The game-break is to 1:1 interpersonal relationships what the “Aha!” moment is to individual introspection. The rare moment, shortly after meeting for the first time, when two people experience a sudden, uncontracted moment of connection, shared meaning and resonance. A moment that breaks through normal social defenses. I call it uncontracted, because I mean the kind of moment that occurs when there isn’t an obvious subtext of sexual tension, or a potential buy/sell transaction, limiting behavior to the boundaries of an informal social contract. The best examples are the ones that happen between people who aren’t trying to sleep with, or sell to each other (at least not right then). I call it a game-break, because you momentarily stop playing social games and realize with a shock that there is some part of an actual person on the other side that perfectly matches a part of you that you thought was unique. A moment that elevates human contact from the level of colliding billiard balls to the level of electricity or chemistry. It is the moment when a relationship can be born. Our fundamental nature as a social species rests on the anatomy of this moment. Here is a picture: lowered masks, a spark breaking through invisible shells.
The Interpersonal Double-Take
The game-break is not the same as the forced-festivity ritual of the party ice-breaker, which merely preempts social discomfort without catalyzing genuine connection. In fact, by giving people something ritualistic to do, the ice-breaker often delays the game-break, or prevents it altogether. The game-break cannot be engineered with certainty, but you can do things that make it more likely. But this is not a how-to article; it is a dissection of the phenomenon itself. Let’s start with a specimen.
I stumbled upon the meaning of the game-break a few years ago, during the course of a routine, “you really should reach out to…” meeting. This particular meeting happened while I was booting-up my postdoctoral stint at Cornell. I was meeting a Russian PhD student I’ll call Z. My adviser had recommended I talk to his adviser, who had recommended I talk to Z. So I did the usual thing: asking questions about his research, mentioning my own work where I saw a connection, and so on. Like many European researchers, he was unsmiling and taciturn, providing precise, sealed-and-complete answers to even the most open-ended of questions, and making only the bare minimum socially-acceptable effort to ask questions in turn. Fortunately, I have a good deal of stamina for this sort of thing. My ability to talk authoritatively about pretty much any subject under the sun for one minute serves me well in such situations. So for about 15 minutes we did our little “immovable object, irresistible force” dance.
And then suddenly, the game-break. Something I shared got through to him, and it was like watching a bulb light up. It was obvious that I went from being “guy who works for that other professor,” to “hey, I thought only I thought/felt that way; who is this guy?” On my end, I too was able to instantly fingerprint his inner life. For a moment, roles and social identities fell away. It was particularly dramatic because of his previous impenetrability. With Americans, you often get such over-the-top fake resonance that you can easily miss the moment when it turns genuine. Z instantly became voluble and excited, eager to brainstorm and have a big old mind-meld. I had already experienced many such moments, but I detected something new in my own reaction: a clinical checking of a mental box.
That conversation led, as I fully expected, to nothing. We did have a great mind-meld, and the meeting paid for itself socially, but we didn’t actually collaborate on anything afterward. For professional collaboration, the game-break moment is necessary, but not sufficient. A lot of other pieces have to fall into place for that.
But my clinical box-checking intrigued me for quite a while, and I only understood it months later when I ran across a Finnish epigram called Wiio’s Law: communication usually fails, except by accident. The Finnish original, if you care, reads: Viestintä yleensä epäonnistuu, paitsi sattumalta.
I understood what my little mental check-box act represented. I was noting and filing away one of Wiio’s accidental moments of true communication. We view the world through mental models. The culturally-inherited and shared parts of these models don’t feel very personal to us. If you and I met and talked about, say, shopping or cricket, we wouldn’t be too surprised to find that we think about these things in roughly similar terms. Nor would we share a sense of intimacy through the shared meaning.
But there are parts that derive from our own experiences, which we mistakenly believe are completely unique to us. Things we think others will never understand (a source of relief to those, like me, who are existentialist by preference, and unholy fear for those who yearn for a sense of complete connection to something bigger than themselves). I earnestly hope there are irreducibly subjective elements of being, but I have been through enough game-break moments to realize that we are far less existentially unique than I think.
The Golden Rule of the Game Break
The game break is so rare because we are at once desperate for, and terrified of, genuine connection. Watch people at a busy intersection. Here’s a portion of a scene from New York’s Times Square for instance (Wikimedia Commons):
Intersections illustrate how efficiently we avoid contact and maintain the coherence of our groupings in confined settings. If we shook a comparable box of marbles around, we’d get hundreds of collisions. Living things turn those hundreds into zero, most of the time.
But if our physical obstacle avoidance skills are amazing, our social mind-bump collision avoidance skills are even better. We know exactly when to break eye-contact to prevent polite from turning into unwanted intimacy. We know exactly the appropriate kind of smile for every situation. Our sense of our own, and others’ personal space is finely-tuned, and we know what level of closeness requires apology, and what levels require snubs, sharpness or displays of anger.
