot of the 1983 SF movie WarGames.


elliott oti 05.17.07 at 1:15 pm

You must crush your child thoroughly and mercilessly at all games you play together. It builds character.


digamma 05.17.07 at 1:20 pm

And once again I thank God that my parents didn’t have access to blogs when I was little.


Rich B. 05.17.07 at 1:22 pm

So you either stick to ones that are decided completely by chance (like Snakes and Ladders), or ones where you can (sometimes) deliberately and surreptiously lose.

Spoken as one with no kids. We parents have perfected the fine are of stacking the deck in Chutes and Ladders such that the young child is never forced to go back to beginning by picking an unfortunate card near the end of the game.

My eldest daughter believes that she is especially gifted in Chutes & Ladders stategy.


ogged 05.17.07 at 1:29 pm

Tell her that she should be trying to find the fun in losing. When she complains that she’s still not having fun, tell her she just lost twice. She’ll learn to fake it after a while.


Hogan 05.17.07 at 2:13 pm

Calvin: “You win? Aaugghh! You won last time! I hate it when you win! Aarrggh! Mff! Gnnk! I hate this game! I hate the whole world! Aghhh! What a stupid game! You must have cheated! You must have used some sneaky, underhanded mindmeld to make me lose! I hate you! I didn’t want to play this idiotic game in the first place! I knew you’d cheat! I knew you’d win! Oh! Oh! Aarg!” (Calvin runs in circles around Hobbes screaming “Aaaaaaaaaaaa”, then falls over) “Hack. Pant. Pant.”

Hobbes: “Look, it’s just a game.

Calvin: “I know! You should see me when I lose in real life.”


"Q" the Enchanter 05.17.07 at 2:37 pm

Holbo, of all people, you should know this is a manifestation of ressentiment. Just explain to Zoë that what doesn’t kill her will make her stronger, and she’ll be fine.


tpjim 05.17.07 at 3:14 pm

Rich B.: My mother similarly “cheated” at Candyland when I was little. I think she was motivated more by wanting the stupid game to be over.

I disagree with thag’s implication that trying your best isn’t fun unless you’re winning; the world #300 who digs in and takes Federer to five sets will probably say he had fun whether he wins or not. Incremental improvement against progressively greater challenges is the essence of fun, to paraphrase Csikszentmihalyi. But I know that when I was a kid I didn’t have the self-consciousness to recognize my own incremental improvement at soccer or chess, apart from whether I ended up winning, and that’s probably true of most children. And besides, there isn’t a lot of room for incremental improvement at tic-tac-toe.


Yan 05.17.07 at 3:45 pm

“There is something to that, as a theory of justice.”

On the contrary, I think there’s something to that as a theory of injustice, or as a perfect (and perfectly human, in fairness to 5-year olds everywhere) expression of the spirit of injustice. Just = pleasing to me, and pleasing to me = being superior to others. So justice = being tops. Tops can’t be everybody. And so this logic leads easily to might makes right and winners define the rules of the game.

It does not, as one poster suggested, express rebellion against (injust) competitive systems, but seduction to them. It’s not “fun” to lose (and the old “how you play the game” adage is a priori BS) because “fun” in such systems consists in winning alone–which is only fun, or consists essentially in, making others into losers. Every contest (Nietzsche’s love of agon notwithstanding) has as its essence the resentful pleasure of affirming oneself through the reduction of others. It is the very spirit of injustice: resentment. (Unless you buy into Freud’s dialectic: the spirit of revenge ultimately produces an egalitarian incentive that’s beneficial to all.)


Eric 05.17.07 at 4:06 pm

Maybe you should have let her win. What theory of child raising do you have that says you have to win against a 5 year old?


wood turtle 05.17.07 at 4:25 pm

Well, I think she meant “I tried my very best and I didn’t win.” How do you have fun? It’s not necessarily done by trying hard, more the opposite. Tic tac toe isn’t a game to play adult-child anyway, the adult has too much the advantage.

On the subject of winning, do you think a player has more fun when they get to play, even if they lose, than if they are bench warmers and win? I’ve always wondered that.


loren 05.17.07 at 4:28 pm

“Incremental improvement against progressively greater challenges is the essence of fun …”

By this line of reasoning (with which I pretty much agree) we should encourage kids to take up activities that are less about interpersonal competition and more about personal challenge.

Competitive games and especially team sports are, in my judgement, too often a rather poor way to have the sort of fun that comes with incremental self-improvement against challenges.

The downside, of course, is that the really challenging activities of this sort – the ones that hone our bodies and minds, foster maturity of judgement and keen self-understanding, and give us moments of profound inner peace and deep personal satisfaction – also tend to come with significant, sometimes formidable objective hazards.

