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“Play stupid games, win stupid prizes” — Meaning & Context

“Play stupid games, win stupid prizes” — Meaning & Context

Some words in the English language just aren’t very nice. And I don’t mean technical words that describe punctuation, like semicolons, even if you don’t like them.

One such word is “stupid.” It implies complete disdain for somebody, with the hint of a suggestion that they are either not in their right mind or just not thinking properly.

Because of its put-down power, “stupid” finds its way into all sorts of insults. It doesn’t appear very often in stock expressions, but when it does it’s memorable.

A case in point is “Play stupid games, win stupid prizes.”
 

What does the expression “Play stupid games, win stupid prizes” mean?

The expression “play stupid games, win stupid prizes” means that if you take part in something that’s obviously a bad idea, only bad things will come of it. Normally, this phrase is used to refer especially to violent or humiliating things that happen when someone does something foolish.
 

The “play stupid games, win stupid prizes” origin

The first recorded use of the phrase “play stupid games, win stupid prizes” is unclear.

Many people on the Internet claims to have first seen it in Tom Clancy books in the 1980s and 1990s. However, a search of Tom Clancy books on Google Books reveals that the phrase actually never appears in a single one of his novels.

According to Google Ngrams, the first time “win stupid prizes” as a phrase showed up in print was in the early 1990s.

This appears to have been in a small progressive magazine called Gauntlet which talks about how people on the game show Truth or Consequence compete to “win stupid prizes.”

The first actual use of the full phrase, at least according to Google Books, was sometime in the mid-2010s. However, the phrase certainly predated this time period, as can be seen by the persistent assumption online that it dates from the 1980s.

We could pause to let that sink in, but instead let’s leave the origins of this expression shrouded in mystery and learn what it means.
 

The meaning of “play stupid games”

Everybody loves board games. They can be a great way to pass the time on a winter evening when you’re stuck inside, or they can help you get to know people better.

Was this expression just coined by someone who secretly hates board games?

Actually, no. The type of “game” referred to hear isn’t usually an actual game. Likewise, we’re not talking about spending an hour deciding whether to put a comma before or after also when there are guides that make the choice easy.

Instead, the word “games” here is being used to refer to some people’s tendency to push buttons and do things they shouldn’t.

The games in question here could be mind games, like those played in unhealthy relationships to manipulate or gain power over the other person.

Another example would be political games where a politician is stringing along members of a violent fringe group because he thinks he can keep them in check and gain more political clout for himself.

The games could even involve harassing members of the police or armed forces.

Basically, a stupid game in the context of this quote is something that’s a bad idea but the person in question is doing because they think they can pull it off or haven’t thought through the consequences.
 

The meaning of “win stupid prizes”

Now that we understand what stupid games are, “stupid prizes” should be pretty clear.

Again, these aren’t the tacky and useless prizes offered to contestants on classic TV game shows. No, these prizes are often violent or humiliating (see also: cringy vs cringey) for the lucky “winner.”

To return to our previous examples, if you play stupid games in a relationship, your prize is likely to be getting dumped or feeling miserable.

The politician who courts violent extremist is unlikely to satisfy them for long and may alienate his other constituents, winning himself the loss of his seat or even a violent attack.

And the less said about the prizes you win from annoying the police, the better.

In short, if you win a stupid prize because of something you’ve done that was stupid, you will probably regret it.
 

Play stupid games, win stupid prizes: what it really means

Put together, the expression “play stupid games, win stupid prizes” implies that if you act in a thoughtless way you will face negative consequences.

You can think of it as a more sarcastic way of saying something like “you reap what you sow” or “you get what’s coming to you.”

Let’s look at some other examples.
 

Example Sentences

“Edgar thought it was hilarious to dangle his half-eaten sandwich in front the emu’s face and then snatch it away again. Later, we asked the doctor if she’d ever seen this kind of thing before and she just shrugged and said, ‘play stupid games, win stupid prizes.'”

 
In this somewhat lengthy example, the stupid game Edgar played was taunting wildlife with food. The stupid prize isn’t explicitly described, but since Edgar’s friends are talking to a doctor, we can assume it wasn’t anything good.

“Suzanne always used to ignore her boyfriends until they got lonely and called her, even if she wanted to talk to them badly. After the second time a boy dumped her because she didn’t seem interested in him, her mother told her that if she played stupid games, she was going to win stupid prizes. Suzanne thought it was mean, but privately I agreed.”

 
Here, Suzanne wins the stupid prize of getting dumped by playing mind games with the people she’s dating. This is a stupid game because it’s much better to communicate with people honestly so they can understand your real feelings.

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