You choose your game, then your game chooses you

This is part 3 in a series. You can start here, or with part 1 or part 2.

When I was a kid a couple of friends and I decided to pretend to run a movie theater at the daycare we attended. We would roll up A4 papers diagonally to create popcorn containers, make signs and branding, and create lists of movies that were available. We called it Silver City, an homage (or ripoff, as some other people sneered) to a Famous Players sub brand that had opened up nearby at Scarborough Town Centre.

In an era before streaming (in my childhood, we still had to rent videotapes!), this was great fun. More people decided to join. Even the teachers took notice, realizing that they could rent a movie on Friday night and have my friends and I basically manage the situation. For example, the teachers would pop the popcorn, but we served it. We also curated the movies and organized a vote, collected ballots, and did the tallying (if I recall correctly, Toy Story was the winner).

It was an immensely fun game of pretend, and it became something of a reality. When we finally ran out of things to do, everyone was sitting on the floor, watching Woody and Buzz on the TV, and I realized we’d been a part of something really cool. The pretend theater actually became a lo-fi reality; we didn’t have movie theater seats or even a projector, but we all watched a movie together. 

It was a really fun game.

The games we play

Curiositry writes in The Autodidacts

When I was a boy, I was a real nerd. I immersed myself in chemistry, astronomy, electrical engineering, programming, and other STEM fields. And it happened that many of the people around me when I was growing up did not share my interest in science. I was quick to think that they were stupid. But what was really stupid was judging people by their performance at a game they weren’t even playing. It can seem like the game I’m playing is The Game. It’s not. There are many games. There are many games more difficult than the Science game, or the Logic game. More relevant, too. There’s the being kind game. There’s the making money game. There’s the making art game. There’s the self-knowledge and self-control games. These were just a few of the games that other people were playing, that I hadn’t even learned the rules of.

The author had been obsessed with the game that made them feel good—knowledge and facts—and unconsciously dismissed the many other games that were available.

In this context, a game is a version of a schema or worldview. My dad would constantly tell me, “Life is not a cartoon,” which was his version of an admonishment to me to take life more seriously. So to my dad, life was not a game—it was serious. (Another one of his adages: “Starting your own business is not easy.” So, more than anything else, entrepreneurship was difficult.)

In an episode of Drink Champs, Ye unpacks the idea of the professional rap game, and basically how his professional competition with Drake was affecting his family and personal life. In a subsequent episode, Pusha T also talks about the few years back, being at “war” with Drake. The game of hip-hop is particularly spirited and competitive, so it was curious to learn more about the industry in these terms. 

Through these games, we’re training and practicing with (or, to use a technical metaphor, wiring or programming) our brains; for example, Shopify enables its employees to expense the purchase of Factorio and encourages them to play the game, believing that Factorio will train their brains on how to better operationalize and scale businesses. (It’s now starting to take place outside of Shopify.)

It’s through playing consistently that the metagame starts presenting itself to each of us; we start realizing that certain rules, mechanics, or conventions don’t matter, that certain objectives are distractions, and others are truly worth pursuing. 

Status as incentives

The games we play also start changing our values, to the point where we change what status looks like to each of us. This is most apparent when we start choosing a job, field, or career we work in—or even a place we want to move to

If you choose finance, you’ll tend to develop a certain set of values (hypothetically, monetary success, risk aversion, etc.). If you work in software, you’ll develop a different set (hypothetically impact, power, user experiences, scale, etc.). If you work in research, still a different one (accuracy, clarity, and organization, etc.) And still different in professional hip-hop (fame, relevance, critical acclaim, monetary success, etc.). These are all different criteria for signalling status, which itself is a specific objective.

Even if people literally look like they are playing the same game, they can have entirely different objectives as well. For example, if there’s a group of people playing a board game, there’s a good chance that some people are playing to win (what James P. Carse calls a finite game), and others are just playing to have a good time—to create a shared experience for everyone. 

A game is a worldview

That doesn’t mean everyone participating in the same arena is playing the same game. I mentioned Ye, Drake, and Pusha T earlier. By contrast, consider Donald Glover (who records music as Childish Gambino) saying, “This ain’t a job to me. I’m in the influence game. And I think my world is better than most people’s. So I’m trying to make the most people believe in my world. That’s relevancy.” In other words, Glover opted not to play the game of professional rap (“Rec League, I ain’t paying to ball”); he chose a different path, one he calls the influence game. 

Glover’s perspective is reminiscent of Chamath Palihapitiya talking about worldviews; Glover uses storytelling and culture to try to get the most people to buy into his world, and Palihapitiya is using his capital. That earlier section I wrote a segment hints at this: a game can also develop into a worldview. Some of these games end up taking the form of a religion, each with its own value systems and symbols

In finite games, in order for someone to win, another person has to lose; it’s inherently a status game, driven through competition and a set of rules. That’s why many of us don’t take recreation leagues, moral victories, or participation ribbons seriously. 

Those that do take these milestones seriously are playing infinite games; games where the objective is simply to keep on playing. If you’re still confused about the difference, here’s a recent real-world story of people playing a finite game vs. people playing an infinite game.

In The Courage to Be Disliked, Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga write, “On the same level playing field, there are people who are moving forward, and there are people who are moving forward behind them. Keep that image in mind. Though the distance covered and the speed of walking differ, everyone is walking equally in the same flat place. The pursuit of superiority is the mind-set of taking a single step forward on one’s own feet, not the mind-set of competition of the sort that necessitates aiming to be greater than other people.”

If inner peace and happiness is your objective, you’re probably best off playing a style of game that Kishimi and Koga suggest: an infinite game, where everyone is on level playing ground, and moving forward at different speeds and distances. You’ll also need to find people who are playing the game like this, with the objective not to finish the game in their victory, but to help each other and to enable everyone to continue playing.

If you realize you’ve picked the wrong game, that’s okay too. Today is the day you can change your perspective, and pick a new one.

Part 1. Part 2.

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