The Game
March 15, 2010 8:36 AM   Subscribe

Teach me about "The Game" and how people, including yourself, play it.

Some might call it office politics but "The Game" doesn't always involve an office, and it doesn't always involve politics. You hear people refer to it all the time: "John is a complete muppet but knows how to play The Game", "Laura is so successful because she knows how to play The Game". What exactly is this game? How do you personally play it? Are there universal rules that apply to aspiring businessmen, professors, athletes and mechanics? Are there different rules for multi-national corporations versus a small family owned restaurant? Once you know the rules, how do you become skillful in said game? Is this game what Dale Carnegie, Machiavelli, and Robert Greene wrote about? I know the game involves politics, but is that it? Ultimately this question would result in people saying "Jason couldn't stack boxes to reach a banana but sure knows how to play The Game".
posted by jasondigitized to Work & Money (40 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
I've always defined "The Game" to my students as being able to assess the situation you're in and respond in a way that gets you what you want. Many adolescents are not able to do that successfully.
posted by HuronBob at 8:42 AM on March 15, 2010 [4 favorites]

...but that's not what you mean, okay, okay. I think you're referring to The Game of ass-kissing the powerful people in the office and constantly thinking of yourself and how to get ahead: constantly tout your skills and achievements; (aforementioned ass-kissing is an absolute necessity); launch yourself off of other people's achievements when possible; etc.
posted by Eicats at 8:44 AM on March 15, 2010

Being good at "the game" usually means you know how to network well and are willing to tirelessly do whatever it takes to reach the top, including tearing down others, taking credit for things you didn't do, etc. A person who reaches the "top" with hard work isn't good at "the game", the person who reaches it seemingly effortlessly is. In a word, schmoozability.
posted by speedgraphic at 8:45 AM on March 15, 2010 [3 favorites]

I read that whole post and didn't lose the game until TigerMoth's comment!

As for the game in OP's question, I think it refers to a winning mix of interpersonal skills and cynicism.
posted by domnit at 8:49 AM on March 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

It almost sounds like you're looking for an actual The Game with a set of The Rules.

It's not that cut and dried, really, but in general it's about having a keen awareness of what's going on around you, especially with interpersonal relationships, and being able to use it to your advantage - but not so much that you're manipulating or alienating people. You know, the kind of stuff that gets you sorted into Slytherin or helps you win Survivor.
posted by Metroid Baby at 8:50 AM on March 15, 2010 [6 favorites]

In my world it refers to making it in the world of capitalism. Knowing how to treat your boss and clients. Working on your skills. Keeping your eyes peeled for new opportunities, etc. I think describing it as petty office politics and such is really a bit disingenious. You can get ahead in life without being an asshole or a calculating backstabber.

You can treat your clients well because its your job and going a little out of your way for them isnt a Machiavellian attempt to win them over, but an expression of your professionalism. You can be nice to your boss and coworkers not because you'll need them as references in the future, but because it sucks to work around people who you treat badly or who treat you badly.
posted by damn dirty ape at 8:50 AM on March 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

If I understand The Gervais Principle (and as a Loser I probably don't), what you see as "The Game" may be genuine multi-leveled power communication among Sociopaths, but is more likely members of the Clueless fooling themselves into thinking they're playing "The Game." Trying to learn the rules of "the Game," e.g. how to be a Sociopath, marks you indelibly as Clueless. (Note: the labels Sociopath, Clueless, and Loser have specific meanings withing the Gervais principle and don't necessarily indicate whatever you're thinking right now.)
posted by Devoidoid at 8:57 AM on March 15, 2010 [9 favorites]

Is it not just a combination of butt-kissing and trading professional favors? Along with, I guess, assertiveness, a winning smile and firm handshake, and the ability to seem interested in anything?

There's also a seedier Game involving illicit sexual dealings and blackmailing and such, but I doubt many of us have much experience with that one. It makes for good movie plots though.
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 8:58 AM on March 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

It's merely a metaphor for the way the world works in any given context. There is no actual "game."
posted by The World Famous at 8:58 AM on March 15, 2010 [11 favorites]

When I was in graduate school the first time as a very young person, there were students who were much better than I was at getting intangible extras from faculty: mentoring, invitations to conferences, little jobs as research assistants that resulted in second author credits on papers, invitations to dinner at the prof's house. I was a very good student with The Most Impressive Fellowship The Entire University Had to Offer but had (and have) no idea how this invisible process worked for them.
posted by not that girl at 9:05 AM on March 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

It's just a turn of phrase. It doesn't really mean anything. There is no official or canonical "Game." When someone "knows how to play the game," it simply means they know how to get what they want. That could mean networking, people-pleasing, or even manipulation.

