In the professional work I do, games are an integral part of learning. I get kids to play all kinds of non-competitive games to challenge them to think, to solve problems or to work together. But the moment I put them in two teams, fierce competition starts. Most would agree the same is observed amongst adults as well. Winning against the other then becomes the most important objective.
We live in a culture that is competitive and celebrates winning which, by in itself can be very empowering. The Greek have a word, Arete, that describes the notion of Excellence or the act of living up to one’s full potential. The Olympics was (and still is largely) related to this notion. Even today, many children tell me that competition is good because it helps us set high standards, achieve more and excel and I couldn’t agree more.
Take for example, X-Prize, which is an International competition held by Google (now Alphabet) to encourage private enterprise in new and unchartered territories (that may be traditionally in the Government domain). The current X-Prize is the Lunar X-Prize for launching and landing a rover on the Moon. While this has been done in the past, they have all been Government projects that were very expensive. If Space travel and occupation is going to become a reality, it has to become a lot cheaper. A cousin of mine is part of the India team and it is clear, this competition has caused many brains in the Space industry to come together and do something extraordinary. When I speak to him, I realize, winning the competition is merely incidental, perhaps an inspiration to embark on this journey.
However, my fear from interactions with kids, from what we see and hear in the news and from the state of admissions into colleges, is that winning is becoming more important as a goal. The Russian systematic state doping that has come to light recently shows that not only winning but “winning at any cost” has become the sole objective. We don’t need to look very far to see the seeds of “winning at any cost” germinating all around us.
As I mentioned in the opening line, I play games with kids in my work. The need to win against another team that I see in the children never fails to shock me. The sad thing though is that now when I see teams helping each other, it becomes a talking point. It is the exception rather than the norm. Most of the time, winning becomes their goal at the expense of everything else:
- at the expense of their own original target/objective – I have seen kids set themselves targets for their games, but as soon as the game starts, achieving that target is forgotten and the only thing that matters is how much did the other team achieve. They are happy even if they draw on 0-0!
- at the expense of ethics and values - often kids reflect that “a little cheating is ok” and in fact, required. They carry the notion that in Sports, all teams cheat and therefore the one who does not, can never win. The question is why are teams able to cheat? Why are fouls not called out and strict punishment meted? Cheating is perpetrated because people can “get away with it”.
- at the expense of humanity - how many friendships are sacrificed everyday for the sake of getting a higher score in competitive (or even school) exams? How many student suicides are committed because the pressure to ‘win’ is just too high? How often has a kid been yelled at by his/her team mates for being the weakest link?
- at the expense of simple, pure fun - I once played a simple ball game with 2 teams who had to pass a ball till it reached their goal. It was not a competition, it was for pure morning fun and there were no prizes, no glory. 3 boys in each team decided they would play the game and get their team to win. The ball was not passed to any other team member and any mistake would trigger the boys to yell at each other.
Playing to win and studying to win is becoming a habit, a culture in most schools and households. What happens when there is no competition? I have seen kids become disengaged and disinterested in playing for fun or for the challenge. “What is the point?” they say; “Why should we try so hard?”. Similarly, studying loses its purpose. Few want to learn for the sake of learning. Fewer want to take up any project that carries no marks or does not add to the “CV”. They focus on learning to score in exams & win a seat in the next class, in the next college, in the first job.
When winning becomes the sole purpose, pressure to win is high. So when the going gets tough, even the tough go cheating and I often tell kids that when we cheat to win, we have already given up. “No!” comes the immediate protest because giving up is a bad word. But think about it for a moment. If I break a rule to complete a game, I have given up on my ability to find a better solution; if I copy from a friend, I have given up on my ability to think; if I lie to make myself look good in admission essays and interviews, I have given up on my potential to make a difference. The easier society makes it to cheat (the notion that it is necessary and ok to cheat), the more easily we give up. We give up therefore the opportunity to live up to our own potential and we ultimately give up human endeavor.
What then should we do? I believe, in most cases, we adults encourage the mindset of “winning as the sole objective”. When my child brings home her grades from a test or exam, I automatically ask, so what was the highest mark? who got that? Often, we put our kids into structured sports where they are participating in tournaments and once again, instead of asking them whether they are enjoying the game, we end up asking them whether they won or lost. At school, we reward winning all the time, whether it is in sports, in academics, in debates. Stakes are raised high and therefore winning becomes the most important goal and the corollary, losing is unacceptable and shameful.
Perhaps, we all need to consciously create a balance between competitive activities that reward winning and activities that help children collaborate, challenge themselves, set standards of excellence or simply have fun. Giving both equal importance should be the aim. Trust me, the latter is more likely to help them excel in life for they will learn to have goals that are far beyond winning and winning will merely become an outcome because they are focused on being the best that they can be.
- published in India Today Online on 2nd Aug 2016