Rockclimbing is the obvious case in point (and I mean real climbing, not that bastardized, sanitized competitive “sport” version that so many of the kids are doing indoors these days).


Joel Turnipseed 05.17.07 at 4:57 pm

John! You should teach her how to play Go! Well, maybe just “capture game” for now, but in Go, every game is (more-or-less) equally matched. Except at the farthest ends of the spectrum, you basically always have a 50-50 chance of winning. And… it’s always difficult (because as soon as you get better, the game’s handicap rules make sure it stays hard for you).

But… maybe this isn’t for Anglo-American types? It’s hard for me to think of a more un-American game than one in which you never have an unfair advantage and things only get harder as you get better.

Anyway, my daughter (2 1/2) is just learning “capture game” and she loves it (even knows how to hold the stones properly!).


Russell Arben Fox 05.17.07 at 5:04 pm

Rich and TPJim: we’ve long since mastered the art of allowing others to win at Candyland too. Harder is making certain, when multiple daughters are playing, that they do not get mortlly offended when one of “their” characters ends up in a sister’s hand. (Caitlyn is perfectly willing to allow Megan to move to Queen Frostine’s space, but she’ll lose it if she doesn’t get to play Grandma Nutt.)


Bob Mutch 05.17.07 at 5:25 pm

My just-turned-6-years-old niece used to cheat at chutes and ladders and at card games (war, go fish). There was nothing sneaky about it — she cheated openly because she knew the goal was to win and she just didn’t see why she should pay attention to a silly card that told her to do something that would set her back. Her twin brother was worse, getting very upset when he lost and not really wanting to play the games anyway.

My niece has recently changed her approach to winning and losing. I think what happened is that, being a girl and thus far better attuned to social interactions, she has come to understand that playing these games of chance is mainly about social interaction. She doesn’t like losing — who does? — but winning is no longer the only thing she wants out of a game. A few weeks ago, she lost two straight games of war to me, but said, “I lost again, but this is still fun.” That made her mother so happy, she ran out from the kitchen and hugged her. (It made me happy, too, because I had tried to lose the second game but kept drawing really good cards.)

Her brother still doesn’t like playing these games. He’d much rather build something with legos or wedgits. If he knows what he wants to build, he tries different ways of getting it done. At other times, he just makes it up as he goes along. Those are things he can’t do with the games. I think he doesn’t see any point to their randomness, and there’s no way he can work around a bad hand. He also has a ways to go before he’s an entirely social creature.


Hogan 05.17.07 at 5:40 pm

I’m not seeing where in the post it says that John was the one who beat Zoe.


Matt Kuzma 05.17.07 at 7:03 pm

As an adult who plays a fair variety of complex board games with friends, I can say that the problem persists even into adulthood. As adults, we might only get mildly disappointed at not winning, but when you play and don’t have any fun, you’re still in a terrible mood. There is one game in particular that I will never play and regret buying because the winning strategy for one side is to play in such a way that the other side doesn’t have fun.


tpjim 05.17.07 at 7:28 pm

By this line of reasoning… we should encourage kids to take up activities that are less about interpersonal competition and more about personal challenge. Competitive games and especially team sports are, in my judgement, too often a rather poor way to have the sort of fun that comes with incremental self-improvement against challenges.

Yes, team sports would be better sources of this sort of fun if more people approached them as exercises in empathy as well as physical prowess: to understand what your teammates and opponents can do as well as what they are likely to do, and to communicate your intentions to your teammates while hiding them, in a playful sort of way, from your opponents.

(My attitude here is shaped by my enthusiasm for tchoukball, an obscure team sport that was designed with just this principle in mind.)

But I suppose ballet or chamber music or jazz could accomplish the same thing without the possibility of competitiveness spoiling everything.


Brock 05.17.07 at 10:03 pm


Which game is that?


Stuart 05.17.07 at 10:21 pm

There is one game in particular that I will never play and regret buying because the winning strategy for one side is to play in such a way that the other side doesn’t have fun.

If that game is Puerto Rico, as you link to, is the strategy to deliberately mess up the ships (by loading a single coffee/whatever the brown good is per turn into the largest ships whenever possible), and use factory (and similar buildings) to get down lots of buildings and finish the game really fast by filling all 12 squares?

If so thats the tactics I found that caused us to stop playing the game almost entirely…


bemused 05.17.07 at 11:42 pm

In my experience kids begin to be “good losers” as they enter school and have more opportunities to play board and card games with their peers. They learn that noone wants to play with a sore loser, and develop the ability to keep their disappointment to themselves.


vivian 05.18.07 at 12:28 am

My just-6 yr old is learning to tolerate not always winning, because the fun of some tricky moves is like a mini-victory. He only plays tic-tac-toe with adults if he hides the board (from us), and we have to describe each square we choose, and take his word for it that he drew it correctly.