Also, I just lost.
posted by joshrholloway at 9:09 AM on March 15, 2010 [3 favorites]

It is more about operating within a system.

If you know how the system you're in (work, politics, teams, relationships, etc) operates, and use that to your advantage, then you 'know how to play the game.' Even if you fail at everything else.

This very fact rules out universals because every system is different.
posted by infinitefloatingbrains at 9:09 AM on March 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

"Pretend to care."
posted by A Terrible Llama at 9:14 AM on March 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I am not looking for a manual of The Game or a set of The Rules. It is the subtlety that I am trying to understand. I do not accept that it is cut-and-dry and involves only sociopaths. I am looking for multiple perspectives on The Game as it is in your world, in hopes of coming to a greater understanding in a larger context. What is The Game in a publishing house? What about in a metropolitan school system? I have seen non-a**holes succeed in this game in the world of corporate I.T., but am not sure how they did it. I would assume that they could pull the same thing off in a totally different environment with a few modifications.
posted by jasondigitized at 9:19 AM on March 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

What exactly is this game?

Social engineering.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:20 AM on March 15, 2010

This Book: Managing With Power: Politics and Influence in Organizations .

Some people just know this stuff intuitively, or were brought up in households where it was subconsciously taught to them.

The rest of us? We learn it in a cold and calculating fashion. And it becomes a lot less interesting once we see the wizard behind the curtain. But it's very useful knowledge.
posted by swngnmonk at 9:21 AM on March 15, 2010 [5 favorites]

posted by changeling at 9:27 AM on March 15, 2010

Best answer: I have seen non-a**holes succeed in this game in the world of corporate I.T., but am not sure how they did it. I would assume that they could pull the same thing off in a totally different environment with a few modifications.

Generally, it comes down to:

1) They're likable, and as a result, people are often willing to give them a chance to prove themselves.
2) They prove that they are able to get a job done and done well. They solve problems.

The exceptions, the assholes, tend to jump #1 by simply being really good at problem-solving. There's not a lot of professional use to someone who can't perform task #2, no matter how likable they are.

You play the game by having a flexible network and database of problem solutions and using them to expand your network of problem solvers for future problems to be solved. The Game is not played at a linear pace; it's an exponential game where those who really play well get ahead of the rest at a rapidly increasing rate.
posted by Hiker at 9:38 AM on March 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: In my experience, "playing The Game" need not be Machiavellian, or require great cynicism or guile. Many of those who are good at "the Game," are, in fact, simply able to be very empathetic about the motivations, capabilities, and limitations of others. That allows them to predict the behavior of others accurately, and to then participate in mutually advantageous relationships, without creating undue resentment among others. People who really "win" at "the Game" do so in the long term; they're the folks that seem to have it all together, including having good friends, a great reputation, influence, sometimes genuine power, and real respect in their public facing activities, and often, solid family and personal lives, too. That's because they're accurate and honest about their assessments of themselves, and others; they're rarely really surprised or disappointed by the shortcomings or failures of others, and often see, far in advance of any real evidence, the talents and special capabilities of others. They don't "use" people, so much as help them see themselves and their opportunities accurately, too.

They're generally perceived as positive, predictable, principled, generous, and often, even wise, by others. They are often very good at managing their own time and resources, and prioritizing efforts. They are often natural leaders, but even if they don't lead, they can come, in later life, to inspire others, and when they do slip, are genuine in acknowledging failures and shortcomings, and making amends. But, they don't fail often, or need to apologize frequently, publicly or privately, because they gain by experience, and not only don't make the same mistakes twice, but are able to extrapolate from their lessons learned to avoid similar situations in the future.
posted by paulsc at 9:39 AM on March 15, 2010 [41 favorites]

A game is something that differs from reality in that it has its own set of rules and its own concept of winning/losing. As a metaphor, a good game player knows it's a game (unless s/he's just a naturally talented player) and doesn't allow how they actually feel about things distract them from making the best strategic move at any moment.
posted by Obscure Reference at 9:45 AM on March 15, 2010 [3 favorites]

You could check out The Golden Rule of Schmoozing: The Authentic Practice of Treating Others Well. It certainly is written from a non-sociopath point of view. From his point of view it is "The Golden Rule on steriods."

