David Fincher’s The Game is full of twists and turns from start to finish. At no point during our initial viewing of the film are we sure what is real and what is fake—in other words, what isn’t part of “the game” and what is. And because of that, the plot of The Game can feel abstract and difficult to crack.
Once we finish the movie, however…the plot of The Game is pretty straightforward, right? Seemingly, everything is explained at the end by Nicholas’s brother, Conrad. For the entire film, Conrad tells Nicholas that everything has been planned out. While it may seem unbelievable, we simply have to accept the movie’s logic and believe that every confrontation, every mishap, every shootout has been part of an elaborate scheme set up by Conrad to make Nicholas believe he was playing a game. So, if we take the movie at face value, then there’s not much to understand. It’s all explained to us in that final scene.
But what if we chose not to take the movie at face value? What if there was more to “the game” than meets the eye? What if all of the confusing elements of the plot we’ve tried to understand are distractions from the real story, from the true message of the film? If that were the case, then we’d have a much more philosophical conversation on our hands.
In order to understand the intricate details and overall meaning of The Game, it requires us to look outside the seemingly convoluted plot of the film and truly comprehend what “the game” is. Because, as I believe the movie posits, “the game” is a game that we’re all playing—of every hour, of every day. And while everybody is playing the same game, we’re all playing for different reasons. And understanding Nicholas’s reason for playing the game will open up what the movie is truly about.
So let’s work through a few points before we circle back to an explanation of the plot of The Game:
What we know about Nicholas before he enters “the game”
Let’s start with Nicholas and how his character is introduced.
We open on Nicholas Van Orton working in his office. In typical Fincher fashion, the abundance of dark hues illustrates our main character as someone whose life is rather banal and detached from society. As a wealthy and successful investment banker, Nicholas seems to only be concerned with work and making money. And he heavily gives off that impression. When a woman named Elizabeth calls for him at his office, his assistant feels the need to remind him that Elizabeth is his ex-wife—as if Nicholas is so removed from reality and emotion that he doesn’t even recognize his former lover’s name.
As the secretary leaves Nicholas’s office, she wishes him a happy 48th birthday. The secretary means well, but we’ll soon find out why this is a significant birthday: because Nicholas’s father committed suicide when his father was 48 years old. On top of that, Nicholas witnessed his father—who was also a wealthy investment banker and ran the company Nicholas currently operates and lived in the home that Nicholas currently lives in—jump from the rooftop of Nicholas’s childhood home to his death.
Needless to say: this is an emotionally trying day for Nicholas. Yet, there’s nobody in his life to share those emotions with. As we learn from Nicholas’s proceedings, he’s a rather callous and cold man who constantly pushes people away. We soon learn that Nicholas’s ex-wife called because she recognized how difficult of a birthday it must be for Nicholas. But Nicholas brushes her away and quickly hangs up the phone.
As Fincher later indicated in an interview, Nicholas is essentially a modern-day version of Ebenezer Scrooge from Charles Dickens’ 1843 novella “A Christmas Carol.” In that story, Scrooge—who is entirely concerned with work and making money—is pulled into a sort of “game” himself. Scrooge is visited by three ghosts representing his past, present, and future. After the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Be shows Scrooge a future in which Scrooge dies and nobody shows any emotion, Scrooge decides to change his life and how he treats people.
The first scenes of The Game are similar to the opening scenes of “A Christmas Carol.” Before Scrooge is forced to reckon with himself and how he treats others, he must exist in his natural environment. In that setting, Scrooge refuses a Christmas dinner invitation from his cousin Fred; he turns away two dudes who are asking for donations for the poor; he begrudgingly allows his clerk Bob Cratchit to spend Christmas away from the office—only because it is social custom.
Likewise, Nicholas will soon be forced to face the fact that he has no healthy relationships in his life. Because he’s so consumed with work and wealth, he’s pushed away people like his brother (his last remaining relative) and his ex-wife (who understands his emotional needs). Instead of wanting to build relationships, to help others, to be part of a community…he instead has turned inwards and only pursued selfish things.
That is until his brother, Conrad, introduces “the game” to him. And that’s when Nicholas is pulled into the Scrooge-like scenario that Fincher spoke of. In each story, Nicholas and Scrooge both try to fight back while they’re in the game. They each downplay their faults and try to make their current lives seem less depressing than they actually are. But, deep down, both Scrooge and Nicholas know that they’ve cut themselves off from the world and suppressed themselves emotionally—and all it took was a sort-of “game” to show them the truth.
And guess what? “The game” is actually a real thing. Like…no joke. Peopel are aware of “the game” and play it in real life. And understanding what it is and where it came from will help us understand what “the game” represents for Nicholas in The Game.
What “the game” represents in real life
Back on July 21, 2009, The Kansas City Star—a newspaper based in Kansas City, Missouri, that has been around for 140 years and has received eight Pulitzer Prizes—published this article about a new fad called “The Game.” The article was posted by James A. Fussell, a journalist who has had several articles published in prominent publications (including The Atlantic). And in that Kansas City Star story, Fussell details what the game is, how it’s played, and how you can lose the game.
