Social Institutions as Games

I’m listening to a lecture by Alan Watts that begins with the topic “social institutions as games”. The term “games” in this context is not speaking of the trivial, but rather something that is always played for its own sake. Recognizing social institutions, (including identity!), as games, gives us perspective on our society and our lives that is sorely missing when we insist on taking everything deadly seriously.

Social institutions go a great deal deeper than anything we’ve mentioned. And the most important kind of social institution is that which has to do with role-playing. Who you are. Now, when we ask the question “Who are you?”, people think of this question in two different ways: one person, when asked ‘who are you’ will answer “I’m a doctor.” Another person will fall silent because they realize how profound the question is. They realize they’ve been asked what their ego is. But a lot of people don’t realize that when they’re asked ‘who are you?’.

I’ve noticed just a little bit of difficulty in my investigations of discussing identity with people — that they fix on their role and use that to describe their identity. Their name. Their family. Their place in society. What they do, what their hobbies are, and so on — all these are roles. And then also there is the role of character playing.

All people are, more or less, taught to act. We are all hams from the beginning. And we were schooled in acting in our childhood, although it wasn’t called that. It was called education, it was called upbringing, but a great deal of it is schooling in acting. And you very soon learn as a child from your peers and from your parents what acts are appropriate and what acts are not. It is the concern of all parents that their child learns a role in life and has an identity by which the child can be recognized. It would be extraordinarily disconcerting, wouldn’t it, if a child had one personality one day and another personality the next. But children can do that!

Don’t you remember as a child that you were many different personalities? Depending on your environment, that you were one person at home with your parents, that you were quite a different person out alone with other children; then, when you went to visit your uncle and aunt, you were someone else altogether? And so on.

And finally, the whole trend of education is to shake all this down and make you more or less constant, in every sort of social environment that you enter, so that everybody knows who you are. Otherwise it’s disconcerting. So, we are made to believe that we have a real self. That is to say, somebody who we really are, and whom we have to find. To find yourself, to settle down, to grow up—means to fit into a role. And there are a lot of people who are troubled in our society, and who seem to be misfits and are terrible unhappy because they just can’t find the role that they’re supposed to fit. They don’t know who they are. There is an inner pandemonium and conflict.

But it’s obvious, isn’t it, that the role you play is a social institution. Because you can’t be an object to your own consciousness, at least not in the ordinary way. You are a subject from your own point of view. And you can only become an object to the extent that you adopt the attitudes that other people take towards you.

Other people, from the beginning of life, are mirrors. And by the way they respond to you, you begin to learn what they think of you and therefore who you are. We all tell each other who we are. And so, the role we play, the identity we have in that sense, is a social institution.

You can listen to the first part here. The next parts include: “How to Play the Game”, “YOU are Your Worst Enemy”, “The Joke of Death” and “Don’t be Deceived”.

As a mirror in Ess’ life, I gotta take a shot at understanding this before I try to impart it to her.

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