Circle (2015, Aaron Hann, Mario Mslcone): A Game of Life and Death, Winners and Losers and How Faith Disrupts the Rules of the Game

This is a really interesting concept that potentially gets bogged down by the weight of a few uncertain parts. I found that it’s far more interesting to ponder after the fact than to experience in the moment, and this is due to the fact that there isn’t a whole lot of mystery or even necessary set up to the premise. We know that this group of people who find themselves standing in a circle have been submitted to a game by unseen aliens, so this isn’t about figuring out what’s going on. This is worth noting because it becomes easy to anticipate that this film is building up to some big reveal or development in the plot, and easy to be left a little bit wanting when the film most aasuredly does not. It is literally all about the game itself where each of these people are given a vote and each round, determined by a timeclock, (seemingly) demands a vote, with the person who gets the most votes being the one to die. Last one standing is the survivor.

This, however, is where the game itself gets interesting. Looking back on the film and thinking about how the game unfolded is an opportunity to see how the circle is essentially a microcosm of a developing society. It looks at how it is that we form these societes by forming majorities and creating minorities. It also looks at how it is that we formulate governing systems, social norms and moral expectations. The way it plays this out round by round proves a very interesting way of examining the building blocks of a given society, which are arguably universal in nature.

In examining this the film is also of course also about human nature. The circle presents this nature as a necessary cycle, one which repeats itself in any different direction with, perhaps, slightly different results from game to game but always with the same rules and the same motivations in play. There inevitably must be hierarchies and majorities and minorites, and these social systems demand some level of survival and competition in order to exist. This is the uncomfortable truth the film desires to communicate and wrestle with, demonstrating that even the most idealistic versions of society demonstrate the same truths about our reality when pared back to their most basic, instinctual drive. Morals after all are simple and basic constructs that allow a society to survive, but only where they coexist with the greater instinctual drive of one’s or a groups thriving. Life cannot function without winners and losers and the game is designed so that once you whittle the system down to its most basic form this becomes immediately clear and undeniable.

What this does of course is beg the question of how it is that we judge something to be good or bad, one of the defining elements of the social constructs that emerges within the game. We do so in order to define insiders and outsiders, to distinguish who we are in relationship to another, and to some degree there is benefit to operating by that which we determine to be good on a functional level. But within a discussion of the natural order goodness must be defined by that which is beneficial, and as the game suggests this is a fluid and always evolving definition within the rules of the game. It is true then to suugest that we are naturally wired towards certain responses that we, as a developing society, can determine to be good, but goodness itself does not actually exist outside of its necessary function, which is to form this society according to insiders and outsiders so that it can survive and thrive. This is why this becomes so pertinant a question within the game. When they are forced to choose who must die, on what basis to they justfy a person’s perceived and inherent goodness to be more beneficial and necessary to society than the other? This is why we create both good and bad so as to define insiders and outsiders, and as the game shows this shifts constantly depending on a mix of need and desire. As the game unfolds we see the definition of goodness evolving not as a static moral but within the moral construct necessary to organize these microcosms of society. Remember, morals are simple societal constructs that emerge from the necessary organizing structure. They must be agreed upon and their only true measure is what is most beneficial. And whats important to remember and what the game underscores is that what is most beneficial to the group will never be most beneficial for the whole. It can’t be when we are speaking about the survival of a species.

We of course don’t like to think about human nature in this way. We don’t like to think about the world we live in as operating in this fashion. In fact, it would seem that human nature is designed to see our groups as functioning by a higher order and principle. This is a survival mechanism and it requires us to base our lives on the illusions that free us to see that we are participating in this world in a meaningful way even though it is in reality a game with necessary winners and losers. Despite the one character who insists that there are no winners (perhaps the true existential crisis) we live with the unconscious conviction that there are. This is, it would appear, what makes life worth living.

