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Using an Annoying Game to Deal With Annoying Thought Patterns

Malcolm throws a wrench into the gears of the ever calculating, meritorious self-machine. In so doing, he experiences moments of sincere love. Below, his strategy is revealed. - Editor

The Game

Have you heard of “The Game”? According to Wikipedia, there are 3 rules:

  1. Everyone in the world is playing The Game. (Sometimes narrowed to: “Everybody in the world who knows about The Game is playing The Game”, or alternatively, “You are always playing The Game.”) You cannot not play The Game; it does not require consent to play and you can never stop playing.
  2. Whenever one thinks about The Game, one loses.
  3. Losses must be announced to at least one person (either by using a statement such as “I Lost The Game” or by alternative means).

I played this for a little while in college and soon tired of it and stopped playing. Some might say that that’s not possible; nevertheless I accomplished it. I was not able, however, to stop people around me playing it. Most meals at the dining hall were punctuated by someone joyfully exclaiming, “I lost!” followed by a chorus of other “I lost”s.

Despite the annoyance caused by this game, I’ve discovered that it can be adapted into a pretty useful spiritual practice.

Keeping Score

There’s a part of me that is always keeping score with other people. Every time I say something smart or accomplish some task or especially when I do something “nice” for someone else my internal scorekeeper chalks up a few more points on my side. He does this to impress other people and so that people will like me and so that people will do things for me. He also does it to prove to God that I’m good enough.

The theological phrase for this is “ascribing merit to works,” or, in a more modern translation, “take credit for things we do for the sake of our salvation.” This passage from True Christianity explains exactly what’s wrong with this.

It is damaging for us to take credit for things we do for the sake of our salvation. Hidden within our credit-taking there are evil attitudes of which we are unaware at the time: denial that God flows in and works in us; confidence in our own power in regard to salvation; faith in ourselves and not in God; [the delusion that] we justify and save ourselves by our own strength; contempt for divine grace and mercy; rejection of reformation and regeneration by divine means; and especially disregard for the merit and justice of the Lord God our Savior, which we then claim as our own. In our taking credit there is also a continual focus on our own reward and perception of it as our first and last goal, a stifling and an extinction of love for the Lord and love for our neighbor, and total ignorance and unawareness of the pleasure involved in heavenly love (which takes no credit), while all we feel is our love for ourselves. (True Christianity 439 [I also recommend reading an old-school translation of the full passage for a slightly different flavor.])

I’ve known for a while that merit or taking credit for things is bad news but I’ve still struggled to shake my scorekeeper. Even if I manage to find something to do that doesn’t seem to have any benefit for me (and I manage to not tell the world that I did it), he’s still lurking there quietly, smugly whispering “Plus 1 for altruism. Plus 1 for humility.”

“I lost.”

Now, though, I have new rules for my scorekeeper, along the lines of The Game. Whenever I notice myself checking my score against someone else, I lose all of my points. All of them. Other people don’t lose their points but I have to start all over again. Sometimes I even say to myself, “I lost.” This helps to create a disincentive to checking on the score.

And I really do lose when I check the score. After listing all the evil attitudes that go along with taking credit, the passage above says, “In our taking credit there is also a continual focus on our own reward and perception of it as our first and last goal, a stifling and an extinction of love for the Lord and love for our neighbor, and total ignorance and unawareness of the pleasure involved in heavenly love (which takes no credit), while all we feel is our love for ourselves.” This is so true. When I’m focussed on how many points I’m scoring by doing something “nice” for somebody else and what I’m going to get out of it, there’s no room for love of the Lord or love of the neighbor and the heavenly pleasure that comes from them. But when I say “I lost” it reminds me that I’m losing the chance to experience genuine love and sometimes I can then let go of my selfish motivations and experience a little of the joy of being of service.

