COMPETING AGAINST COMPETITION AS THE CENTRAL NARRATIVE MOTIVATION

White King "Power up!" "Big boss!" "Get some!"

Tennis anyone?

Ha! Gotcha! Even tennis is about wiping out the competition. The question is, "Is that a problem?"

No, tennis is not the problem. But an idea has begun to take root. Here it is: competition and it's darker, fraternal twin self-aggrandizement are the most established narrative threads in our lives. In the arc of business relations, politics, sports, and recreation, competitive forces describing complete domination, even destruction of an opponent propel us to action, justify emotion, and convey relevance to the detriment of more nuanced ideas.

Lost? Let me break it down.

I like a good first person shooter now and again. I'm a bad-ass with a rocket launcher, and you definitely don't want to go head to head with me in a competitive tower defense or real time strategy game unless you want to be served. (I think my kids are rolling their eyes…)

But a non-scientific survey of video game options suggests a vast preponderance of kill-or-be-killed circumstance in the narratives. Games are competitive proxies for our own mortality. Victories tend to be about about survival, but even more, video victories are about proving that the other guy cannot stand up to our prowess. It's true for Call of Duty, but it's also true for slower, older games. Take chess. Each player taken on the board is a proxy for it being killed on the field of battle. In the game of kings, the contest ends in regicide.

Movies and television are largely narrative frames about one of three things: survival, romance, and kicking the bad guy hard enough so that he doesn't get up again, ever. When we consider that romance is often portrayed as a competitive enterprise, where failure to capture the object's heart equals failure most epic, those three categories starts to shrink into two.

Look at the language we use. We do not simply defeat our tennis opponent. We beat him like the proverbial dead horse, because winning is just not enough. Competition is about death, and to pretend otherwise it to allow yourself to be swept up in euphemistic rainbows and unicorns that you know you don't really believe anyway. The fantasy victories we pursue are lethal: we either eviscerate our adversaries with a knife, or we obliterate them in the public marketplace. When the story is about the main character's survival, the competitive pressures portrayed are about justifying the character's mere existence more than anything else. Think that's an exaggeration? Rambo exists because he's the one best suited to survive what the Army wants him to do. How about something a little sweeter? Mary Poppins survives and thrives with children who've already driven previous nannies batty. She exists as a narrative force…precisely because we want her to. We should not forget that if a story justifies a character's existence, then viewers -- that's us!-- will inevitably relate and feel similarly justified to endure.

Of course, outside the narrative experiences we consume, you won't find many people actually killing the opposition very often. That would not be an efficient way to structure societies, although it's interesting to note how often mortal consequences seem to follow our national and even corporate goals. Fictional losers often lose everything, even as we pretend to talk about fair play. Carl von Clausewitz's charge that war is simply diplomacy by other means suggests that the real threat may not be war but further back. Perhaps the real threat is the way we regard our obfuscated goals of diplomacy.

The academy has long since discussed the value of altruism. Countless ashrams and neo-utopias and even political movements have struggled to create societies with egalitarian intentions rather than purely competitive ones. Most don't amount to much, despite the endless efforts to make them live and breathe. No doubt there are altruistic forces in many, many people, but I've lately started to doubt the depth of their appeal when I consider how often people resonate with more violent, aggressive alternatives.

One starts to wonder about alternatives. In a blog about creativity, it would seem inevitable that I'd make some suggestions, right?

There are some options. But the question is not about finding them, but in understanding why trends toward competitive ends seems to hold such sway. The great simulation software SimCity suggests an alternative, facilitating a world of invention and social experiments, and pure unbridled creation. A box of Lego bricks does much the same thing, as does a shelf of dolls sitting quietly, ready for a tea party. But when we switch to other seemingly innocuous diversions like the many variations of Nintendo's Mario the Plumber-- running, racing, jumping, or otherwise acting like a kid's character--the jig is up. Dressed in Mario's jokey, cartoony imagery, we're still fed a competitive narrative that demands defeat of our opponent to justify our time spent playing and searching for gold coins. Our entertainments are not about beauty, nor cooperation, nor introspection, nor even experience. We play to win, and winning often means defeating--that is, beating-- the other guy. Our illusion of civility unravels, and yet we often do not even notice. Tea parties with dolls become simulacrums for measured social pressures, for practicing who's in and who's out. Lego enterprises become stories about battle tanks and aerial bombardments. Last I heard, battle tanks were good for killing people and burning a lot of fuel, but not much else.

Does music offer an alternative? Does poetry? Gardening? To some extent, yes. Painting? Cooking? Holding hand and walking on a beach?

By now you're probably thinking that I'm proposing a dull, bland, bloodless existence. No more football; no more James Bond movies; no more all night Playstation tournaments.

I'm not. But I am suggesting that there ought to be a dialogue, or at least an awareness that begins to creep back into the culture, and soon. We live in an era where everything that we once knew about the trajectory of life is now in question, agitated by viscous competition. Get a higher education? Only the strongest can make it and pay for it. Get a job that pays you a living wage? It's uphill all the way, and don't even think of turning your cell phone off at night. International relations have everyone on edge at national borders, and when you travel by ones and zeros across the internet, you're in an arms race with password thieves and virus writers.

I'm wrapping this up with an assertion, and I'm serious about it: this blog posting is not a gloom and doom rant, nor a limp cri de coeur. The narrative of violence and the expression of competition as the singular force driving life on Earth may very well hew to fundamental--and real-- Darwinian realities, but the thing about making free-will, creative choices in life is that there are always new ways to look at familiar challenges.

-Michael Starobin

PS -- Yes, yes, here's where the good people of 1AU ask our dear readers to share what you've read with friends and colleagues. And here's the place where you think, "Oh, sure, one more imposition of my precious time." Well, we're asking. It's something we value above rubies, above gold: if you like an idea enough to give it a moment's thought, then consider giving it a measure of freedom. When you share an idea with another person, you release an idea to grow freely in the world. Like what you see? Set it free.

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