Of course with winners there must be losers, and this is what often disrupts the system. This is especially the case when it comes to minorities binding togther to defeat a majority in power, which is what we see in the organizing principle of the game. These constantly shifting allegiances in response to being in the minority, to being on the losing side. This of course results in shifting notions of what it means to win, something that the resulting chaos which forms from this clash of winners and losers encourages, but this is also challenged by the fact that this is in fact a game that needs leaders and followers. Knowing this inspires certain parts of our nature, our brains, to kick in regardless of these moral systems in play, similar to what happens when we realize how it is that life actually works. Our illusions, be it belief in God, belief in certain moral actions as good in and of themselves, belief in family systems, belief in a greater cause, are in fact shaky foundations precisely because we know them to be illusions. We intuitively know them to be this even as our brains are wired to convince us otherwise. Thus circumstance has a way of unsettling these things within our consciousness when we find we aren’t on the right side of the game, which can be described as whatever allows us to feel like we are worthwhile (as one player suggests), like we are necessary or useful or needed in this existence. This is why when we aren’t on the right side we tend to fight (or give up) and resist (or concede). The ones on the bottom are needed to keep the balance of order and give the ones on top meaning. And round and round it goes, all resting on this simple truth that we are designed to think of this in the moment as more than just a game. In truth we are all part of a system, we are all formed by these systems, we are all easily manipulative and manipulable creatures, we are all predictable and highly irrational. And we all live in a world that is built to remind us that we are on the top or on the bottom, that we are the winners or the losers, even if those defintions shift with circumstance and our response. We could not live without such structures. And being winners or losers can be descrihed as simply as whatever a successful life looks like, be it through things within our control or outside of our control.

A confession here. My assessment of the Circle game is something I believe to be true in one sense. As a person of faith I do believe we also have this inherent intuition that even though this is how life works and what life is there is a way to imagine a world and a life that looks differently, one that is not given to the rules of this game. Of course many critics of faith might contend that such a notion is little more than wishful idealism that brings comfort in the moment, and might wonder whether such a world could even be described as living at all. What would be the meaning of the game if not motivated by winners and losers? Others will contend faith is unecessary because we can achieve this same reality through our own means without God. I would contend that such persons are thinking too narrow and remain far too dependent on the illusion to appeal to the larger rational argument. Critics of faith do so by upholding their own illusions about this world and about their place in it. If you are on the bottom what informs our drive to resist? The conviction of our idealism. And what is this idealism? Is it a world where there are no winners and losers? Is it a world where there is no suffering and death and competition?That begs the question of what a world with no suffering would look like or perhaps what suffering in fact is. Such a world can only exist where there are no winners and losers.

What then informs our drive from the bottom is our conviction in an illusionary concept that can never actually be achieved, or which critics of faith might argue should not be achieved. We are better off attending for reality and rationalism, which is what? An awareness of what life really is (a game) and an awareness of how our natures work (survival), because this can enable us a greater chance to be successful by whatever measure a successful life or society looks like. An appeal to rationalism as the graeter good simply means the aiding of this success.

Here is the thing. Such success still demands insiders and outsiders. Rationalism must appeal to this truth. In an increasingly global world we must still operate according to nationalistic prinicpals for the system to work, as we have throighout human history, and if, from the vantage point of our present circumstance and chaos, we decide to believe in some ideal where we do not function according to these principles rationalism and reason forces us to accept that this is merely an illusion, not reality. It is a way of convincing oursleves that we are working towards something, with the irony being that such a world might satisfy the desires on the bottom but would never satisfy the desires of those on the top. This is why the great experiment of American western liberalism remains a falsehood, an illusonary concept that only works as an organizing principle that ensures there will always be people on the top and the bottom. It appears as though it hinges on progress, but only in certain defintions of success not in inherent principle. What this form of society underscores is that such an organizing principle can only exist within necessary hierarchies. The idea that each person is a truly liberated one is of course the grand illusion upon which this construct is based, which of course cannot and will never correlate to reality. In truth it is designed to reward the winners and feed the illusion that we are liberated and in control and that we are on the winning side of this game.

Socialism on the other hand believes that success is dependent on meeting base level needs. What it struggles to answer though is what happens when this reality is achieved. It cannot define what living means when base level needs are met. Socialism makes sense for those on that bottom. Some might say it’s designed to reward the losers, which of course they would claim goes against the very rules and nature of the game. Yet it cannot attend for how our base line natures operate when we are then given the pieces necessary to enter the game. At best it can appeal to a certain kind of happiness that comes from maintaining the status quo, but this is only one form of happiness and a very limited version of it at that, and it does not attend for the true base of our natures when the opportunity to participate in the game presents itself. Take someone from this space and put them in the game and as the circle underscores we are suddenly forced to participate according to the rules precisely because it triggers that nature that responds to the need for necessary hierarchies.

Similar to socialism is liberation efforts. We can always liberate from, which is part of the human drive from the bottom and can be beneficial to societal structures as a whole. But the question of what we are liberating to is much harder to answer, because that’s when we are thrown right back into the game.

