The meaning of the dream symbol: Game

In the dream sense, a Game represents psychological and/or physiological competition with another individual or group. Accordingly, we need to interpret what sort of game we are engaged in, how do we perform within that game, and what are the ‘stakes’ involved in ‘winning’ this particular game. Naturally, as it contains so many separate symbols, the game imagery can be indeed complex. However, The key aspect remains in the ‘challenge’ itself. As such, we need to interpret our relationship with our respective competitor. Having done so, the complex symbiology of the game may become clearer and point toward an understanding involving this perhaps confrontational relationship. What are our feelings about winning and losing? Do we deliberately lose the game in order to ‘win’ the love of our competitor?


Whether fighting or risk-taking, play-acting or obsessed, games are a universe in themselves in which the individual has to find his place whether he likes it or not. Games, Caillois believes, not only comprise the specific activities which give them their names but also the whole mass of images, symbols and implements needed in the game itself or in the operations of a complex structure. As in everyday life, games associate within a predetermined setting notions of wholeness, of rules and of freedom. The different patterns emerging from a game are so many models of real life. Games tend to replace anarchic relationships with a degree of order and to make the transition from a state of nature to a state of civilization, from the unpremeditated to the predetermined. However, games allow the depths of the unpremeditated and the most private reactions to external constraint to come to the surface in obedience to their rules.

From their beginning games were, like all human activities, linked with the sacred. Even the most profane, the most spontaneous, the least directed towards any conscious end all stem from this. The Ancient Greeks and Romans, for example, had ‘periodical ceremonies which accompanied certain religious festivals, during which athletes, musicians and declaimers competed with each other’. Each city organized its own games, associated with some festival, and allied city-states joined in communal games. Games may thus be regarded as a social ritual which, acting like a symbol, gave expression to and bonded more closely the unity of the group, while sporting competition externalized and resolved conflicts within the group.

These great public games acquired the highest degree of sociopsychological importance.

Around them crystallised national sentiment and a civic sense. They became for the inhabitants of the same city and the children of the same race... the bond that reminded them of their common interests and their common origin. They had influence on public as well as private life; they not only inculcated in everyone the idea that physical education should be encouraged by training young people in the palaestra, they also gave an opportunity to scattered members of the same ethnic family to fulfill themselves in the pursuit of an ideal that distinguished them from the Barbarians. The celebration of this ideal put a temporary stop to the rivalries and hostilities between cities.

While the games were taking place, truces were proclaimed, capital and other legal punishments were in abeyance and all was peace.

These games were generally consecrated to the gods under whose protection lay the cities, confederations or alliances which staged them. The Olympic Games were dedicated to the King of the Gods, Zeus, the Pythian to Apollo and the Isthmian to Poseidon. The only woman admitted to the Panhellenic Games at Olympia was the priestess of demeter, for whom a place of honour was reserved. This honour paid to the goddess of fertility leads one to regard these games as a symbol of the struggle between the powers of life and death, a symbol of the growth of the seed which sprouts and dies. The division between victor and vanquished expressed by synthesis the cosmic and biological struggle over which Demeter presided and which was displayed in the eternal return of the cycle of seedtime and harvest.

In Ireland, games, or cles, were sporting and warlike performances through which the hero was able to surprise, bewilder or dazzle his opponents. The more ‘ploys’ which he mastered, the greater his chances of becoming famous. Cilchulainn, for example, mastered scores of different ploys - the salmon-leap, the thunder-game, the trick of the spear-point and so on -occasionally defensive, more often offensive. Thus Cuchulainn could, with a single sword-stroke, shave an opponent without so much as grazing his skin, or cut the grass from under his feet without his noticing anything but its fall. He had learned all these tricks when serving his apprenticeship as a warrior with the two Queens of Scotland, Scathach and Aife. The latter even bore him a son and taught him the cunning use of the ge bulga, the notched spear, which saved him two or three times when he was faced by more skilled opponents. War-games symbolized individual skill and training for single combat; Celts had not the least notion of tactical training on the Roman pattern, and their games stemmed directly from initiation rites.

The Ancient Germans readily employed games as methods of divination, especially on the eve of battle. They used them to consult their gods who, for their part, were addicted to the game of backgammon.

Some games and toys possessed a wealth of symbolism now lost. Caillois suggests a link between the greasy pole and myths of the conquest of Heaven, while hopscotch in all likelihood stood for the maze in which the initiate strayed at first. In the Far East, kites represented the external soul of their owners, free to wander the heights of Heaven while remaining magically (and really by their strings) linked to their owner on Earth. In Korea kites were used to carry away the people’s sins like a scapegoat. Although these games and playthings may have lost their sacred character, they continue today to be just as valid objects, since they play a highly important social and psychological part as symbols both of conflict and of the learning process.

