Metalogue 3: About games and being serious

This third metalogue begins with the question, “Daddy, are these conversations serious?… Or are they a sort of game that you play with me?”

It is an opportunity for Bateson to explore what we mean by  ‘game’, and ‘serious’ and ‘play’.

For businesses it reveals why innovation is so essential, why it can be difficult, and why it should be inspirational.

The metalogues are set out as a series of conversations between a father and his daughter.

Bateson starts out by assuring his daughter that he isn’t playing a game with her. But he hopes their conversations are a game they play together.

His daughter thinks he isn’t being serious. So he explains that he doesn’t mind about winning or losing. He doesn’t bluff or set traps for her, and he definitely doesn’t cheat.

The daughter replies that people who cheat “don’t know how to play. They treat a game as though it were serious.” “But it is serious,” her father replies.

[Bateson here is deliberately playing with our minds here, creating a muddle. He uses the same words with different meanings at different times. ‘Serious’ can mean ‘respectful’ or ‘important’. Game can mean ‘trickery’ or simply ‘play, with rules’. He is ‘playing’ with his daughter, and playing with us, and doing so in order to make a serious point.]

The daughter doesn’t believe him. If he doesn’t want to win enough that he would cheat, how can he really be taking it seriously? He retaliates that if she doesn’t want to cheat all of the time, she can’t be taking it seriously then either. They agree his wordplay has just tricked her (to score a point), which is a sort of cheating.

They stop and agree they are confused. It is all a bit of a muddle. But in a way it makes sense. They try to understand why.

[Again, Bateson is deliberately getting us into a muddle so that he can lead us out again. Stick with it.]

The father says that he enjoys their conversations, and thinks they both they learn something from them. He says that the muddles are important in helping to get things straight. “If we both spoke logically all the time, we would never get anywhere. We would only parrot all the old clichés that everybody has repeated for hundreds of years.”

This is an important point. But Bateson chooses this moment to go off on a tangent. He explains the origins of the word cliché to his daughter. He says that early French printers used moveable type, arranging letters to make words or phrases. For words or sentences that people used often, it made sense to keep sets of letters ready made up. And these sets were called clichés.

He says that if their talks didn’t get into muddles it would be like playing cards without shuffling the pack first. The clichés are the same sort of thing. They are all our ready-made phrases and ideas. If we want to create something new, we have to break them up and shuffle the pieces. Creating the muddles are essential for this.

When the printers broke up their clichés they wouldn’t jumble all the letters together. They would make sure they kept them ordered: all the a’s in one place, all the b’s in another. In the same way, perhaps when we get into muddles we need to do the same with our ideas (keep them sorted into a’s and b’s) to keep from going mad.

Returning to the idea of whether their conversation is a game or serious, they agree it seems to depend on the ideas and emotions of the people involved. If both people have the same ideas and emotions then that is alright. Although the father is serious about the things they talk about, he says he knows he often ‘plays’ with the ideas in order to understand them, and fit them together. It is the same way in which a small child will ‘play’ (quite seriously) with a set of wooden blocks.

The daughter asks whether her father plays against her. He thinks it is more as if they play together against the blocks. (He does admit, however, that sometimes he will compete to see who can get the next idea into place, or to knock down the other’s set of ideas if they haven’t been built very strongly.)

The daughter points out that there is a difference between a game and just ‘playing’: games have rules. Do their talks have rules? Her father agrees that they do. The child’s blocks come with their own rules about how they will stack together. Using glue would be cheating. Their ideas come with rules about the positions in which they will, or won’t, stack up. And he and she can’t use glue either, only logic.

“But I thought you said that if we always talked logically we could never say anything new?”

Another muddle!

In talking about this muddle they realise that they don’t know what the rules of the conversation are (though they do know that they enjoy playing it).

The father suggests that the ‘rules’ are they way they have to group the ideas once they have broken down the clichés. Like the printers grouping all the a’s and b’s together. When they fail to do that [when they mix up the different meanings of words like serious and game], then they get into muddles. Except that the whole point of the game is to get into a muddle and then come out the other side…

The daughter the points out that her father sometimes changes the rules. Or at least some of the rules. Which gets us into another muddle. Until Bateson points out that the purpose of the game, the conversation, is to discover what the rules are. “It’s like life,” he says. “A game whose purpose is to discover the rules, which are always changing and always undiscoverable.”

The daughter wouldn’t call that a ‘game’, so perhaps they’ll call it ‘play’ — in the same way that kittens and puppies play.

(“Daddy, why do kittens and puppies play?”)

And there the metalogue ends.


I must admit I find this metalogue quite frustrating at points. It all seems a bit of a muddle, which I find uncomfortable. But of course that is the point. Bateson creates and takes us through the muddle before he brings us out the other side. And the new understanding he creates in doing so is the meaning of life, so we can’t complain that we’ve been undersold.

But how can the insights from this metalogue be useful in business?

Well, it does remind me strongly of some business conversations I’ve sat in on. And I agree with Bateson that the muddles arose when we mixed up our ideas (like the printers’ letters getting into the wrong groups). So maybe this can help us be clear about whether we’re talking about strategies or tactics, product features or customer needs, or trends, success factors, implications or actions. We now understand that when we get in a muddle, being clear about the structure of what we are talking about is very important.

It is also useful to be reminded that logic doesn’t invent anything new. It only breaks what exists into smaller chunks, or combines it into larger ones. In the same way, cost-cutting or restructuring can never save a business. It can never create anything new.

We have to innovate. (Joseph Schumpeter pointed out, many years ago, that if you have the same business model as your competitors then profits must inevitably fall to zero. Innovation is essential for any business that wants to survive.) To achieve that innovation we have to go through the muddle phase. We have to break down our current ‘clichés’ (our current understandings about the business, or part of it). And we have to let those old ideas go. This can be very ‘muddling’ and scary. But if we remember the first metalogue, and the Alan Watts video posted yesterday, we can can realise that the world is constantly changing, there is no certainty, and so letting go can be okay, or even an empowering experience.

Another part of addressing this muddle factor, Bateson tells us, is to make sure that the people involved in the innovation conversation share roughly the same attitudes, ideas and emotions about the project. The team has to be on the same wavelength.

And beyond all this there is a higher purpose to any innovation project: to discover the rules for what is the new best way to do whatever it is your business does. To discover the new edge of what is possible.

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