It is written by Aye Jaye who is a carny, magician, comedian, and the first Ronald some of the work he gives definitely is more HIS personality than universally applicable. (IMO) but I found it a fun read.
posted by Wink Ricketts at 9:46 AM on March 15, 2010

Never underestimate how much being polite and punctual will set you apart from others.
posted by Mick at 10:11 AM on March 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Gaming the System?

It's following the letter of the law rather than the spirit of the law to get what you want. For example, let's say that the way the promotions system works is that if two people at the next level vote for you, you are promoted. Obviously the idea is that people notice and promote people who have done a good job and have good potential. But, if you bribe or sleep with or blackmail or just kiss up to two people at the next level and they vote for you, you've gamed the system.

In many cases, so many people are already gaming the system (or "playing the game") that it becomes necessary to play the game even if you are doing those things the system was designed to promote. So let's say you're a brilliant scientist doing amazing work -- you still "play the game" -- e.g. by getting to know influential people, dressing to impress, marketing your work, etc. I think "playing the game" generally connotes that sort of effort rather than really sociopathic behavior like killing/sleeping/conniving your way to the top.
posted by callmejay at 10:13 AM on March 15, 2010

The folowup post to The Gervais Principle goes into more detail about specific aspects of how people at different power levels talk to each other Posturetalk, Powertalk, Babytalk and Gametalk.
posted by Space Coyote at 10:15 AM on March 15, 2010

On a related topic, I have been watching "managers" to see what's different about them. This does not include "managers who really should not be managers". These are the things I notice:

- very little personal-life sharing...enough to get a general feel of what they are about, but nothing negative, and always with consideration of what can be used against them
- the jokes they tell are good-natured, never self-deprecating, and only verge on the poking-fun-at-others when absolutely safe (never to something they are superior to)
- they dress appropriately...that doesn't mean in suits, but does mean that they consider their appearance in terms of who they *might* meet that day, not just who they expect to
- they don't have a problem taking a question away to think about or ask others about...however, they DO think about it and DO get back to the asker (which is often the borderline between good and bad managers)
posted by swimming naked when the tide goes out at 10:22 AM on March 15, 2010 [6 favorites]

I think it depends very much upon the workplace. I spent many years working in a very disfunctional office, and the butt-kissers rose while the best were shot down by politics with alarming regularity. Those who "played the game" took credit for everything they even remotely touched, kept close to the executives and made time every day to schmooze and flatter, and were pretty much douches to everyone below them. Worked like a charm!
posted by The Light Fantastic at 10:57 AM on March 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Here's my mostly non-Machiavellian interpretation of The Rules:

Do what your boss (whether a manager, a customer, or a higher-up) asks you to do as long as it's not an ethics violation or will cause substantial damage, even if you think it's stupid.

If you feel confident that the stupid but not unethical thing your boss wants you to do will create problems for the organization, quantify your concerns and present those to your boss. When presenting, indicate that you want to avoid a situation where they end up looking bad.

Don't make other staff look bad when they're not doing something well. Wait until they're doing -- or have clear evidence they're about to do -- something genuinely awful or unethical before taking action or raising the issue to other authorities.

If you can do something better in a way that you feel confident will benefit everyone in the group, you should go ahead and do it.

If you can do something better in a way that will benefit everyone in the group except those doing something awful, you should go ahead and do it (and prepare for a fight). Someone blocking you from doing something highly positive for the group can be considered genuinely awful.

If you can do something better in a way that might have negative consequences or cause annoyance for people who aren't doing something awful, you shouldn't do it until you find out how to not cause negative consequences, or if those people have explicitly asked you to do said thing even after you've advised them of the negative consequences.

"Because it's always been done that way" is never a Rule of The Game, and should be ignored -- unless you're explicitly asked to do it that way by your boss (see above).

However, be tolerant of existing practices that you find annoying or a mild hindrance, when those rules provide genuine benefit for the rest of the group. If it is a major hindrance, request an exception. If a practice doesn't benefit anyone, or a very small subset or the organization, see above.

Eagerly listen to everything that everyone says, positive or negative, and evaluate the merits of what they're saying regardless of the source. Say as little as possible that isn't specific to the work that must be done, that isn't positive or neutral, or something you feel both strongly about and confident in.

Make sure that the work you do is openly known to be your work, whether good, bad or unknown, by being available and transparent. If you don't take responsibility from the outset, people may never know what it is you've done.

Don't decline assignments without a very good reason.

