Games that play us

I had intended to do the bog-standard, year-in-review type post. Perhaps an updated Status of the wholes. But for various reasons I can’t really be bothered. Instead, I want to pose a question to myself and to you. However, to get to the question we first need to glance at the concept of games.

James Carse defines two types of games: finite and infinite. The former are played to win; the latter are played in order to keep playing. This is all well and good and interesting and generative. But what I’ve found increasingly curious in this formulation is the anthropocentric bias. It doesn’t seem to matter whether it’s an individual, a pack, a troop, a tribe, or an imagined community (h/t Venkatesh Rao) playing the game. It’s always assumed that we are the ones playing the games.

What do Naval Ravikant, Paul Graham, Jay Z, Nassim Taleb, Zack Kant and legacy British aristocrats have in common? (This is not a rhetorical question posed to enable me to bash or bait those mentioned–they were simply top of mind whilst I considered this idea.) The answer: they all played their respective games faster than their games could play them.

  • Naval and PG played the game of wealth creation (aka entrepreneurship) before it could play them. Their explicit early intention was to get rich so they could spend their life doing what they wanted.
  • Jay Z played the game of drug dealing so he could rap, then played the game of rap to get rich.
  • Nassim Taleb took risks as a trader so he could live the life of a philosopher and spend his days having risky conversations.
  • Zack Kant stated that he used to play games like Sim City and that this helped him master the finite game mechanics of entrepreneurship. He played video games, and later entrepreneurship, in a novel way.
  • OG British aristocrats played the game of colonialism and their descendants continue to reap the rewards–mostly manifested as land ownership. (Gilded Age barons and European old-money families could also go here.)

Some counter-examples, instances of games that played people? Celebrity culture comes to mind–it seems particularly ruthless with regard to its participants. Crime too–most involved suffer more than the average non-criminal, and in a shorter span of time. Video games to a certain extent–how many young people (predominantly males) have various skills–physical, emotional, spiritual, social–warped by prolonged video game playing? And, of course, social media: as a society, we are being played by the new information environment.

The temporal element is most critical in the above examples, and in all the many examples that didn’t make it on to my tiny list. Anthropocentric bias assumes that games are benign, that we play them. This isn’t true. From the second we engage in them, the games begin to play us.

This makes gameplaying a test of temporal competence. From individuals to imagined communities; from one’s career to our collective contribution to climate change. We all play games, but perhaps it is time to start noticing how the games play us? It is not akin to hitting a punchbag, nor to the move-countermove of turn-based combat in RPGs. We are combatants in a ludic brawl.

It’s the end of a year and the end of a decade. Countless games have ended, but for every one ended another has begun and the stakes are promising to be exponentially higher. We seem to be nearing a tipping point, a climax. Like a plotted story, we seem to be approaching unheard of technological capacities just as we begin to run out of civilisational runway. Will we crash, or will we achieve flight?

I don’t know, but I can be fairly confident when I state that, if we are to fly, we will have to see our games in a different light. The games we play are emergent entities, not lifeless toys to be used, abused and discarded. They can, they do and they will play us: the question is how?