The kindergarten teacher says that all the kids arrive in the morning, and try to surreptitiously stack the deck for candyland, and then try to maneuver people into playng it. Adults are under strict orders to always shuffle the cards first.

Some social skills seem to come easier than others. John, since Zoe seems way out in front on this, encourage her to rewrite the rules to make it more fun. The urge to win/cheat, coopted, can be a good motivator.


ed 05.18.07 at 2:21 am

Try playing “Connect Four” instead of “Tic Tac Toe”. The two games are mostly the same, but “Connect Four” properly uses an 9 x 9 board, instead of a 3 x 3 board, allowing for the use of strategy.

There is an art to designing games where it is fun to lose. The loser has to lose quickly, at least once they have no chance of losing, and not feel as if the deck has been stacked against him or her. Its very important if you lose to think that your own decisions played a part in it. This is also probably important with larger issues of social justice.

A recent issue of the New Yorker had an excellent article on board games, for example informing their readers of the deep religious origins of “Snakes and Ladders” (no, I’m not making this up). Its well worth looking up, if you have any interest in games.


Ben Saunders 05.18.07 at 10:53 am

As Homer Simpson says, “The lesson is never try”. Given that the complaint seems to be not about losing, but not having fun – despite trying – I’m surprised you haven’t introduced her to the paradox of hedonism…


bi 05.18.07 at 12:21 pm

loren, tpjim:

“we should encourage kids to take up activities that are less about interpersonal competition and more about personal challenge”

Right on. Losing only “builds character” (#14) or makes one “stronger” (#19) if there’s personal progress involved.

The real question of course is this: how does this tie in with competition within a typical corporate hierarchy?


tpjim 05.18.07 at 2:44 pm

bi, #37:

Only very loosely (though I speak as someone with very little experience within a typical corporate hierarchy). Progress is only personal if it’s toward personally chosen goals, not the ones imposed from without by the hierarchy. You can organize your work itself so that it provides you progressive challenges that are fun to meet; or you can view your performance on the job as part of striving toward a larger self-set goal — furthering a good cause, providing for the family you love, keeping your belly full while you explore the possibilities of your deeply unprofitable art.

Too many jobs provide neither of these opportunities, of course. To me that’s a violation of one’s right to the pursuit of happiness.


bob mcmanus 05.19.07 at 12:22 am

“because the winning strategy for one side is to play in such a way that the other side doesn’t have fun.”

Opening 1. g3 as White. I hated those bastards.


bob mcmanus 05.19.07 at 12:35 am

Although 1. g3?! h5! with opposite side castling, since White has almost abandoned thw initiative, can open up the game. What was his name, the schmuck who placed last in all those 20s tournaments? Thomas?

No. I am not returning to chess. Never again. Horrible masochism.


Belle Waring 05.19.07 at 5:23 am

I think Zoë inherited this fair and square from me. I can’t get good at chess, because you have to lose a lot to better players first. John always beats me, which I hate, so I quit playing (drawing the homer conclusion). this is so even though I feel pretty confident I could get as good as John if I practiced and was willing to lose. I still think chess problems are fun though.


a 05.20.07 at 4:38 pm

Connect Four : first player wins (i.e. first player should win)

My four-year old’s current favorites are Uno and Junior Stratego. There’s some strategy, but there’s also some luck.


Glorious Godfrey 05.21.07 at 8:42 pm

With your permission, I’ll follow up on Joel’s post at #25 and go off on a useless tangent.

One can get very, very pissed after losing a game of go:

It seems that Yurugi Motoharu, governor of the fief of Tamba, a region near Osaka, was not only accomplished in swordsmanship and literature but also was extremely fond of go. Hearing that a certain blind monk in his domain was a skillful player, Motoharu invited him to have a game. The monk played well but tactlessly, even jeering at some of Motoharu’s moves. The result was that the young lord lost his temper, drew his sword, and decapitated the monk with one blow — thus, as the text says, punning on technical go terms, finding the vital spot with a move that proved more decisive than all the kos and ladders that the other had been able to think up, with the result that even though his stones had eyes, the eyeless monk lost the game.

After this, the monk’s ghost began to make a nuisance of itself by poking its head over the garden wall and whining How about another game? Just one more game? Finally one of Motoharu’s retainers arranged for a solemn burial service for the monk. With his spirit thus placated, the ghost appeared no more.

this site has several nice woodblock prints (ukiyo-e) depicting sore losers at go and other related scenes (“go-Board Tadanobu” is a personal favourite).


C. L. Ball 05.22.07 at 1:17 pm

Re #21, Yan:

You spoiled my fun reading this post.

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