The Games People Play

There are a number of useful metaphors and mental models through which to examine the world and how we operate in it. This post will focus on games. I’m no expert in game theory, but these reflections require nothing so rigorous. Instead, this will highlight various games or game-like elements that we can choose to play in our lives. Our approach to the world and the strategies and tactics we bring to bear will define our experiences.

The Suffering Game

Life is difficult and the deck is stacked against you. Play the victim. Respond to events with the assertion that it isn’t your fault. Things happen to you, not for you or through you. Garner attention with stories about how she abandoned you or how he backstabbed you. Avoid taking ownership and wear your lack of agency like a badge of honor. You’ll find others with a similar outlook and you can commiserate together about who has it worse.

The Resentment Game

People have wronged you. Hold a grudge. Remember how it felt and use it as fuel for whatever you choose to do in life. You’ll show them. Ignore the fact that this fuel doesn’t burn clean. It leaves a residue of bitterness. Whether it ultimately lifts you up or brings you down, the experiences will be tarnished but you’ll be left knowing that you were right and they were wrong.

The Status Game

Pick a hierarchy and climb to the top of it. Assert your will to power. Whether it’s a corporate org chart, certifications you can brag about, or a leaderboard somewhere, everyone has to know their place. Titles and power are everything. Look down for rivals, look up for targets. Always know where you can expand your influence and be ready to defend your fiefdom.

The Signaling Game

There are evil people in the world. Do everything you can to punish them and demonstrate your moral purity. Forget about nuance, context, or personal evolution. Weaponize information. Criticize others for their lack of commitment. Continually demonstrate that your ideology is the true one and that your opponents are lying hypocrites.

The Consumption Game

Things are a way of keeping score. Buy things often. That massive advertising machine of modern capitalism can’t possibly be wrong. Spend what you make and then some. That next purchase could be a great one or it could be future landfill fodder. You won’t know how that gamble will turn out if you don’t buy whatever it is and see how it makes you feel.

The Possession Game

Spend lavishly on key items. Impress others. Similar to the consumption game but with a crucial twist. You have to obtain nice things because they say something about your worth. Learn the esoteric details of designer brands, whether it’s watches, handbags, jewelry, or an expensive car. Only the best will do and those small flourishes will show others in the know just how well you are doing.

The Money Game

Some games are easy to score and net worth is a popular metric. Accumulate wealth for the sake of it. Even after you have more than you could use in a lifetime or five. Sure, you could use it to help others, and maybe someday you will. Until then, save and invest.

The Hedonism Game

If it feels good, do it. Live like there’s no tomorrow. New experiences are the spice of life so try to have as many as possible without worrying about the consequences. Only help others insofar as they can help you get what you want. Live your life to the fullest but without a plan for how to actually make that work in a sustainable fashion.

The Comparison Game

Define your life in relation to others. Have better things and fewer problems. Gossip. Feel bad about yourself when a friend or neighbor does better. Feel good when they do worse. Default to a life like those around you and call it the American Dream. Keep up or pull others down. Just don’t get left behind.

The Enlightenment Game

You’ve had an epiphany and must share it with others. Proselytize. Maybe you found God, or Transcendental Meditation, or Crossfit. Talk about it with others. Often. They must understand how great and important this is. Try to win converts. It’s wonderful. So much better than your previous epiphanies.

The Cynic Game

See the negative in all things. Wrap criticism in sarcasm and share liberally. Always focus on the problem and not on solutions. Point out the many flaws in the solutions offered. Don’t allow yourself to hope or approach the world with a positive outlook, you might end up disappointed again. Everything sucks even if this is the best the world has ever been.

The Validation Game

It’s all about feedback from others. Share a curated story. Social media has made this game more popular than ever. Those likes, clicks, and retweets tell your inner cro-magnon that you’re important. That the tribe won’t abandon you. Craft a perfect online persona that your real-life can’t possibly live up to. Tie your emotional mood and self-worth to what others upvote.

The Obligation Game

There’s a lot to be done and you are capable. Take responsibility, accumulate shoulds, allow others to make their problems your problems. Be a martyr. Exhaust yourself in fulfilling your perceived duty to other people. Don’t keep score based on their appreciation, but on your inner feelings of indispensability and importance.

The Compliance Game

Do as you’re told. Get good grades, go to college, get a job. Perhaps a particular job that your parents pushed you toward. Don’t question the system. Be a responsible cog. Don’t be selfish. Just keep your head down and trust that living up to the expectations of everyone else will lead to good outcomes.

The Dedication Game

Work is everything. Push yourself to burnout. Demonstrate your commitment by being always-on, sending emails at 2am, and responding to every ping and notification immediately. Thrive on stress and reactivity, even while on vacation. Irreplaceability matters more than quality work.

The Connection Game

Give. Be of service to others. Not to keep score of who you’ve helped and what they owe you. Not simply because it feels good to give (though that might be reason enough). Connect because connection makes the world better. Friendships are at the foundation of community.

The Creative Game

Make things. Write songs, stories, essays, blog posts, or screenplays. Draw. Paint - on canvas or just walls, your choice. Build a business. Build a portfolio. Build a house. Design. Tinker. Invent. Play music. Code. Lay foundations. Bring things into the world that didn’t exist before.

The Character Game

Aspire to be a good person. Identify your values and how you want to live. Be principled, even when it’s inconvenient. Especially when it’s inconvenient. Read philosophy, or don’t. Have a moral code. Inhabit your ideal self. Understand that you won’t be perfect. No one is.

The Achievement Game

Establish goals and grind until you meet them. Cultivate grit. The days of training and preparation can be miserable and exhausting. But you battle through. Relentlessness can take you a long way. And once you meet a goal, it will feel good. You can celebrate that all that time spent grinding was worth it. Then you adapt and the elation fades. Then you’ll realize that you need another goal and another and another.

The Process Game

Play the achievement game until you realize that most days are miserable and the goals can’t be everything. Examine your life. Ask questions. Identify the kind of life you want and work backward from there. Figure out what processes and habits will enable you to live that life. Focus on the day and how small things done well can add up. You control the process, not the outcome. Enjoy the journey.

This is not an exhaustive list, just an outline of some of the games that I have seen and played myself. Many of these games have strategies and tactics that interlock. Others are incompatible and can’t be played together. It’s highly probable that you are playing multiple games in your life. All games are not created equal. Some are better than others. Like all games, we can choose to stop playing at any time if it isn’t working for us. The quality of a game is simple to determine. Ask yourself, what happens if you lose this game? Or, god help you, what happens if you win? Part of a good life is finding better problems, believing better stories, and playing better games.

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