The point of a game is not to win, and you shouldn't even pretend that it is
This post started out as a supporting point for another post about games. It developed into a bit of a practical philosophy post.
Why do boardgames generally end by declaring just one absolute winner? There are many reasons, most bad, I'd argue. One reason, probably a major factor in their spread, is that it seems to make it easier to teach the game. One-winner games are familiar, they also allow the game to proceed without confronting a somewhat counterintuitive, but foundational, insight about the purpose of play. We actually need that insight, even in one-winner games, so I'm going to articulate it here.
You have a play objective within the game, and somehow, pursuing that objective is supposed to attain some other real objective that exists outside of the game, in real life.
Usually a game wont articulate the real objective, preferring to convey a sense of it through play, through art and theme. Other games deliberately addle you into forgetting your real objective, hoisting the play objective up as if it were the real, as if we pursue it for its own sake, but try as we may, we can never truly escape our real objectives, and the distinction will impose itself upon us.
Sometimes the distinction between play and real objectives is clear, though. When you deliver a package in Death Stranding, you're not doing it because you actually believe you're delivering vital resources to remote communities. Death Stranding is a weird, messy, artsy game so voicing the real objective is going to be difficult but I'll give it a shot: Your real objective is to better know The Global Industrial Machine. You're here to experience the way the machine realizes good or bad outcomes through humans, to reckon with both the vitality and catastrophe it generates, its human and inhuman parts. You're here to find the empowerment in it. The game doesn't tell you that explicitly. (I wonder why. I guess it's probably mostly because every artful and convincing work, is a work of apologia, to explain its purpose would require wholely translating it into an essay, the author, expert in one medium, may not know how to translate it, and its translation would always be weaker.)
So, play and real objectives are obviously very different here. You can't really confuse them. In contrast:
In a one-winner boardgame, Winning happens to be a simple play objective that is not obviously distinct from your real objective. Most players actually do pretty directly enjoy being found best. Even if nothing else happens that night, beating everybody will make you feel pretty good about yourself. That spares the game leader from having to acknowledge or explain the distinction between play and real objectives and explain both of them separately, and it spares players from having to practice this tricky frame of mind where we keep our subgoals and supergoals in mind at the same time to avoid getting lost in stale subgoals. We can just say "The point is to win", and that will seem true enough.
But we should go deeper than that. For most games, the real objective is learning about each other, or about the game, or about some other real or abstract thing the game is evoking. That is a different goal and sometimes gives different instructions. An important thing that we must learn about games (or classes, or jobs, or conversations) is that monofocally trying to win this round, focusing entirely and exclusively on this subtask, is usually not best. If you understand that subtask's role in the broader objective, you can usually do better. The real objective and the play objective sometimes come into conflict. Consider; experimenting with wild new strategies, or sharing your understanding of the game with other players. Both of those activities would undermine your chances of winning this game now, while strongly helping the real objective of learning and improving at the game (or winning later).
Set your competitive impulses aside, save them for the war. In the dojo, they're a distraction. Your real goal is not to win. Your real goal is to grow.
It never could have really been all about winning: We often play games where we lose most of the time and where we know we'll never be number one. We could win more if we played against less skilled players, but we don't seek out weaker players. We move towards our zone of incompetence instead of away from it. Wins are not what most of us seek.
I should emphasize, the tragically elegant thing about "the point is to win" is that winning now is a real world goal that abased hearts do sometimes actually harbor, but it's perilous as a monogoal, because if you feed that impulse, it leads you to diminish your friends and to avoid making friends of people who intimidate you. Better advice is "try to be the dumbest person in the room," which is a paraphrasing of fristonian learning process (avoid darkrooming, maximize knowledge by entering the domains where you least have it), and it is the better way to live.
I wouldn't have been able to find joy in Chess (where I'd usually be the worst player in the room) or in Pandemic (same, plus quarterbacking problem) if I had not learned when to let the real objective supersede the play objective.
In Chess I will ask the opponent how they see the game and tell them how I see it too. I'll tell them when they make silly moves and welcome them to retract if they want to explore the other more interesting branches our game could have gone down. Our intention is just to explore chess. We have more fun and we learn more.
And in Pandemic, a purely cooperative game, I will try to learn from better players' (the quarterbacks') suggestions. If their lessons do not come easily to me — if I do not immediately understand the reasoning underlying their commands — I will not obey! :3 I will turn to whatever teacher is best, and if you fail me, oh quarterback, I will instead turn to the game itself, and I will just do whatever makes sense to me and face the consequences, and learn in the most natural way, even if that means we lose this time. (Your challenge, as a more experienced player, includes communication.)
So remember, the play objective is not the point of play, and while you should bear it in mind, the real objective sometimes requires you to diverge from it.