So where does faith fit into the picture? I think faith underscores that this is the truth of our reality and that if faith is an illusion all of life then is. Faith underscores that for as much as our nature resists the kind of idealism that imagines we might actually be freed from the circle, from the cycle, we also need this idealism to drive us forward. The question then is if we know this intuitively, that we desire to be freed from the trappings of the game, and that at the same time our nature bind us to the game, by what means do we locate this idealism as not merely an illusion but as a possible and given truth, a tenable and desired outcome of our efforts. A way to break the cycle. This is where I find faith to be compelling. It breaks into the game and imagines the rules differently. It breaks into the game and offers us a spiritual imagination, a way to image a different outcome. It breaks into the game and challenges our idealism. It breaks into the game and gives suffering and death a redemptive course.

And here’s the thing. The Circle recognizes that on some level this requires humility and sacrifice, the two possibilities that history shows to be antithetical to the game, the true disrupters. But it doesn’t employ these things as simply a way to reposition us back into the circle. That is the problem of our social systems no matter how moral we see our more progressive societies. If our only measure is less violent societies then in some respects we can see examples of this having been achieved (and in other respects having utterly failed). Many popular thinkers and philosophers use this to show that we as humans have changed the game on our own. That is a grand fallacy though, an illusion. It’s simply set up the pieces to play again with the only true possibility being that suffering is measured differently. Same rules, different context.

The real question is how do we actually imagine a world where we change the game? Where the rules are different? Where our human intuiton of what this game called life must be (necessary competition and progess in order to be successful) meets with our intuition that we desire to be freed from the cycles? That, in my mind, requires something revelatory. Something that breaks into the patterns and demonstrates a different way of being in this world. It also requires something that is able afford us a vision of such an idealistic aim (life without the game) while also demonstrating how such a reality is in fact a greater life than we know now. The freedom to see in such idealism the hoped for living without the struggle, without the competition, without the heiarchies, without the suffering, without the death. This I think informs our deepest longings. It allows us to see death and suffering as the true enemy rather than oursleves, and to see our societal structures and systems based on power as the enemies truest expression. It allows us to see this and declare this to be true while also declaring a different reality to be true as well, the one afforded to us by faith in one who has and is breaking into the game, one who actually has the power to say that death and suffering can be redemptive possibilities. This is how the enemy is defeated. It is the only way it can be defeated. It is the only way way the circular cycle can be broken. Otherwise the death that we see as meaning something remains merely an illusion. That can be enough for the winners, but only if we adhere to the illusions and neglect the reality of the game, which our nature allows us to do It will never be enough to satisfy the game and imagine a world without losers though.

This is the true irony of progress and of the game designed to feed this progress by our nature. Death and suffering become our primary measure, and that measure is based on achieving longer lives and more properous living for the insiders, the winners within the illusion that the ones at the top can then change the reality for the ones at the bottom, the vision many employ as ethical reasoning for a balanced system. What fails to be attended for is that the necessary balance flows both ways, towards our idealism and against it. We convince ourselves that we live in a more enlightened age, a more properous age, a more ehtical age simply on the basis that we are less violent and more inclusive. Dig underneath these organizing principles though and they quickly emerge as power systems, simply with different ways of locating suffering, winners and losers, and success. The game is the same and death remains the great leveler. There is no magic number by which we can say a life lived has been a meaningful one, merely our current frame of reference noted by longer life spans and the question of whether or not we are on the winning side (according to the above definition). The game doesn’t end, it simply resets the pieces for our modern age with the primary question being still, how do we defeat death, because death is the one thing that renders the game meaningless precisely because it renders us all equal. As the Circle reminds is though, even if we find a way to defeat death itself on our own terms, the game doesn’t end. It continues by the same rules reminding us of what it took to defeat it in the first place and of who benefits from being on the winning side of such an endeavor.

This is why death, which in its broadest sense is simply a definition of our true reality which encompasses struggle and suffering and loss and decay, lies at the core of faith as the great enemy. This is why faith demands a player from the outside in order to defeat it. This is why humilty and sacrifice, ingrained as they are in the universal stories of humanity as we inspire to imagine the nature of the gods, are so necessary. It is also why forgivness becomes the key to all of this and the most scandalous part of that revelatory message. Locate forgivness and you find the truest expression of faith and the answer to the problem of the game.

The real question that remains then sounds silly but is so vital- are we actually brave enough to imagine that idealistic future becoming a reality? Are we actually brave enough to imagine a reality without death and suffering? This sounds silly, but what the Circle reminds me of is that this question remains the single greatest obstacle to embracing faith precisely because, as it turns out, we like the game too much.

Published by davetcourt

I am a 40 something Canadian with a passion for theology, film, reading writing and travel.

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