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Shall We Play a Game?

Updated: Jul 20, 2019

I’ve recently discovered one of the great benefits of entering the early middle-aged phase of life: some of the things I loved in my childhood have suddenly become interesting to others again.

From the countless cultural references in Stranger Things to the most-excellent and highly recommended Cobra Kai, 80’s nostalgia is all the rage right now.

Some of you crazy hipsters are even buying up old VCRs, and Atari 2600 consoles. Hipsters….

While you cool-kids are out thrifting for beat-up VHS tapes to impress your friends at the next kombucha potluck, try to find a dusty copy of the classic Cold War flic WarGames starring an embryonic version of Matthew Broderick.

A plucky young computer hacker (Broderick) manages to tap into the US military’s NORAD nuclear defense mainframe. The plot thickens when Broderick begins communicating with an early experimental version of AI named Joshua that is being used to run complex war-game scenarios to help develop nuclear threat response strategy.

Playing on the classic science-fiction theme of Frankenstein’s monster run amok, these naughty but seemingly harmless war-games go seriously wrong when Joshua takes things a little too seriously and prepares to nuke the planet.

Awesome movie for little kids... It certainly explains why most Gen-Xers are a little dark and broken inside. But I digress.

Eventually everyone realizes that the AI might be super cyber-intelligent, but the AI lacks real-world experience, wisdom, and common sense. Hmm, maybe I’ll make my teenager watch this.


In short, Broderick saves the world by realizing that the AI is still in the infancy of its learning. He then invites Joshua to play an infinite round of tic-tac-toe with himself in order to teach the lesson that some games are truly futile. Playing tic-tac-toe with yourself, like all-out thermonuclear war, is pointless. The only way to win is not to play.

Some games are truly futile. The only way to win is not to play.

In organizational cultures, some of the most toxic conflicts revolve around such un-winnable games. As with the mutually assured destruction of nuclear conflict, the harder your try to win the more you are sure to lose.

Here are some of the most common, and entirely avoidable, un-winnable games:

Trying to change someone’s root personality. Behavior can be modified. We can grow as people or become more disciplined. World-views can shift. However, when your clash with a colleague becomes a quest to turn them into an entirely different person, you’re both going to wind-up miserable.

Stated with my philosopher’s hat on: A thing (or person) may develop into a more refined or perfected version of itself. It can also conversely devolve into a less perfect and corrupted version of itself.

However, a thing cannot become an entirely other thing, no matter how much we might wish it to be so.

The same wisdom applies to romantic relationships. When your best friend tells you that the thrice-divorced whirlwind of dysfunction he’s dating and now intends to marry will surely be transformed by the magical fire of his love, the appropriate response is a long friends-only camping trip, a pointed intervention, and if needed - a slap upside the head.

The same goes for leaders who think they’re so skilled in the interpersonal arts that they can remold staff into entirely different people. Not only are such quests a route to supervisory burn-out, they are also unfair to the person you hired. We should not punish people for their inability to do the impossible.

Change what’s changeable. Learn to live with the rest. Or, do the right (but hard) thing and move on from the relationship.

Using reason against the irrational. Most conflicts are rooted in differences of viewpoint, opinion, or values that can be eventually be hashed out with some quality listening, clear communication, and a dash of emotional intelligence. However, some conflicts are drawn from the deep well of mucky irrationality that we all have somewhere deep down inside.

As a wise man once told me, “Don’t argue with crazy.”

When dealing with the hyper-emotional, inherently unstable, or forever-triggered, don’t rely on a logical and linear line of argument to carve a path out of the dark wood of irrationality.

Your well-intentioned and fully power-pointed solutions might make logical sense, but if the real issue is rooted in something far deeper than reason, you’re likely wasting your time.

After all, these are rarely conflicts that need “fixing”. They are usually not conflicts at all. They are simply one or more people having a reactive experience that can’t really be fixed by those around them.

Instead… Listen to them. Help them drain-off their intensity when practical. Help them feel emotionally safe and reassure them when possible.

If that doesn’t work, just go to lunch. You’re probably not going to be much help anyway at that point. Just because someone is upset doesn’t mean you’re obligated to make it go away.


Lowering yourself to their level in order to “win”. Sometimes, clichés become clichés because they are actually true and we need to be reminded of them over-and-over again. So, I’ll let eminent leadership scholar Rob Roy summarize this age-old chestnut of wisdom:

“Honor is what no man can give you, and none can take away. Honor is a man's gift to himself.”

If you’re faced with someone who is willing to lie, use dirty tricks, or behave unethically, it’s incredibly tempting to fight fire with fire. It really sucks to be bested by someone who is willing to take the low road to win. However, in the end, have they?

People willing to engage in corrupt behavior in order to win are their own worst enemy. They inevitably become the author of their own undoing.

And if that’s not enough comfort, here’s another pearl my great grandmother was the first to teach me, “Have no fear. We all eventually answer for what we do, in this life or the next.”

While you're pondering the mysteries of final cosmic justice, simply remember this. Doing the right thing is its own reward. You might not get what you want, but you’ll be able to look yourself in the mirror the next day.

Like Matthew Broderick learned in WarGames, the first step to winning is knowing which games are worth playing.

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