Metalogue 3: About games and being serious

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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 the resulting insights reveal why innovation can be difficult and how to make it easier. It also helps us see how to use Gregory Bateson’s thinking to address the issues of the 21st Century.

What Bateson Tells Us

The metalogues are a series of imagined conversations between a father and his daughter, in which they explore the deep meaning of things.

In this metalogue a daughter asks her father, “Daddy, are these conversations serious? Or are they a sort of game that you play with me?”

Bateson assures her that certainly their conversations are serious. But on the other hand they are also a sort of game that they play together.

“Then they’re not serious!”

Bateson gets them to explore what they understand by the words “serious” and “play” and “game”:

Father: “Let’s look at what is good and what is bad about “playing” and “games”. First of all I don’t mind — not much — about winning or losing. When your questions put me in a tight spot, sure, I try a little harder to think straight and to say clearly what I mean. But I don’t bluff and I don’t set traps. There’s no temptation to cheat.”

Daughter: “That’s just it. It’s not serious to you. It’s a game. People who cheat just don’t know how to play. They treat a game as though it were serious.”

F: “But it is serious.”

D: “No, it isn’t — not for you it isn’t.”

F: “Because I don’t want to cheat?”

D: “Yes — partly that.”

F: “But do you want to cheat and bluff all the time?”

D: “No — of course not.”

F: “Well then?”

D: “Oh — daddy — you’ll never understand… You see Daddy — if I cheated or wanted to cheat, that would mean that I was not serious about the things we talk about. It would mean that I was only playing a game with you.”

Bateson is playing a game with us. And he is doing so for very serious reasons.

He is using the words ‘play’ and ‘game’ and ‘serious’ with different meanings at different times in order to confuse us.

Sometimes serious means important and sometimes it means bad. Sometimes play means trivial and sometimes it means fun. And a game can be playful and yet have a serious intent. Even in a game there can be rules — and breaking those rules means not taking the game seriously, while at the same time taking it too seriously (which are two different ways of not respecting the game).

D: “But it doesn’t make sense, Daddy. It’s an awful muddle.”

F: “Yes — a muddle — but still a sort of sense.”

They realise that:

“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.”

A cliché, it turns out, is an old French word used by early printers. When they wanted to print a sentence they had to arrange all the individual the letters in order. They noticed that there were certain words and phrases that people used often, so they would keep these ready made-up. These were called clichés.

If the father and daughter never got into a muddle then they would only ever repeat the same clichés.

“Our talks would be like playing rummy without first shuffling the cards…

“But if the printer wants to print something new — say, something in a new language, he will have to break up all that old sorting of the letters. In the same way, in order to think new thoughts or to say new things, we have to break up all our ready-made ideas and shuffle the pieces.”

And of course the printer wouldn’t just jumble all the different letters up together. “He would put them one by one in their places — all the a’s in one box and all the b’s in another.”

In the same way, when people are thinking about thinking, they have to keep their thoughts arranged together in a’s and b’s together, to keep from going mad. (What sort of order would that look like? “That would be a terribly hard question to answer. I don’t think we could get an answer to that question today.”)

They return to their original question: Are these conversations serious, or a sort of a game?


The daughter felt the father was playing a sort of a game, while she was being serious.

“It looks as though a conversation is a game if a person takes part in it with one set of emotions or ideas — but not a ‘game’ if his ideas or emotions are different [from the other person’s].”

So if they both had the same game idea it would be alright. In which case it makes sense to be clear about what they mean by “game”.

Father: “I play with the ideas in order to understand them and fit them together. It’s ‘play’ in the same sense that a small child ‘plays’ with blocks… And a child with building blocks is mostly very serious about his ‘play’.”

Daughter: “But is it a game, Daddy? Do you play against me?”

F: “No. I think of it as you and I playing together against the building blocks — the ideas. Sometimes competing a bit — but competing as to who can get the next idea into place. And sometimes we attack each other’s bit of building, or I will try to defend my built-up ideas from your criticism. But always in the end we are working together to build the ideas up so that they will stand.”

Taking the analogy further, they realise that their discussions have rules. A child playing with blocks has to follow the rules of physics: blocks will only stand if they are placed in certain ways, not others. And if the child used glue then that would be cheating.

The same applies to playing with ideas. And here, the only rules they have are the rules of logic.

But if they always talked logically they would never get into muddles and would never discover new ideas. So logic is the glue that clichés are stuck together with. (And using logic allows them to stick together thoughts that the real laws of ‘physics’ say should never stick together. It allows them to create thoughts that look good, but go against the way nature really works.)

They are in a muddle again. They realise that there are two sets of rules. As well as the logic that holds the idea-clichés together there are also other rules that hold the overall conversation together. These rules are less clear. And it is only by breaking some of them (but not all, because otherwise they would go mad) that they can allow themselves to get into a muddle… And that is precisely what allows them to create something new.

