If you polled one hundred single adults, approximately all one hundred of them would tell you that they don't like to play relationship games. But what exactly does that mean? It's different for different people, but it always breaks down to the idea that hiding our feelings and intentions, or misleading our (potential) partners is wrong. Yet I would estimate that the out of the same one hundred, the full allotment of them have played games at some point in their relationship history. If they have one.
So what role do games really serve? And what are games anyway? Let's begin with the relationship itself.
A relationship can serve many different function for many different people, but to clarify and simplify, we'll assume that the point of a relationship for both parties is to move the couple to a balanced end state in one of two conditions. They are broken-up, having determined to at least one party's satisfaction that they are not feasible together, or they are married. Thus we eliminate any "for-fun" relationships, or relationships which do not have long-term goals. That these extraneous relationships exist can not be denied, but I'm not interested in them and they muddy the water so let's eliminate them.
So the relationship is the process which moves two people from some initial state in which they are not romantically sure of their compatibility to the end state in which they are. The point at which the relationship ends is often clear. Either you get married at a very specific and easy to determine point, in which case the relationship metamorphosizes into something else, or you break-up. Some couples are constantly breaking and reforming which will confuse the situation to be sure, but in general, the end is reasonably clear.
The beginning can likewise be clear, but often isn't. The relationship, in a romantic sense, is always building on some prior, non-romantic relationship. Did you ask the cute guy stocking the beans section of the grocery store out? Or is this a close friend from your childhood with whom you are finally taking the plunge into romance with? In the first cast things are a little clearer and simpler. Neither of you know much about the other and your mutual attraction is likely to be similar (and low, you barely know each other!) But that can change fast, and even the most uncomplicated of beginnings rapidly grows into a sophisticated dialogue of push and pull.
Fundamentally, almost all "games" are about masking desire. Games can range from acting a bit coy when being pressed for details by a friend of a friend, to straight-out lying to your partner. Hopefully we can all get on board with the idea that lies have no place in a healthy relationship, even (perhaps especially) a young one. But there are many different ways to not tell the truth, and some of them are rather difficult to classify right off as lies. Let's look at an example.
The Three Day Rule
This can be expressed in different ways and even with different time lines, but the general idea is that one should wait, after meeting someone, to call them/text them/whatever them again. Ignoring this rule and following up a Friday night date with a Saturday afternoon invitation can make one seem desperate and thus unattractive. Or so goes the wisdom of the rule. Is that true?
There's a lot of social science reasoning that says that it is. Even if the other person is just as interested, it tells them that they may be out of your league (they fell so fast!) or that you are just generally desperate and thus will either be clingy, or perhaps value the relationship rather than the person behind it. These reasons are probably true, but reasoning like this is what makes "game playing" appear so unattractive.
Are we really just playing these games to try to gain the upper hand in a relationship? Forcing the other person to admit first that they desire us? Or act aloof so they have to work for our attention thus giving us a stronger position? Perhaps, and if so then we have fallen hard on the side of negative play. This is the kind of game playing everyone thinks of when they're asked if they think it's a good thing. But there's other possibilities.
One may just be a presentation thing. You know you're musical skills are a great feature to bring up, but doing so yourself may just make you look egotistical instead of showing a sensitive side. So you get your buddy to bring it up and he acts the wing-man for you. Is this dishonest? Not really, it'll be you that is actually singing up there, you aren't showing off someone else's skills, you just presented them in the best way you could. How far can this road be taken before it starts taking you places that aren't worth going? I don't know, that's for each person to determine, but I find it hard to believe that anyone thinks they can't make at least a few innocuous stops at the beginning.
However, I think the most important, good reason, for game playing is that the beginning of a relationship is so incredibly volatile. You really like the guy, you've been friends with him for a few months and he seems great. You are excited to have a date set-up with him and see no barriers to a long relationship. You know you're getting ahead of yourself, but he seems marriage material! Then the date comes and you find in additions to being kind and funny, he's also a great, one-on-one conversationalist. You had a wonderful time!
If you we're polled right at that moment about your feelings and thoughts for the future you would tell a very glowing story. But then date two and three come. You realize some of this stuff is canned and he doesn't seem to respond well when you bring up your personal interests. He doesn't even like 80s rock! Not to mention that the third time through his witty insights begin to strike you as mostly just egotism run amok Now you wonder if you'll ask him out for a fourth date or just ignore his calls for a few weeks until he gets the hint.
Which feeling was legitimate and which one was the lie? Of course all the feelings and hopes and lack of hopes you've had are completely legitimate, but because the relationship is so new, they've been inclined to change rapidly.
But what if, instead of a theoretical poll after date one, he asked you directly? Or you told him through some well understood, if indirect, means? Now he has a piece of information about your opinion of him. How free are you to change it as time goes forward and that information becomes out of date? How will it impact the relationship to know this thing? Milestone in relationships are often defined by defining the relationship.
When did you declare that you were exclusive? Basically assuring each other that you're more interested in each other than with anyone else you could realistically be with at this point. When did you first say "I love you"? When did you declare you wanted to be with each other forever? These moments are so poignant because upon declaring them it is making a definitive prediction about the future. They only have meaning because you think your at the point where that feeling is, to some extent, above the fray of the push-pull nature of early relationships.
Games, properly used, allow you to form these opinions and feelings without the scrutiny and backlash of your partner knowing about every little change, up or down. Games allow you to like him on date one, cool off on date two, and then come back and tell him you don't want to only be with him from now on starting after date nine.
Games improperly used, are how you lie, cheat, and manipulate someone else into doing something or becoming something they don't want to do or become. And identifying the line between the two is not always hard, but is forever crucial.