The Game of Life

In games, values are clear, well-delineated,
and typically uniform among all agents.
But this also creates a significant moral danger.
This is the danger of exporting back to the world
a false expectation:
that values should be clear, well-delineated,
and uniform in all circumstances.
Games threaten us with a fantasy of moral clarity. 

C. Thi Ngyuen

Is life a game?

A few of us would say “life is a game”. It seems like a trick question. I mean a game can sound trivial or Machiavellian or like we are not taking it seriously. I mean life is serious, isn’t it?

But the elements of a game seem to frame, focus and guide our lives through subconscious scripts over and over again.

We all like to gamify things. Life is often described by so many bad athletic metaphors—moving the ball, scoring, winning, homeruns …
And perhaps poker– the cards you have been dealt, the hand versus the game, the role of emotions in decision-making and of course luck…

In our attempt to simplify our lives, avoid confrontation and discovery of ourselves, we can gravitate to a shallow set of rules and goals that become our KPIs for life.  To provide us with a shorthand way of evaluating the reason we are here and an expedient interpretation of “success” or “happiness”.  

But this is just the beginning of our challenges.

Will Storr in his new book , The Status Game, says, “Life is a series of games. There’s the high school game of competing to be the popular kid. The lawyer game to make partner. The finance game to make the most money. The academic game for prestige. The sports game to show that our team is best. Even when we are trying to do good, we’re playing the “virtue game,” to show we are morally superior to others.”

Storr asserts, I have lived and also seen this dimension of the great human gameboard. Status –the egotistical thought that we are better than others–Financially, aesthetically, morally and intellectually better. This is a huge influencer for us –Status. And when this moves from influential to driver then we will flaunt our superiority in little and large ways. Our house, car, watch, purse, and social media posts are part of a subtle and/or ostentatious campaign to make others feel smaller. Everything we say, wear, post is an unconscious or very conscious effort to enhance our portrayal of status.

Status is a game we all play. And the ego always wins.

Remember the Game of Life board game? I know it was just a game!!! But it did embed some values and ideas into our tiny impressionable brains.

The version we all have in our game closets is a far cry from the original game Milton Bradley designed.

Milton Bradley’s original Game of Life, designed in1860 was a serious set of lessons on moral principles. It looked like a checkerboard and you started at infancy and try to avoid the game squares of crime, poverty, and suicide. If you avoided an untimely death, perseverance, honesty and bravery helped you overcome major challenges and you had a chance to be “successful”. Accumulating money was not a factor.

The 1960 version the Game of Life bears little resemblance to its predecessor. You start with only one major life-altering decision  – Start College or Start Career. Your income potential is determined.

If you go to college, you are saddled with $100,000 of debt and a career with a higher income. There are 9 careers and only 2 careers (Doctor, Accountant) require a college degree. Huh?

The goal of The Game of Life: “Collect money and LIFE tiles and have the highest dollar amount at the end of the game.”

C. Thi Nguyen dives deeply into the structure and philosophy of games and the perils of applying them to real life.

In games, we are permitted to temporarily inhabit a motivational state where only one thing is valuable. Crucially, this means that we don’t need to treat others’ interests as valuable. We need not treat them with, as the Kantians might put it, dignity and respect. We are permitted to manipulate, use, and destroy. There is a significant danger, however, if these attitudes leak out and infect one’s life outside the game. When we leave the gaming context, treating every other resource and person in the world as a mere instrument would be, obviously, morally terrible.

So we may resist the idea that we are playing games, yet the games may be playing us.

“For a long time I thought life was a game. You get good grades, get into the best school, get your MBA from a top university and you go to Wall Street. I followed that game plan until I realized that the game got me and I wasted so much time and money. Who am I and what did I want? Never was in the game design.”  A student in one of my workshops.

We gamify our ambitions. We seek quantifiable measures to measure progress. Achievement overpowers aesthetics. Simpler narrower systems give us game-like levels in our non-game lives.
Instances of this abound. So many cases of explicit gamification, including unintended effects from other measures and metrics. You may use an iWatch to track your sleep patterns, your breathing and heartbeat like I do. Initially you learn what is and to understand your health indicators. But you can’t help but think about what “better” looks like. You start to get pleasure out of setting new records.  Or you might go into teaching for the love of children and learning, but soon find yourself chasing test scores. Or get onto Instagram to stay connected with family and friends, but come to value followers, likes and shares. Moving toward the simplified version of the activity can radically change the nature experience and purpose of the activity.

Our jobs become games. And I am not referring to the stupid passive aggressive political games. What it takes to get a raise or an “exceeds expectations”. Formulas emerge on how to maximize the return for limited time and effort.

Our relationships become games. We start to keep track of favors or invitations and maintain a ledger. We are owed something for everything we do. The game becomes quid pro quos.

Games can reduce people into numbers or variables that only relate to a bonus, status or networking.

Even Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy was gamified.

“His pyramid from the sixties told a story that Maslow never meant to tell; a story of achievement, of mastering level by level until you’ve “won” the game of life. But that is most definitely not the spirit of self-actualization that the humanistic psychologists emphasized. The human condition isn’t a competition; it’s an experience. Life isn’t a trek up a summit but a journey to travel through—a vast blue ocean, full of new opportunities for meaning and discovery but also danger and uncertainty.” Scott Barry Kaufman

The ego interferes with your full presence. The craving for status needs to be monitored and minimized. This opens your mind, your heart and eyes to a much bigger world that can never be reduced to dollars. Compassion and love become new scripts. Discovering who you are and what you want provides moral clarity and makes the game of life worth living.

The Game of Life 1860 to 1960 

From moral principles to Millionaire Acres

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