Gurdjieff and Games, Part 3: Where Games Can Go Wrong

To understand, according to Mr. Gurdjieff, where games can go wrong, besides the previously mentioned depriving of children of time to play games or depriving oneself of work-rest balance, one must understand where humans can go wrong (and have gone wrong).

The same problems experienced in life are the same problems experienced in games, only on a smaller scale. This difference in scale can be used to one’s advantage—one can use games to learn about oneself and others to understand the basic problems of humanity in a limited and relatively safe environment. Some of these problems are detailed here in brief.

1. Kundubuffer

When I would play board games, if I lost, I would become resentful. When I won, I would silently admire myself. 

When a friend of mine won, he would brag of his prowess and superior intellect, and when he lost, he would flip the board in anger.

The first problem, according to Mr. Gurdjieff, is the hereditary and acquired patterns of harmful human weaknesses and compulsive behaviors unworthy of human beings that are fixed in them, such as egoism, pride, vanity, self-love, self-conceit, envy, jealousy, swaggering, bragging, arrogance, greed, hate, cowardice, partiality, laziness and so on. There are numerous other harmful behaviors than the ones I’ve listed, but these tend to come up most in the context of games.

In Beelzebub’s Tales, he calls these “the crystallized consequences of the properties of the maleficent organ Kundabuffer, one of the major themes of Mr. Gurdjieff’s writings.

2. Self-calming

When I lost a game, I would say to myself something like, “It was unfair that I lost—by all accounts I should have won, and no doubt it was either bad luck or my opponents were cheating.” Therefore I had every right to sulk.

Or I had every right to quietly admire myself—after all, “I played with superior skill and strategy—none of that could have been by luck.”

The second problem are behaviors that calm those unpleasant feelings and thoughts that arise when one engages in those regrettable compulsive behaviors or avoid real responsibilities. In Beelzebub’s Tales, he calls this “their inner ‘Evil-God,’ called ‘Self-Calming.’” (p. 105) The calming make the fixed patterns of harmful behaviors one engages in all but invisible to oneself—and as a result, others can see one’s behavior better than oneself. 

There are different “styles” of self-calming, for example, earlier, I was justifying, making excuses for myself, but there are many other ways one avoids feeling the sting of any self-criticism. 

Sometimes just playing games can be self-calming—if one is doing them to escape any feelings of remorse or responsibility.

3. Abnormal conditions

The third problem relate to the external conditions around us that inculcate and reinforce the indulging of one’s weaknesses, putting one’s responsibilities on anybody else but oneself, and externally assuaging any pricks to our conscience. In Beelzebub’s Tales, he calls these “the abnormal conditions of ordinary being existence established by them themselves.” Everything outside ourselves teaches us and reinforces in us false ideals, inverted values, and repeated harmful behaviors. But the conditions are so ubiquitous that one may not even recognize them as abnormal.

4. Sport

The fourth problem is where the activity itself becomes a problem. Mr. Gurdjieff writes in Beelzebub’s Tales (p. 432-448) that playing particular kinds of games, that is, sports, causes premature physical breakdown—this can be verified easily by looking at the shorter lifespan or poor physical health of post-career sports athletes, notoriously in wrestling, boxing, rugby, American football, and so on—or that there is a whole branch of medicine devoted entirely to the treatment of sports-related injuries.

It is one thing to keep the body fit; it is another to wear it out purposelessly—especially when our lifespans are already so short—and we need a physical body for one’s spiritual development.

5. Individuality

Sometimes in roleplaying games, when a player’s character dies, they become upset at the loss of the fictional role they had assumed.

The fifth problem, and a key leading out of one’s situation, is a lack of a persistent, impartial, and independent observer in oneself (Beelzebub’s Tales p. 1189-1236). Without it, one identifies with all of the above factors and more and take them all to be oneself, rather than harmful factors to be worked upon or real functions that should be subservient to an individuality independent of them. 

It is like we are a player of a roleplaying game and have forgotten that we are players playing the role of a character. We take ourselves to be the character. This would seem like madness, if everybody else wasn’t also similarly conditioned. 

To break this conditioning, it takes persistent effort with the help of others who know the way. Without this, one is merely making adjustments to one’s conditioning.

4 thoughts on “Gurdjieff and Games, Part 3: Where Games Can Go Wrong

  1. Rui

    I relate to your points about self-calming and identification.
    I’ve never had the experience of setting up and playing an RPG with friends, but I wasted quite a bit of my youth immersed in Baldur’s Gate and other D&D-based video games of the sort. So I have an inclination for those sort of worlds, but in my experience it has been a source of harmful escapism, “character creation” fetishism, etc.

    > one can use games to learn about oneself and others to understand the basic problems of humanity in a limited and relatively safe environment.

    I think this is a good way to measure the value of a gaming experience.
    And playing with others seems necessary in order to at least be able to get this sort of value.

    1. Rob Post author

      You also raise a good point related to balancing work and rest—in mentioning wasting your youth and escapism—that we can be imbalanced not towards excessive effort, but towards excessive leisure over necessary effort. And this is probably more common with people in general.

      I’ve played Balder’s Gate and other similar games, as you did. I did use games to escape. Further, I was obsessed with collecting games (trading cards, board games, RPG books, etc).

      But over time, my valuation of all of that changed, and now I believe I have found a proper place for games in my life.

    1. Rob Post author

      The first time I read it, I thought it was overly long and rambling.

      Then I returned to it a few years later and found it was actually incredibly specific and densely packed. All those really long rambling sentences were really, really long and meaningful thoughts that when you try to hold in your mind what he’s saying are like weight lifting for your attention.

      Now I’m doing a deep dive into it. Lots of surprising stuff. Meta-political stuff. This book went over the heads of the hippies who first had their hands on it, and ignored what he wrote about patriarchality, feminism, democracy, journalism, etc.


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