In north Africa, funeral games, both ritual and competitive, follow the funeral sacrifices, feasts and processions. They are like the sudden release or explosion of energy concentrated under pressure. They mark the end of a period of time set aside as holy and a return to everyday living. The games are designed to disperse an atmosphere of holiness, so intense that it has become oppressive, by unleashing utterly different feelings and reestablishing the normal pattern of existence. According to Jean Servier, these games ‘scatter the accumulation of holiness... which pilgrims would find dangerous to carry home.’

The games also possess magical qualities. By grouping the competitors into two camps, they in fact set two principles or two polarities in opposition, and the triumph of one or the other is bound to ensure a boon such as rain or the blessing of the dead person and of his ancestors. ‘East camp and west camp... opposing clans from the same village ... the dry male principle, or the moist female principle from whose marriage the world is shaped, just as Mankind is formed from vegetative and subtle souls.’

The games take the most varied forms, from harmless social games to the cold-blooded horseman’s courage of the fantaziya. The latter are held for preference with the change of the season and to a degree symbolize the warring of the elements and of plant life against them. ‘All these games exude a feeling of competitiveness, of a struggle between two powers magically polarized along the east-west axis, one standing for dryness the other for moisture. This contest, emphasizing the opposition of the two elements essential to the world, is the necessary prelude to their marriage, in other words to making the world fruitful’.

The games may also assume the quality and aspect of an offering. Competitors rival one another in skill and endurance, even, at times, to the point of blood-letting, in order that this effusion of strength, of fatigue, of sweat and of tears should honour the invisible powers to whom they are offered and thus appease them, turn them and win their favour. Whether consciously or unconsciously, games are to be regarded as one of the ways in which mankind engages in dialogue with the invisible. Even playing with dolls, for example, is linked among the Berbers to fertility rites, the only rites which children may perform. It is their way of copying the behaviour of adults and of associating themselves with the major sacred rites which initiation will later reveal to them.

Psychoanalysis detects in games the transfer of psychic energy either between the two players or through endowing the toys - dolls, model trains and so on - with a life of their own. Games supercharge the imagination and activate emotionality. However pointless the game may be, it remains nonetheless weighted with significance and consequence. ‘To play with something implies a surrender to the plaything, the player endowing, to some extent, the object with which he plays with his own libido. As a result the game becomes a magical activity which brings to life... To play is, therefore, a rite of passage and prepares the way for adaptation to reality. This is why games played by primitive peoples or by children so easily become serious and sometimes tragic’.

Children’s games and the private games of grown-ups, of which so many examples are known from China, India, Egypt, Greece, Rome and elsewhere, are in their way, and deep down, copies of public games. Although on the surface they may seem shallow and undirected, this should not disguise their basic confrontation symbolism. Games are at the heart of human relationships and are highly efficient teachers.

Groos has rightly called children’s games ‘an act of spontaneous personality development, being instinctive and unconscious preparations for future real-life activities.’ Games reflect ‘the child’s relationship not only with its own internal world but with the persons and happenings of the external world’.

Psychodrama, the brilliant invention of Moreno, uses for its methods the formative, educational and even therapeutic properties of games and the cluster of images which they generate. The psychodramatist’s task is to release the springs of spontaneity so that patients, while remaining themselves, adapt to all the roles life demands they play. Instead of being preconditioned by their past, they are seemingly free, their own creativity endowed with a massive power of expansion. If adaptation is one of the secrets of sociability, it will be seen how well suited psychodrama is to reintegrate a person into social life, to set him or her more at ease and to make that person far more attractive. Psychodrama is found to be a synthesis of social and affective symbols which it sets in motion of their own accord, and they tend to counterbalance one another and thus to ease the passage from games to real life. They break down and dissolve, in play, the complexes which, had they remained latent, would have brought on conflicts, but which, once overcome, encourage adaptation and progress.

Esoteric teaching has laid bare a whole lore of initiation in such different games as the tarot, dice, dominoes and chess, to mention only a few. Tarot is richest in symbols and has been given a separate article, with further articles on each of the twenty-two major arcana. So far as dice are concerned, for example, it has been maintained that the six sides of these small cubes and the six dots marked on them are symbols of the world manifested in its six aspects - mineral, vegetable, animal, human, psychic and divine. The six faces of these cubes may be arranged in the shape of a cross, the horizontal arm comprising the animal, the psychic and the human and the vertical arm, the divine, the psychic, the vegetable and the mineral.

Games exhibit the most varied aspects in accordance with the concerns of each age. They are not only an opportunity for relaxation, but can be initiatory, educational, mimetic or competitive. They draw their inspiration from the demands of everyday life and they develop faculties of social adaptation. The success of computer games in this latter part of the twentieth century ushers in a new form of intelligence which grasps more readily the triumphs of technology than the subtleties of speech. The most popular games symbolize the chief concerns of any given age, such as Monopoly, business games, Trivial Pursuit and the Rubik Cube. They reflect their age and herald an era of electronics, mathematics, mechanics and automation.

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