How to Game On When You Don’t Know the Rules

They were announcing the next assignment. A diversion from the work we’d been doing.

Please don’t pick me. Please don’t pick me. Not me. Don’t say “Amy.” Please pick anyone else.

“Amy, let’s put you on this one.”

Oh, how I dislike being voluntold. Don’t most? My personal hangup is that I’m voluntold for things I don’t know how to do. If I knew how to proceed, I would’ve volunteered in the first place. But I hang back, mind-over-matter myself invisible, and hope for the long straw.

But I tugged on the ole bootstraps and agreed (as if I had a choice) to the assignment.

I was still sitting in the boardroom, but my mind was on an elementary school field trip I’d chaperoned eight months prior. When all the kids scattered on a factoid scavenger hunt, I watched my little guy crumple his page and curl up in a pool of tears. It was hours before he revealed (and understood) what had “happened back there.” There had been very little instruction. He hadn’t known what was at stake. He hadn’t known the rules, the time limit, the procedure. While that didn’t bug the other 95%, it paralyzed him.

So, here I sat, with my new task in hand, and I finally grasped what had happened back then. And I got him.

Soon I was knee deep in the task, cruising along. Once I figured out what it took for this assignment, I swung so far from unconfident that I couldn’t find my way back if I wanted to.

That’s how it goes for me. Once I know the steps, I settle into a sweet spot. But not knowing the way or not knowing the rules is a terrifying position.

Thanks to that aha moment, I’ve been able to connect with my little guy on those hard feelings he feels. To admit I feel them too. And to promise he doesn’t have to get stuck there.

Weeks later, we were playing a game. I personally love game night. And, for the most part, I’m not picky about which game. I like anything with an ounce of competition and a chance to succeed. This particular game had a base set of rules and then each round, we mixed it up based on a variation guide called “77 Ways to Play Tenzi.”

My child bowed out once the rules started changing.

In the past, I would’ve insisted he keep playing, told him he “could do it,” and inevitably chosen the wrong battle.

But I remembered the boardroom, and I remembered the field trip. I made the connection: the rules were changing and he was uncomfortable. It wasn’t clear how to succeed. He wasn’t sure he could do it.

I suggested he sit out, but keep watching us play. We found a side job for him to keep him engaged. Within a round or two, he brought himself back into the game and even won a few rounds.

He just needed to adjust himself to the new rules and recognize he could do it.

We played several different games over Christmas with my parents. All games that were new to some or all of us. And we’ve spent the past day playing board games with good friends, a New Year’s tradition that’s been on pause for far too long. As much as we have our all-time favorites, we opted for teaching each other games we hadn’t all played together. In my experience, most games out there take one full play from start to finish to grasp the strategy and feel of the game.

In life, I can be quick to bow out of a game because I don’t know the rules well enough to feel like I stand a chance.

But sometimes, you just need to stick around long enough to learn the ropes and create your own strategy.

I’ve been surprised to find things I absolutely love just across the moat of I’m-not-sure-I-know-how-to-do-this. Things I would’ve otherwise missed if I’d given into the anxiety of the uncertain and the tension of the unpredictable.

So, whether it’s Mahjong, Tenzi, Cookin’ Cookies, T.I.M.E. Stories, Airplanes: Europe, Guillotine, or challenges in your this-is-not-a-game life, I recommend sticking it out for a round to give yourself a chance to see what it takes and throw your own hat in the ring.

And then it’s game on!

2 thoughts on “How to Game On When You Don’t Know the Rules

  1. I always knew you were a “player”. But well said! Having the chance to be in a place where the rules are iffy, and not knowing can make you squeamish, taking the time–your time–to learn is space we all need. Even your little guy. Great post, Ames!

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