Turns out? You can find that exact article—word for word—posted in multiple locations throughout the internet.
Basically, the three rules of “the game” are as follows:
- Everybody in the world is part of the game, and you are always playing the game.
- If you think about the game, then you lose.
- If you lose the game, then you must announce to the world that you’ve lost.
Now, you might be wondering…what the hell does any of this mean? Who started the game? Is it just some kind of crazed trend?
Well, plenty of people have pondered those exact questions. But, to this day, nobody knows for sure where the game started. All they know is that the game has gained a larger following thanks to the internet. People who play the game will try to make other people lose the game by making them remember that they are part of the game (I know: that’s a mouthful). According to Wikipedia, the problem got so bad in some schools and internet forums that the game was banned from being played.
The origin of the game can be traced back to several different parties. Some people believe the concept of the game began in the mid-1990s (which is when The Game came out). But others trace the game back to 1977 when the Cambridge University Science Fiction Society tried to invent a game that did not fit in with “game theory.” (You can read more about game theory and how it works in an article I wrote about Crazy Rich Asians.)
But it turns out that the centerpiece rule of the game—the challenge to not even recognize that you’re playing a game in the first place—derives from a concept that goes back much, much further in time. In fact, the concept was first popularly introduced just three years before Charles Dickens would write “A Christmas Carol.”
In 1840, Russian writer Leo Tolstoy played a game called the “white bear game” with his brother. And to this day, that game has been an important component of what’s known as “ironic process theory”—a theory that will help us understand The Game.
Philosophers who have written about “the game” over the years
I have a challenge for you: I dare you to think about anything besides a polar bear.
Chances are? You just thought of a polar bear—which means you’ve lost.
Back in 1840, Tolstoy wrote that he would play this game with this brother (apparently this is how people had fun in the 19th century?). Basically, Tolstoy and his brother would each stand in a separate corner and try to not think about a polar bear. And whoever thought of the polar bear first would lose the game.
Twenty-three years after Tolstoy played the white bear game, Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote further about this phenomenon—which would later be coined as “ironic process theory.” Basically, “ironic processing” (which has also now become known as the “White Bear Principle”) describes the attempt to suppress or avoid specific thoughts. When you do that, those thoughts are more likely to flood your mind—and persist. Not only will you immediately think about the thing you’ve tried to forget, but you’re then likely to remain fixated on that thing for an extended period of time.
In an essay entitled “Winter Notes on Summer Impressions,” Dostoevsky covered a number of different topics of political, religious, and social concerns. But in the part of the essay where he wrote about ironic process theory, Dostoevsky’s thoughts became much more existential and philosophical.
Now, this might seem like a giant diversion, as it’s going to take us a bit to get back to how ironic processing theory applies to The Game. But don’t worry: this is all necessary information. And very soon, you may even start to see how ironic process theory applies to Nicholas and Scrooge’s journeys as we discuss Dostoevsky’s musings.
In this section of “Winter Notes on Summer Impressions,” Dostoevsky wrote about how to attain the “very highest development of the personality” and how realizing your full potential can make the world a better place:
“Understand me: voluntary, completely conscious self-sacrifice imposed by no one, sacrifice of the self for the sake of all, is, in my opinion, a sign of the very highest development of the personality, of the very height of its power, the highest form of self-mastery, the greatest freedom’s of one’s own will. To voluntarily lay down one’s life for the sake of all, to go to the cross or to the stake for the sake of all, can be done only in the light of the strongest development of the personality. A strongly developed personality, fully convinced of its right to be a personality, no longer having any fear for itself, cannot do otherwise because of its personality, that is, has no use other than to offer its all to all, so that others too may be just such autonomous and happy personalities.”
Basically: in order to fully realize your true self, you must give yourself over to society. You must learn to be completely selfless so you can empower others to be selfless. When everyone empowers one another to think selflessly and to only act on behalf of others, then society can truly coalesce and we can attain true happiness as individuals and as a community.
Now, that line of thinking might seem kinda obvious to you. It is after all, as Dostoevsky writes, “the law of nature; normally man tends toward this.” We have a natural instinct to be good, to help others, to be part of a community.
But…we also know (and Dostoevsky will soon comment on this) that people often act the opposite and pursue their own selfish desires. We only have the instinct to be selfless. But sometimes the hand we’re dealt forces us in another direction.
As we see with both Nicholas and Scrooge—who both suffer from cynicism and loneliness—people are constantly consumed by their own selfish goals and ambitions. And when people live that way, they often turn inwards and become less concerned with being part of a community; when people live that way, they only think about how their actions can be advantageous to themselves as opposed to others.
