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Dispatches from the present

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Team Players

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Friday Night Lights—a show I found myself rewatching during the last few months of the pandemic—takes place in Dillon, Texas, a small town where football is the center of social life. The emotional tone of the series is set in the first episode, when the star quarterback, Jason Street, suffers a spinal injury that leaves him paralyzed from the waist down. The first season follows Jason as he comes to grips with his new life, in part by training for the U.S. national wheelchair rugby team. He becomes obsessed with making the team, eventually finding the words to express why when he tells his former football coach that he can’t stop thinking about “what it used to feel like, to be able to compete, to be able to be a part of something.”

“To be able to compete, to be able to be a part of something”—how should we understand this phrase? It seems contradictory. We often think of competition as a form of social poison, disrupting and destroying what would otherwise be harmonious togetherness. So, was Jason contradicting himself? If competition is antithetical to social integration, how can he both want “to compete” and “to be a part of something”?

I was thinking about this while cleaning up after a particularly intense board game session with my family—another pandemic-related activity. We had been playing “Forbidden Island,” a so-called cooperative game, where players work together against a common opponent. In this case, you are a team of adventurers on a flooding island. The task is to collect certain artifacts before escaping via helicopter. Nominally you take turns, but at each turn the whole group can collectively deliberate about what to do.

This particular session of Forbidden Island ended up pretty much as all of them do in our family, with a fight. Yes, we made it off the island, but we had gotten so mad at each other that it didn’t seem worth the trouble. My daughter noticed the underlying pattern: we always fight whenever we play “cooperative” games, but we barely ever fight when playing “competitive games.”

There are no rules about how to cooperate. We are supposed to listen to one another and somehow decide what course of action to take. Whoever tends to dominate interpersonal interactions will push their favored view, often leaving others resentful. The others in turn ask the more aggressive to chill out and listen, who for their part may do so, but at the expense of their own personalities and ideas. This outcome might be avoided among players who do not know one another too well and are trying to be polite. And maybe a group of angels would rationally deliberate and all assent to the objectively best course. But at least for us, most of the time everybody just gets upset and wishes we had done something else.

This almost never happens when we play competitive games. We each have room to try out strategies and experiment with different approaches. The game itself reveals what worked best, and part of the fun is discovering the implications of one strategy or another. Though we pursue individual goals, the competition makes us deeply attuned to what the others are doing, exquisitely sensitive to their every little thought and emotion. For about a dozen different games, I can tell you all the tendencies for each of my family members, and they can do it for me.

Behind Jason Street and family board games is a truth articulated by social theorist Georg Simmel in his foundational text, Sociology. The central thought of Sociology is that social life occurs in various “forms of interaction,” such as exchange, hierarchy, sociability or conflict. Cooperation is one of the most demanding forms of social interaction. It requires the suppression of the individual personality to the needs of the group. While cooperation can bind, it can therefore also divide.

Conflict too has this dual quality. Think of somebody you are fighting with: you care about that person, and are probably as bound to them as anybody else in the world. Conflict pushes us apart but it is also a way of being together. Conflict is one of the primordial forces spinning the invisible threads out of which that supra-individual phenomenon we call “society” is made.

When we compete, Simmel observed, we relate indirectly. In a competition, we both strive with all our abilities to achieve some third thing. It could be for customers, the championship or a romantic partner. Social competitions are for other people: for laughs at a party or the admiration of your teacher. If you want to win, you learn a lot about your competitor, but also your targets: your customers, your friends, your teachers. While a lot of energy might get wasted in the process, better jokes and better papers are the result, finely tuned to the sensibilities of the guests or teachers. This is not so much a Hobbesian conflict of all against all, but rather a competition of all for all. Hence Simmel’s insistence that competition is not necessarily hyper-individualistic but involves a supra-individual component.

This is not at all to say that competition is the only way to form associations, or is always positive. Simmel goes on to outline social forms in which competition is corrosive or impossible. The former includes competition among children for the affection of parents; the latter includes religions where the Kingdom of Heaven is potentially open to all. Here there can be rivalry but no competition.

The deeper point, however, is about the nature of social integration. Strong social bonds do not just weather competition. They find in it one of the greatest techniques for fusing what could seem to be incompatible goals: the cultivation of individuality and the objective needs of the group. The special social alchemy of competition is to make these one and the same.