Put a group of children together in any environment, and they will start to play games. That doesn't surprise anyone. But people often don't notice that adults interact in much the same way. Talking with strangers in a bar, getting a small-business loan, posting on Twitter—all of these can be seen as social games with players, moves, and (explicit or implicit) rules.
In this article, I'll outline two aspects of social games: difficulty and skill. Then in a second article (linked below), I'll explore how these concepts are powerful tools for explaining how players thrive or fail—in work teams, on social media, in co-living spaces, or in any other group.
Some social games are harder to navigate than others.
What if you started seeing social games in terms of how hard they are to play? Chatting with your best friend might be Level 0. You can just be yourself and drift along. Leading a presentation at work would be Level 5 or 6, because you need to communicate complex information quickly. Negotiating a hostage crisis (interacting with strangers, over distance, high stakes, time pressure) might be around level 10+. Social games clearly have different degrees of Difficulty—how hard it is to play the game well.
If someone is tired and hungry, has trouble connecting to her feelings, and is often shy and awkward anyway, she will have a hard time dealing with most social situations.
But if she feels rested, secure, can track emotions, communicate clearly, and is confident in leading groups and improvising plans in real time, she can thrive, even in situations that are highly complex. Shifting capacities combine with learned skills, resulting in a person's Skill—how well they can play difficult social games.
What if instead of karate, your local dojo taught "circling" (a form of group meditation that raises emotional literacy)?
An Initial Frame
Difficulty and Skill in social games can't be measured in exact numbers. But by using these concepts, you gain insight into how social situations function:
If the difficulty of the game is lower than the skill of the player, she will flourish. If the difficulty of the game is higher than the skill of the player, she will struggle.
But what does that flourishing and struggling look like? In the next article, I'll explore the rest of this frame—playing social games in either a Grounded or an Un-grounded way.
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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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