How can people truly be expected to live their lives in a selfless way? Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week? I know: it’s tough—really tough. And Dostoevsky understands this. In fact, he pondered those exact questions when he wrote about the White Bear Principle:
How is this to be done? After all, it is like trying not to think of a polar bear. Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that cursed thing will come to mind every minute. So how is it to be done? There is no way it can be done, but rather it must happen of itself; it must be present in one’s nature, unconsciously a part of the nature of the whole race, in a word: in order for there to be a principle of brotherly love there must be love. It is necessary to be drawn by one’s very instincts into brotherhood, community, and harmony.
This is interesting, because this thought from Dostoevsky presents a seeming paradox. Dostoevsky posited that selfless love is difficult to express when your environment isn’t consumed by selfless love. But your environment also won’t be consumed by selfless love unless you have empowered the people around you to love selflessly.
Seemingly, this represents a sick cycle: if the people around you aren’t living selflessly, then you won’t either. And because you’re aren’t living selflessly, the people around also won’t.
The solution? To surround yourself with people who live selflessly, who want to help others, who want to help you. And then you yourself must return that love. “Love one another,” Dostoevsky wrote, “and all these things will be added unto you. Now there is Utopia indeed, gentlemen! Everything is grounded in feeling in nature, not in reason.”
Let’s remain fixated on that last sentence for just a little longer. “Everything is grounded in feeling in nature, not in reason.” That’s the problem with Scrooge and Nicholas. They have nobody in their lives. They’ve pushed everyone away, and have no intention of opening themselves up to their friends and family. They have lived their lives according to reason (“I must build my wealth and power”) as opposed to feeling (“I must be emotionally vulnerable and surround myself with people who love me”).
That is until they’re forced to play a game. Because that’s when everything stops making sense and reason goes out the window.
What “the game” represents to Nicholas
I think something that trips people up about The Game is that they look at the entire story from Nicholas’s perspective. But we have to remember: it’s Conrad who pushes Nicholas to play the game. Much like Tolstoy would play the white bear game with his sibling, Conrad chooses to play a game with his brother. Which means there are two ways to look at this story.
For Nicholas: he never outright states why he chooses to play the game. And that’s because…he has nobody in his life to talk about the game with. Which, in my opinion, is the exact reason he chooses to play the game. He is completely closed off from the world during an emotionally vulnerable moment. His father died when his father was 48, and Nicholas has just turned 48. And his ex-wife—a woman who simply cannot be there for him emotionally anymore—is the only person that seems to openly recognize that. Nicholas chooses to play the game because he has nothing else stimulating in his life.
Conrad’s goal, then, is to force Nicholas to realize just how detached he’s become from the world. In order to do this, Conrad has chosen to act as the Ghost of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. By forcing Nicholas to confront the relationships he’s screwed up over the years, by removing Nicholas from his everyday environment, and by destroying Nicholas’s career and stealing all of his money, Conrad forces Nicholas to lose everything so he can then gain it back. With nothing left to lose, Nicholas is forced to act on his impulses and form relationships with people he would otherwise have ignored.
This is, I believe, the connection to “the game” as we know it in our world. When Nicholas focuses on what is real and what isn’t, the game goes awry. But when he chooses to act on instinct and simply tries to rebuild his life, then we see Nicholas grow and be vulnerable and form new relationships. He wants to help his brother, Conrad, whom he previously ignored; he wants to tell Elizabeth that he’s sorry for fucking up their marriage; and he wants to open himself up emotionally and start a new relationship with Christine.
And here is where Dostoevsky’s writings about ironic processing comes into play. Nicholas and Scrooge cannot force themselves to change and be more open—it simply must become part of their being. “It must happen of itself,” Dostoevsky wrote. “It must be present in one’s nature.” According to Dostoevsk: selflessness—or pure love—cannot be inherent to an individual until it’s an inherent part of an individual’s environment.
This, to me, makes the plot of The Game becomes less intimidating. Nicholas isn’t the way he is because he’s an innately closed-off asshole—it’s because his environment forced him to be that way. His father’s death had a profound effect on him psychologically. Nicholas has never been able to shake the image of his dad falling from the family home’s rooftop. And on his 48th birthday, Nicholas cannot help but realize that he could succumb to the same terrible fate his father did. That is unless Nicholas chooses to fix his life.
So when Nicholas chooses to jump off the roof at the end of the movie, it’s not the end of his life—because his brother is there to catch him. Likewise for Scrooge, he isn’t able to turn his life around until he accepts the love from the people who are trying to give it to him. I believe this reflects the “utopia” that Dostoevsky spoke of. While people can continue and continue to push us away, we must continue to fight back by being selfless. If we choose to sacrifice our wants and desires in order to help others, they will—eventually—respond with that positive energy. And when we do that, we can, like Conrad, save lives.
Fascinating take. I love reading this but I wonder is this take on life is a recipe for co-dependence and ultimately unhappiness. Elizabeth, we can assume, was selflessly trying to love Nicholas but the lack of emotional availabiltiy eventually led to the breakdown on the marriage?