In the previous article (Difficulty and Ability in Social Games), I pointed out that both children and adults interact in "social games"—complete with players, moves, and (explicit or implicit) rules. I'll explore one of these games now, and how a person might play it in a Grounded or Un-grounded way. The tricky thing is that, at least in the moment, many people don't recognize the difference.
The Broken Promise Game
Two friends are having an argument. Aisha is angry at Tom because he told her he would pick her up from work, and he never showed up. She had to take the bus home. Aisha starts raising her voice, insulting Tom, and questioning his loyalty as a friend.
Now imagine two very different ways that Tom might reply:
1) Grounded: Tom slows down his breathing and checks in with himself. He feels ashamed for having forgotten about his promise to pick Aisha up from work. He names and explains how he feels, and why he got distracted. He outlines a better plan to keep his promise next time. Tom reassures Aisha that her friendship is precious to him, and asks for her forgiveness.
2) Un-grounded: Tom gets anxious, and begins casting doubt on the idea that he had ever promised to pick up Aisha in the first place. When she pulls up their text exchange, Tom begins breathing hard and talking louder. He blames a mutual friend for having distracted him with other tasks. Tom also starts pointing out times that Aisha had forgotten things. He stomps off in anger.
In both scenarios, Tom believes he is handling a difficult social situation in a way that is an authentic expression of himself. But he feels very differently about scenario 1 and scenario 2 when he reflects on them later. That's the difference I am pointing to when I say someone is playing a social game in a Grounded vs. an Un-grounded way.
Grounded: acting from a secure sense of self (according to your personal values) Un-grounded: reacting to the situation (ultimately against your personal values)
Tom was faced with a rather difficult social game: a friend confronted him with a legitimate criticism, put in very harsh terms.
In scenario 1: He was able to track her emotions and his own, create plans, and communicate well. That allowed him to play the "broken promise game" in a Grounded way—according to his personal values. Thinking back on it later, he felt good about how he handled the situation.
In scenario 2: Tom didn't like the way he was being criticized. He felt like he was responding in a reasonable (or at least "justified") manner at the time. So his immediate experience resembled scenario 1. But he ultimately regretted his actions. This is what I mean by a player becoming Un-grounded (and acting against their personal values). What feels like healthy self-expression in the moment can seem like a huge mistake later.
You might not always reflect on your actions. And how you handle difficult situations is often a mixture of being grounded and un-grounded. But if we put those subtleties to the side for a moment, viewing social games through this lens gives you a powerful heuristic.
Difficulty, Ability, and (Un?)Grounded Players
The frame I began outlining in the previous article now comes into full view:
If the Difficulty (of the game) ≤ Ability (of the player) = the player remains Grounded. If the Difficulty (of the game) > Ability (of the player) = the player gets Un-grounded.
Players who are grounded speak up about what is happening for them. Together with others, they re-shape social games according to their personal values. But players who can't handle or change a social game become un-grounded—avoiding topics and/or blaming others in a way that contradicts their personal values (although they may only realize this later, upon reflection). Team leaders, community activists, teachers, lovers, and parents know this failure mode all too well.
On this analysis, there are two ways to help people stay grounded in their personal values:
1) Lower the difficulty of social games 2) Raise the ability of the players
Both of these approaches will be addressed in an upcoming project: Social Arts Dojo.
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The ideas in this article are based on conversations with the ever-fecund Joe Edelman.
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Nathan Vanderpool holds B.A.'s in philosophy and psychology, M.A.'s in cultural studies and religious studies, and a PhD in sociology. He has spent years designing rituals and games, and takes special delight in facilitating small-scale personal and social transformation.
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