Though they certainly trap us in prisons of existential solitude, if we didn’t have these mechanisms, we’d be rubbed raw by the sheer volume of social contact in modern society. Nearly all of the contact would be annoying or draining. But in every situation, even the most random, there are always tiny leftover gaps in our defenses, and we are grateful to have them. Through these gaps and imperfections, sometimes the game-break can sneak through. Which leads us to:
The Golden Rule of the Game Break: Given enough time, any two people forced into proximity will experience a game break.
I learned this growing up as a kid in India, when we used to go on long train journeys, between 24 to 48 hours, to visit relatives. That’s a long time for anybody to be cooped up together with strangers. The unavoidable morning intimacy of tousled hair and teeth-brushing breaks down reserves even more. You can reliably expect at least one game break on every long train ride.
What happens before the game-break, of course, is the gradual approach, as time-driven norms dictate the lowering of all the outer layers of defenses. Once enough layers have been peeled away, the probability of a game break starts climbing. It might take 4 hours or 4 years, but given enough time, it will happen. The Golden Rule is merely an application of what statisticians call the law of large numbers. What happens after, though, is more interesting (and for some of you, philosophically depressing).
The Tragedy of Wiio’s Law
Unfortunately for the romantic, Wiio’s law is a grim and agnostic one. The accident of genuine communication can lead to both deep trust and implacable enmity. You can get Harry Potter-Voldemort outcomes, a level of intimacy in enmity that makes decisive conflict as much suicide as murder. Worse, even when the outcome is a positive, resonant, mind-meld, our minds cannot stand the deep connection for very long. While the full defenses never return, the uncontracted quality of the game-break does not last for long. A social contract descends, to structure and codify any continuation of the relationship.
Which explains why some of our most precious social memories are of brief, accidental encounters with strangers, often nameless. Encounters which didn’t have a chance to get codified and structured, and remain in limbo in our memories as highly significant episodes. Moments of deep loneliness can arise out of familiar situations, when we are surrounded by people with whom we have achieved very intimate, but controlled relationships, and we recall our still-raw contacts with strangers. We have had our game-break moments with those who surround us, but the memories of those moments lie irretrievably buried under the reality of active relationship contracts. There is a beautiful Hindi film song (YouTube video) that goes:
Aate-jaate khoobsurat, aawara sadakon pe
kabhi-kabhi ittefaq se, kitne anjan log mil jate hain,
unme se kuch log bhool jaate hain, kuch yaad reh jaate hain
Which translates roughly to:
Wandering through beautiful lonely streets,
sometimes, by accident, you meet so many strangers
of these, some you forget, some you remember
The game-break is the gateway to the real relationship: two people who have unique mental models of each other, and keep up contact frequently enough to keep those models fresh and evolving. Friendship, romance, hatred, professional collaboration, marriage, business partnerships and investments all follow from game-break moments. Yet, each of those is a contracted relationship, safely bounded away from further unscripted and uncontracted game-break moments. We may have more game-break moments with the same people; that is what we mean by ‘taking the relationship to another level,’ but each time, the fog of a (possibly deeper) social contract descends, shrouding the memory of the moment.
The tragedy of Wiio’s law is this. Our most connected moments are with people we know we will never meet again. The moments of connection stay with us only to the extent that relationships do not follow. I am no exception. There are too-long glances burned in my brain (as many exchanged with wrinkled old men as with pretty girls) that I will never forget. There are conversations I occasionally replay, there are memories jogged by old letters and photographs.
One of the most poignant such memories for me is from three weeks I spent backpacking in Europe in 1998. As you might expect, I experienced several game-break moments (that’s the main reason we do things like backpacking). One particular evening, towards the end of the trip, in Brussels, I ran into a group of Indian folk musicians practicing in the park (they were members of the Jaipur Kawa Brass Band and Musafir, who were touring Europe together, and were due to perform as part of the World Cup Soccer festivities). I was then newly-minted as a global citizen (having left India in 1997), and still capable of homesickness. A game-break moment followed, and I went back to their lodgings with them for a magical evening of rustic Indian food, unbelievable conversation about music, and listening to them playing, not for an audience (I was only one, and they were clearly not counting me), but for themselves.
Several years later, one of the groups, Musafir, toured the US, and played in Ann Arbor (I was then a graduate student at the University of Michigan). With a great deal of anticipation and excitement I went to their concert, and then backstage after. They remembered me, and their eyes lit up too, very briefly, at the memory. Then discomfort descended, as we realized we would not be able to recreate that magic. Now I was on the edge of a contracted relationship: artists-and-fan.
I chose to say goodbye quickly, and walk away with my memory. That is the tragedy of Wiio’s law.