Play to Win or Don't Play at All?

This past weekend, thousands of gamers from all around the world congregated in Las Vegas for the Evo Championship Series. It consists of several fighting game tournaments — like Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition — and it really is the largest event of its kind. Since I’m a fighting game fan, I was following along with the live stream.

And so, I was watching some of the matches when I saw an intriguing line on the back of one of the competitor’s t-shirts. The exact words escape me at the moment, but they essentially said that if you were not playing to win, you shouldn’t play at all. This makes sense in the context of a tournament, because playing to last means that you likely won’t emerge as the winner. That said, does the same philosophy apply outside of the competitive arena?

Life Is a Competition

Whether you’re willing to accept it or not, life is inherently a competition of one kind or another. This can take on the simple form of keeping up with the Joneses, just as it can apply to the world of work, getting promotions, and earning more money. Most of the games that we play are also designed to have a winner and, by extension, a loser.

Unless I know that I have a clear and unfair advantage, I almost always play to win. This was true when I went to play street hockey for Five Hole for Food, even though it was a non-competitive environment and no one was keeping score. I wanted my team to “win.” I played hard. I wasn’t very good at all, but that doesn’t mean that I did not play with a competitive spirit. If you’re not playing to win, then why are you even there?

Play for Play’s Sake

Absolutely, there is something to be said about playing for play’s sake. Many forms of art, for example, don’t really have winners in the conventional sense. You play to build a community. You play to engage with your friends. You play to express yourself in a creative way.

That is positively true. When I play video games with my friends, for instance, we are just playing for fun. At the same time, if there is a way to “win,” I want to win. I always put in 100%, even if there is no real reward to be had in the end. If I’m only half-participating, should I really be participating at all?

It’s this kind of philosophy and mentality that serves as a critical key to success, not only professionally, but also personally. You need to have a certain level of ambition. You need to have a desire to ascend the ranks. You need to want to be better than you were yesterday.

Play to Win, But Learn When You Lose

Does this mean that anything goes? Are we to understand that the ends justifies the means? No, not at all.

Winning isn’t everything. In fact, the actual act of winning isn’t nearly as important as the way that you approach the game. Play with the mentality that you are aiming to win and be willing to risk it all. Be honest and complete with your efforts. Shoot for the moon.

But know that failure is a very real possibility and, even then, it’s not really a failure. As cliche as it may sound, every non-win (and every win, for that matter) represents a learning opportunity. If you are not fully engaged in the activity, it is much more difficult to take home lessons that will improve your play the next time around. And it is this kind of mantra that should be carried throughout life’s challenges.