The other night I was taking a turn walking our baby girl to sleep and she was a little fussy and squirmy and not ready to go to bed, even though I certainly was. As usual, my scorekeeper started resentfully tallying up my score against my wife—“Let’s see… She looked after Mara all day but you worked hard all day too. And then you’ve changed two diapers since you’ve been home but she held her during supper…” Then I realized that I was checking the score so I lost all the points that I had scored and I remembered that I was losing the chance to experience heavenly loves. And then, rather than wishing I was doing something else, or thinking about how many points I was scoring against my wife, I started to really enjoy what I was doing. I was getting to hold and try to comfort a snuggly little baby! I was getting to do something helpful for her and for my wife!

I’d love to be able to say that ever since that experience I’ve only had heavenly motivations for looking after my daughter but it’s just not true. Every night I start keeping score again. But that’s why it’s useful to have rules for this annoying merit game that I’m playing. And maybe someday I’ll be able to stop playing it.

Additional Readings

Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them. Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven. Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly. (Matthew 6:1-4)

Give to everyone who asks of you. And from him who takes away your goods do not ask them back. And just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them likewise. But if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive back, what credit is that to you? For even sinners lend to sinners to receive as much back. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil. (Luke 6:30-35)

Malcolm Smith

Despite visa delays, Malcolm is still hoping to move to South Africa soon to become the Assistant to the Pastor of New Church Westville ( He also has a blog ( that he's currently working on overhauling.

Reader Comments (6)

This is another great article by Malcolm. Chalk up some points for yourself! Oh, wait, does that mean you lose? Can one make someone else lose in this game? Keep up the great work writing wonderful things to make us re-examine ourselves and get closer to the Lord.

January 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAunty J

Great article. I hated the old game, too. But this new one I'm playing.

January 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPearse

Thank you. Malcolm. I really enjoyed this article. I noticed myself having the thought, "Well, if I'm so terrible that I can never do good things without thinking of the (false) merit I get, maybe I should just not do anything good at all!" Then I realized, "Whoa, that's a horrible idea!" That's the kind of thought that leads to believing in faith alone for salvation and that good works don't count and are only a by-product of our salvation. So the final thought I came to was that it is so worth playing the game even though we'll continually lose; to keep doing good things for other people even though, at least in this lifetime, we'll continue to have the tendency to keep score; our playing is very the stuff the Lord uses to transform us.

January 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterChelsea

Cool man. I'm a sucker for anything that exposes and undermines our inner miserableness-making-machines.

January 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCurtis

Wow, Malcolm, great piece. I've been playing "the game" since Laurel 1986. I've always loved it because it reminds me of those happy years of parenting little children and the joy of hearing the whole camp chant "I lost." Then through out the rest of the year hearing or saying "I lost" would bring back warm feelings of delight and remains from camp, family vacations, or long road trips. The years have stretch on now and I realized I've been playing this stupid game for well over 20 years!

Today, most of the nest is empty, but once in a while "I lost" will still be heard from some end of the house, from the last kid at home or Gwenda, or a visiting child.

Now you have revived it for me and elevated it to a whole new level. Thanks. I do hope that, given my great levels of humility, altruism and charity... it is not the only stream of consciousness verbiage rattling around in my full head.

.... uh oh... I lost


April 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMichael C.


OK....update. I began to doubt my comment that I first learned the game in 1986. A little research opened up a world of info about "the Game" and its origins. The first thing to say is that the popularity of the game began around 2002. so my date is way off. However it did begin for me at Laurel, likely with Echols children to blame...

The second thing to share is the depth of research (or wild goose chasing) the author of "" goes to in explaining the origin of the game. The best part for me and Malcolm is the connection in Kant's theories of disinterestedness and Ekhart's exploration of detachment. Both bring spiritual depth, additional light and big smile to playing the game anew with Malcolm. You're really on to something, cheers.

from <>

Are there any other origin theories?

In the late 13th or early 14th century, Eckhart von Hochheim, a German philosopher, seems to discuss that, whilst being detached, if you think about the fact that you are detached, then you are no longer detached:

"So she remained immovable in her detachment, and praised in herself not detachment but humility. And if she had by so much as a word mentioned detachment, and had said: 'He has regarded my detachment', detachment would have been troubled by that, and would not have remained wholly perfect, for there would then have being a going out. There can be no going out, however small, in which detachment can remain unblemished."

April 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMichael C.
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