(And if they were going to stick to the rules all the time then they might as well just play canasta. Which is a different sort of fun.)

They review what they have learned.

Even when the printer breaks up her clichés she still sorts them into a tidy order to keep from going mad. The rules for the conversation are another name for that sort of order.

Cheating those rules is what gets them into muddles — except that in this game the whole point is to cheat those rules, to get into a muddle, to find a new way of arranging the ideas that makes sense, so that they can come out the other side with new understanding.

To make it more interesting, they say, perhaps sometimes even those rules might change. For example, they might decide that they would like to change the rules of canasta and invent a new game. But what rules would they decide to change and what rules would they decide to keep the same? And what would be the rules they would use to have a conversation while they were discussing all of this?

The point of these conversations, these metalogues, is to discover those underlying rules of the ‘conversation’. “It’s like life — a game whose purpose is to change the rules, which rules are always changing always undiscoverable.” And perhaps that is more about ‘play’ than a ‘game’.

Daughter: “Daddy, why do kittens and puppies play?”

Father: “I don’t know — I don’t know.”

Implications for Business:

In this metalogue Bateson plays a game with us, in order to show us something very serious.

He deliberately creates a muddle, using the same words with different meanings at different times. ‘Serious’ can mean ‘respectful’ or it can mean ‘important’. ‘Game’ can mean ‘trickery’ or it can mean ‘play, with rules’. ‘Playing’ can mean not being serious, or it can mean ‘being playful’: stepping outside the rigid boundaries of formal behaviour and logic.

And the point is that if we want to invent something truly new, we have first to break down the existing clichés that we think of as true. We have to get ourselves into a muddle, which can feel uncomfortable or scary. So while we are doing that, we need some other rules to keep us from going mad.

What Bateson is talking about here is creative destruction. The “continuous invention of new products and services” that Joseph Schumpeter called “the essential fact about capitalism.”

A firm creates a product or service. Other firms copy or improve it. Customers get used to the new services and new things become important to them. Emerging technologies make it possible to deliver new services in new ways. In all of this, the innovation process is about breaking down the existing product and service “clichés”, and ways of delivering them, and building new ones.

At a larger scale, even a whole firm being run in a particular way is a “cliché”. When change is the new constant, those clichés are constantly being taken apart and put back together in new ways.

What Bateson is talking about here is the essence of capitalism and what it takes for it to work better — on multiple levels. Some parts have to be taken apart and put back together, while other parts are kept the same. And while this is happening it is important to know the underlying rules of the ‘conversation’, the underlying rules of business, that must be kept within.

Logic never invents anything new: it only breaks what exists into smaller chunks, or combines it into larger ones. This is why cost-cutting and restructuring can never save a business: they never create anything new. And as Schumpeter also told us, if you have the same business model as your competitors profits will tend to zero.

Profits come from the ability to do things differently. To do things differently we must first think things differently. And this is what Apple under Steve Jobs showed us how to do so well, in developing or inventing the modern computer, the ipod, the ipad, the smartphone. (The underlying conversation-logic he followed and kept the same while doing this was to focus on the customer’s relationship with the productPurpose and values are another a way to define the ‘rules of the conversation’ that enables companies to change and redefine anything.)

What Bateson shows and tells us here is how difficult and disconcerting this can be: to let go of our existing clichéd ideas about the world and come up with something new. And he tells us that in this game the whole point is to cheat those rules, to get into a muddle, and then come out the other side with new understanding.

This is why Bateson’s work is so relevant to leaders today. He spent his life uncovering two things: how nature works, and how people think. The answers he found are the ‘rules’ for how our innovation-conversations work.

A child playing with wooden blocks must apply and follow the rules of physics. When we seek to innovate in a complex world, we must have conversations that break apart what we know already, while at the same time not going mad. We have to follow and apply the rules of thinking and nature that Gregory Bateson uncovered.

One of the rules this metalogue uncovers is that people playing this ‘game’ together need to share a common understanding that it is both a game and also serious. (It doesn’t work if one person is taking it seriously and another is trying to be playful.) The people have to be on the same wavelength.

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

And if we want to address the various crises we now face, this metalogue is essential.

To solve the problems of the 21st Century we are going to have to let go of some of the old logic and clichés we cling on to. Our old logic will not save us. We’re going to have to treat it as a game, a serious game, but one to be approached playfully. That is likely to feel weird, but the point is to keep going and to come out the other side. To do that we’re going to need to stick to the deeper ‘rules’ of the conversation and life.

This is what the work of Gregory Bateson has given us some signposts for how to do, and why I’m doing this work to make it more applicable.

In order to achieve this innovation we need leaders who are able to allow some things to become muddled, while keeping others tidy.

Photo By André Hofmeister via

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