Offer help to others at any given opportunity, even if there isn't a direct benefit to you by helping them. However, don't spend so much time helping others that you neglect your core responsibilities.

If you don't feel like you can succeed by following the above principles, do everything possible to leave the group.

Don't be jealous of those individuals who have found more success than you when they've clearly been following the above principles. On the contrary, you'll want to befriend those people.

Don't be jealous of those individuals who have found more success than you when they don't follow the above principles. They were in the right place at the right time. There may well be a time when those tables are turned.

Be confident that those who have found success by cheating -- through nepotism, unethical work or favors, or taking undue credit for others' work -- will find a limit to their success, even when it doesn't seem that way at the time.
posted by I EAT TAPAS at 10:59 AM on March 15, 2010 [3 favorites]

Remember Stephen Potter and Gamesmanship, defined as "the art of winning without actually cheating"?
posted by Logophiliac at 11:18 AM on March 15, 2010

I think one thing that, sort of ironically, sets those good "game players" apart, is a recognition that there aren't any rules. I was always the type that imagined it was unfair if someone got their foot in the door through a personal meeting instead of official data on a transcript or resume; I would expect each candidate to be evaluated and compared, and all information to be as precise as possible, when that is just not how the world works. The world is full of personalities, and the way to make stuff happen is to realize that you are a unique individual, not a set of statistics that might be higher or lower on a chart when set against a group. You have to show people that your individual way of being in the world is interesting, useful, harmonious, beneficial, and otherwise good for the company - not that a collection of facts proves you are qualified.
posted by mdn at 11:35 AM on March 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Have you seen the (ugly orange-and-blue) book called "The 48 Laws of Power"? You might consider it a sort of Hoyle's Guide to the Game you're thinking of.
posted by wenestvedt at 11:42 AM on March 15, 2010

I'm not sure if this is what you mean, but... my version of this involves nothing more than common sense that a shockingly large number of people seem to lack.

For example: if you rent an apartment, you should make an effort to be friendly to the people who manage your building. Especially maintenance. I'm not saying to kiss ass. Just be friendly and respectful. Be the sort of tenant you would want if YOU managed the building.

Here's a basic fact about human beings: People like people they like. Sounds obvious to the point of being dumb, eh? Clearly it isn't so obvious because we've all seen tons of people who treat others like crap, be it through a negative attitude, manipulation or thoughtlessness, and yet they wonder why others dislike them. Crazy.

Follow the golden rule.
posted by 2oh1 at 12:22 PM on March 15, 2010

P.S. My advice would be to learn empathy. The better you can understand situations from someone else's point of view, even when you disagree, the more successful you will be both in business and personal situations.
posted by 2oh1 at 12:24 PM on March 15, 2010

While this is not the social advancement that you are referring to, there is a common mental meme / exercise known as "The Game" which involves trying not to think about it - each time you do, you lose. Due to the social / public nature of it, and how wide-spread it is, I would not be surprised if you hear people talk about it in a way that might be confused with advancing (or falling behind) in the social positioning Game you are thinking of - i.e. "I lost The Game!" (Meaning they thought about The Game, as opposed to getting screwed in a social circle.)

You might see several references to it on this page... ;-)
posted by GJSchaller at 12:39 PM on March 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

It's "the game" not "The Game." Although the phrase "knowing how to play the game" is a common one, the meaning of "game" changes with context and is not always the same sort of "game." Sometimes it's in reference to general office politics, sometimes it's in reference to a particular company's or industry's way of doing things, sometimes it's even more specific than that. It's not always politics or people skills, either -- sometimes it's just knowledgeable working of a system of policies and procedures.
posted by Jacqueline at 1:12 PM on March 15, 2010

In my experience, statements like the ones you cite are usually just sour grapes. If you don't like someone personally, or you are jealous of their accomplishments, it's easy to dismiss them with "Oh yeah that guy's an idiot but he Knows People."

This crops up a lot in the field of professional writing. "He's a terrible writer, but he networks at all the right parties" or "She's a terrible writer but she knows the head of the publishing company." For example, people will go to great lengths to explain Stephen King's popularity without resorting to admitting that the man has talent and works hard.

Some people are chronically unable to give credit where it's due. If Alice says "Bob is an idiot, but he's good at The Game," ask yourself, is Alice a bitter person in general? Does she frequently make statements that trivialize or dismiss someone's talent, intelligence, experience, or hard work?

