Parents and teachers today often try to steer children away from competitive activities that seem to breed aggressive, disrespectful attitudes — things such as martial arts, paintball, contact sports and video games. In an attempt to thwart our society’s trends toward bellicose, combative behavior on the road, in the workplace and even (sadly) toward loved ones, we have the impression that guiding the next generation toward nurturing, cooperative games and hobbies may reduce the tendency to see every interaction as a contest to be won or lost.
But, as the Zits cartoon strip above demonstrates, children often surprise us with their ability to comprehend the subtleties and nuances of life; it shows that even “immature” boys can grasp the chivalrous notion of “courteous rivalry.” Borgman and Scott, the creators of Zits, are famous for capturing authentic moments of parenting and teenage life, like the one depicted here — which I suspect is based on a real-life exchange overheard by one of the authors, both of whom have teenagers of their own. Jeremy and Hector, the boys in the strip, may have just finished a contentious, adrenaline-pumped game of Unreal Tournament, Jedi Academy or Halo, but there’s none of the stereotypical “in your face” rhetoric in their post-game exchange.
Is this realistic? Could a pair of teenagers (or even adults, for that matter) refrain from belittling, insulting and deprecating one another in the aftermath of a computer-generated “deathmatch”? What could possibly motivate a winner (Jeremy, in this case) to compliment his or her defeated opponent, and why would a loser (like the long-suffering Hector) express gratitude for being beaten?
You might ascribe this phenomena to a very basic, self-serving motive: Being spiteful and petty after a game isn’t likely to get you invited back to play another one. Being gracious and cheerful, on the other hand, ensures that your opponents and rivals (as well as your teammates and supporters) will want to play and compete with you again next time.
Perhaps the sense of friendly competition is based on nothing more complicated than the “Golden Rule.” If you don’t want to be called names when you lose a game, you probably shouldn’t call others names in the same circumstance. Maybe the message is simply that even a teenager can grasp that basic courtesy. (Although if living by the Golden Rule was so “uncomplicated,” perhaps we’d see more people in stores, on freeways and in offices acting like Hector and Jeremy rather than like petulant children and predatory savages.)
Or, perhaps what we’re witnessing here is something we don’t see much of today — a sense of respect and gallantry that thrives not in spite of rivalry and competition, but because of it. The victor recognizes that his opponent has given him the chance to practice and hone his skills, and if the competition was particularly challenging, to even transcend his own limitations. The defeated appreciates the fact that he was given the chance to put forth his best effort on a level playing field, and is grateful knowing he now can improve himself as a result of the contest. Each recognizes that their competitive interchange has made them better in some way, and respects their rival for helping them attain a higher level of talent, skill or awareness.
For medieval knights, tournaments — games that mimicked battle, much like modern video games do — were not put on as a way of allowing participants to express rage, greed and cruelty. These martial sports provided a venue for knights to seek the admirable standards of courage, justice, mercy and nobility, not in a sterile, detached setting, but in a gritty, brutal environment that practically beckoned them to indulge in the worst kinds of behavior. Chaotic tournament games gave knights the opportunity to demonstrate physical strength with swords and lances; they also gave knights the opportunity to demonstrate character strength with restraint, fair play, courtesy and respect.
Competition, in the form of jousting tournaments, professional challenges, athletic endeavors or video games, doesn’t have to foster divisive, unwholesome attitudes. When we see in our competitors not victims to be dominated, but reflections of the best qualities in ourselves, competitive games can become a way of exploring and reaffirming the principles of chivalry in every aspect of life.
And in this case, at least, being a knight in shining armor is as easy as getting Zits.
©2004 Scott Farrell