Fairness in Play: A Series?

“That wasn’t fair!”

It’s the ur critique. It’s when your childhood broke, if only a little bit. It’s the moment your budding theory of mind burst through into a terrible reality, and you realized that the game you’re playing might not be the game that the other kid is playing. ‘Cause your nerf dart definitely hit that jackass Trevor from across the street, but he’s not laying down and being dead like he’s supposed to and now he’s just shooting you in the face with all his darts even though that’s totally against the rules and maybe it’s high time you punch Trevor in the face. And never invite Trevor over again. He’s the worst.

But anyway, that’s not fair. It was kind of a betrayal, right? You were playing with friends. You all knew the rules. When a dart hits you, you lay down and you’re out for the round. Everybody gets hit sometimes, but you’ll do a bunch of rounds so, whatever, everyone plays plenty. But fucking Trevor, man. He’s like “Nuh-uh, it didn’t hit me! It didn’t hit me!” And you saw it hit him. You saw the dart bound off his chest. You saw that Trevor saw the dart bounce off his chest. But then he shot you in the face, and what could you do? What can anyone do under such duress?

Also, there was that time you were playing chess with your mom. You were pretty far into the game, at that point where there’s a lot of shuffling around, careful positioning, attention to detail, etc. Then your mom said “I think I made an illegal move earlier.” She pointed at one of her bishops, “It can’t legally be in that space, so I must’ve moved it wrong at some point.” And, yeah, that bishop started out on a white space, but there it was on a black space. And that kinda borked the game. It wasn’t fair.

It’s not that you literally couldn’t have kept playing, but seeing the mistake really sucked the air out of the game. Neither of you remembered when when the mistake happened, so you couldn’t just rewind to fix the game. You could’ve moved the bishop over to a black space to make it sorta legal again, but that would’ve been a huge change to the board, really good for you or really good for your mom depending on the black space. If you just left the bishop in its space, it might’ve been okay, but that’s not how chess really works. No one wants to play fake, lying, pretend chess.

And there was that other time (last one, I swear) when all you little jerks were arm wrestling. It was fine. Like, it was silly in the ways that arm wrestling is always silly, but it wasn’t bad. For the first few matches everyone argued about the rules and, ya know, totally would’ve won if Alex hadn’t picked up their leg or whatever. But, in due time, you all sorted it out. Right hands grasped. Left hands grip the table. Feet on the ground and butt in your chair. Lift your feet or your butt and you lose automatically. Obviously, you all still made excuses when you lost. At least there were rules, though.

But then fucking Trevor’s fucking brother showed up. Trevor’s Brother was built in a factory or something. He was five big dudes glued together into one huge dude. He bench pressed grizzly bears and drank protein drinks made of dinosaur eggs and moose testicles. One day, years later, he flexed his lats so hard that he tore himself in two.

On this day, though, Trevor’s Brother just walked up, “Fuck yeah, arm wrestling! I’m next!” So, surprise, he won. Every time. Against everyone. Individually and collectively. You might as well have arm wrestled a bulldozer. He basically just threw you all around until he got bored and then wandered off into the woods. Those grizzly bears weren’t going to bench press themselves.

And that sure as hell wasn’t fair! Nobody signed up for that shit. You wanted to arm wrestle with your friends: people whose arms were all about the same size, who weighed about the same, who’d never played tug of war against a tractor and won. But that wasn’t the game that happened. Instead, you were all sore, deflated, and defeated without ever having a real chance to win. Very not fair.

So the point here, probably all too obvious, is that when we talk about fairness in play, we could be talking about several things. We might be talking about whether someone is playing in good faith. We might be talking about whether we’ve played according to the rules. We might be talking about the legitimacy of a contest between players with different skill levels. We might be talking about stuff I didn’t provide examples of. Of course, we might also be talking about several things at the same time.

And that’s fine. Like any idea born from social activity, fairness is multivalent. We invoke it in different ways at different times. But, as with other messy ideas, it’s worth thinking about how and why we invoke fairness. So that’s what I’m gonna do, I guess. Muse on fairness, provide examples, look at corner cases, suggest times when the idea is useful and times when it fails us.

Stay tuned. I might have a useful thought or two. No guarantees.

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