Published on
the Minneapolis Star-Tribune

In Today’s World, It’s Play or Be Played

Syl Jones

Has our modern life become a series of entertainments and diversions staged for our viewing pleasure, and to manipulate us? Are we becoming like the ancient Romans, whose bloody games were part of their rites of worship? As an example, consider Haiti. We've all seen the suffering in Haitian eyes; we watched as some heroically survived under rubble for weeks. So why haven't certain governments -- including America's -- forked over the promised funds to aid in Haiti's recovery?

According to CNN, only about 5 percent of the more than $5 billion promised to Haiti has been delivered. Perhaps the donor nations meant well and the money will be arriving later, after thousands more have died. Or perhaps some made noble-sounding pledges that they never intended to keep, hoping to look good in the bright light of constant media coverage. Now that the media is gone, the promises, too, have evaporated.

This is the Haiti game, a spectacle for years in which the object has been to exploit and neglect one of the poorest and most abused nations in history.

The Gulf Coast game began with the botched response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and continues with the BP oil spill. An entire way of life may be disappearing while BP dissembles. First, the company lied about the amount of oil flowing from its well, then "misunderestimated" the time it would take to fix the problem, and now is seriously lagging in compensating the victims.

The Gulf Coast game will continue because, no matter what its spiffy TV ads say, BP's object is to allow time to pass so that we forget its culpability while besieged Gulf residents will move on, give up, or die before they can collect.

There's no escaping the fact that, around the world, people are being gamed nearly to death by corporate and governmental "playas." Greed drives the prevailing winds.

Psychiatrist Eric Byrne, in his seminal 1964 book "Games People Play," defined a game as, "a recurring set of transactions ... with a concealed motivation ... or gimmick." That nails the world in which we live.

Here's a smaller example: If you have a relative in a senior-care or assisted-living center, chances are Medicare (that's us taxpayers) is being billed for "debridement of nails 1-10" without your loved one's awareness. "Debridement" means toenail clipping. The charge is between $35 and $70, more than enough to buy Mom a pedicure at a local spa.

In this ongoing game called Steal the Public's Money -- also popular among defense contractors -- the object is to overbill for products and services for as long as possible. Imagine how much public money is secretly slipping into podiatrists' pockets through Medicare for this dubious service.

When we shop at almost any store, we're also being gamed. Merchandisers and marketers want us to spend more money, and they've studied the psychology of purchasing. They call it "managing a buyer's experience." The best-value (and lowest-profit) products are invariably at the very bottom or very top of the shelves, not at eye level.

If you buy a service like carpet cleaning -- or replace your garbage disposal -- you're likely being gamed. The service provider comes to your home, looks at your furnishings and gives you a price based on your zip code and what he thinks you can afford. Too high? Well, he has a "little leeway" and can cut a third off that outrageous price.

The question is, what is the real value of that product or service, and why didn't he offer you the "new" price in the beginning? If you argue that "real value" is a relative term, you're making yourself a part of the game.

The curse of moral relativism is that we never stop paying its ridiculously escalating price, which is the erosion of reality. Cheating is now viewed as part of the game, not an aberration, and our children regularly look up "cheat" codes on the Internet so they can become videogame champions. Whom do they think they're cheating?

Likewise, commercials showing a family taking a casino vacation attempt to deceive viewers about the very nature of gaming and the addictive dangers it poses for kids. But, hey, I don't want to imply that taking your kids to the casino is a form of child abuse. In today's world, that would be presumptuous and wrong -- wouldn't it?

The persistence of gamesmanship in our daily lives makes us less trusting, more callous and cautious, weary of authentic human interaction. While we can certainly be manipulated, the back end of the equation is rage and distrust. And because everyone seems to be doing it, a kind of learned helplessness becomes part of the game itself.

I wonder if the spectators in the Roman Coliseum felt helpless, too, as they watched slaves, Christians, Jews and gladiators scream in agony as they were being ripped apart? Whatever they felt, it didn't cause the Romans to find their moral center, and it didn't stop the games for centuries.

Syl Jones, of Minnetonka, Minnesota, is a journalist, playwright and communications consultant.

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