Column: Skills

by Heather Dockray

“If I had your cards, I’d be winning, too.”
Next to the JFK assassination, September 11th, and lizard people, there is no greater conspiracy theory in America today than Trivial Pursuit. What starts off as lighthearted post-dinner entertainment soon becomes fraught with witch-trial hysteria: “This game keeps giving me the worst cards,” the losers shriek. “If I had your cards, I’d be winning, too.” Pushover friends nod their heads in agreement, but everyone refuses to acknowledge the truth. There is no second shooter at Hasbro. Despite accusations of impropriety, the makers of one of the most popular games in America have not set out to undermine us all with carefully constructed card shuffles and improperly recorded facts. Players of Trivial Pursuit lose not for lack of opportunity, but for lack of skill. They are not victims of a broad-based board game conspiracy. They are bad at the game. Whether at the living room coffee table or in the halls of Congress, Americans often refuse to admit the real truth; sometimes, we just lack skill. Failures in this country are externalized as chance: we don’t lose at the game because we’re bad at the game, we’re bad at the game because the game is bad at itself. If countries like China or India progress, it’s not because of any innovation or ingenuity on their part. Fixed exchange rates are to blame for flowing profit coffers. Authoritarianism drives growth, growth drives authoritarianism. If America can’t make cars or sew sweatpants, it’s not our fault. We’re really nice people, dealt a bad hand.

When it comes to skill, it’s easier to externalize than it is to take ownership. Imagine the losing Trivial Pursuit player. What if he had to admit the facts? That despite enabling parents, a liberal arts education, and years of Kindle ownership, he just doesn’t know the facts. Maybe he has no memory. No spatial relations! Dumb grandma must’ve dropped him on his head. Whatever the cause, he is bad at Trivial Pursuit. In our world, he is worthless. Probably ugly, too.

I’d like to think, however, that the bravest players and politicians among us can find a psychological middle ground—a space where we can assume responsibility without admitting defeat. Say: “I am bad at this” and not follow it with: “But at least you’re worse.” America could make better boots if we acknowledged our bootstraps. Forget the IMF. Ignore China. If we tried to be better board game players, we’d be better board game winners. To sharpen our skills, we could study the instructions, memorize the facts, learn the rules. Or maybe just stop playing Trivial Pursuit.

A world shaped by skill—not formed by fantasy—is less romantic, but more real. No mysterious force will guide us to our victories or lead us to our defeats. Scrabble games won’t be won by good letters or lucky plays. They’ll be achieved by hard-working people with cautiously crafted strategies: losers with nothing better to do. Ultimately, it’ll be harder for us to project failure when we assume guilt.  When the bubble bursts, we will have burst it. When the war is lost, we will have lost it. When our children fail, we will have failed them, probably because we let them watch too much Bravo.

Now imagine a board game, any board game, and the team of players who sit around it. Each of these players has a specific level of skill. Some know strategy, others see instructions, while a lucky few can cheat their way to the top. (Maybe someone finds a secret scoring system on a stolen page. Another person rigs the spinning dial, while those in last place scan their phone for last-minute WikiLeaks.) Some games involve more chance than others, but almost all include an element of agency. Whatever the case, skill is not a fantasy. Success is not a conspiracy theory. We are not a lizard people.