If so, rest assured that it's Alice who is playing a Game. And not a very nice one, either.
posted by ErikaB at 2:03 PM on March 15, 2010

What I've found most important is 'time'.
Spend time with your higherups - chat with them at the water cooler/coffee station, see where they go for lunch and have a brief 'elevator' conversation.

Basically, be noticed. So that when they have something they want done, you're foremost in their minds.

Needless to say, I prefer my life outside of work, so I don't tend to do that very much.
posted by Arthur Dent at 3:38 PM on March 15, 2010

My experience of "playing the game" as a turn of phrase is an interesting one in that the meaning varies considerably depending on whether it's used in first, second, or third person, or in the general sense not specific to a particular individual or group of individuals.

Third person: In my experience, if people express that someone else is good at playing the game, it means she hasn't earned the recognition she's received. Like, so-and-so is a terrible programmer/manager/marketer/etc, but boy can he ever play the game and that's why I report to him now. Typically stated resentfully. Also stated in awe: "Will sure is incompetent at widget-making, which is usually something that holds you back in the widget industry, but he sure can play the game and that is how he became VP of widget engineering."

First person: If someone says something about how she personally knows how to play the game, that typically means she's done something she's not entirely proud of in order to get where she is. That may mean something unethical, or it may mean the person in question has used people skills rather than strictly technical skills to advance up a technical job ladder, or vice versa, but in general, if you think you've basically earned what you've gotten, you don't call it "playing the game". You call it "being great at what I do". That being said, some people may say "Oh, I was just playing the game" to deflect praise, while privately knowing they are actually just really good at their job. Or they may have impostor syndrome and think they are successful due to playing the game, but really they're good at what they do and just don't know that.

Second person: If someone tells you that you have got to play the game, it means you're being a stick in the mud and not cooperating with something. This something could be immoral or it could just be a pain in the ass or maybe technically impossible, but it you're not willing to put aside whatever is holding you back and just do it, you aren't playing the game.

Then there's a kind of value neutral "one must play the game to get ahead", which doesn't mean much of anything other than "sometimes your vocation compels you to do things you never thought would be an important part of your vocation, but here we are. Capitalism, what is it but a game?" Probably safely ignored. Might mean "Let's have beers after this, yeah? I am overwhelmed by my day-to-day reality."
posted by little light-giver at 7:10 PM on March 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Even before reading the [more inside] I lost the game. As did you by posting this.
posted by baserunner73 at 10:53 PM on March 15, 2010

I would suggest that 'The Game,' broadly, is about acting only in ways that benefit you. Some might focus on the not-helping-anyone-who-can't-help-you aspect of that, while for others a key might be not reacting emotionally in ways that might hurt you.
posted by troywestfield at 7:21 AM on March 16, 2010

Best answer: I think paulsc's answer is the closest to my understanding of the phrase. I would add that, to me, "knowing how to play the game" starts with an ability to accept people and situations as they are. I think a lot of people - especially in the workplace - get so annoyed when things aren't the way they "should" be that they sometimes act against their own self-interest because they wish the situation were different. I'm thinking of a book I read once in which a really great schoolteacher was sure he was going to be promoted to headmaster, but the job went to somebody else - Tony, who knew how to play the game. Tony knew that the reality of running a school involved schmoozing the right people, whether school board members or local businesspeople; heck, it might even involve fudging the budget slightly so the unpopular but important afterschool program for at-risk kids gets funded by taking a few dollars from the popular football program. Someone who didn't know how to play the game would fume about how we should all just be recognized on merit and schools should be properly funded to begin with and there shouldn't be any need to hit up the locals for more money or play games with the budget. That person really wants the program for at-risk kids to keep going, but is unwilling to acknowledge the reality of what it takes to make that happen.

Certainly for many people, "knowing how to play the game" results in more personal advantages and is less about getting afterschool programs funded. But my perception of "the game" is that it requires, first and foremost, an acceptance of the world as it is and people as they are, and perhaps in its most altruistic facet, a willingness to use people's weaknesses for good - for example, "I know the boss's boss is a sucker for flattery; I know my team would be perfect for that big new project and it would help everyone on the team AND help the company if my team gets to do the project; so I'll play on the uberboss's vanity to make sure my team gets the project." Someone who didn't "know how to play the game" might say "Well, all that matters is that the best team gets the project, and surely the higher-ups know who's the best / if they don't pick my team they deserve to fail / whatever."

Of course, it can get into slippery ethics very quickly (see fudging the budget in my example above), and that's where all the potential dark sides can come into play.
posted by kristi at 10:11 AM on March 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

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