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Reality is Broken: This Could Be a Game

The first chapter covers the necessary discussion of explaining what a game is.  It is the basics of game theory, but with a few things new to me, ideas that it seems have particularly arisen in response to video games.

The four basic features of a game are: a goal, rules, a feedback system, and voluntary participation.  She quotes Bernard Suits, "Playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles."  Quite right.

This leads her to what she labels "Fix #1," as in one of the things we need to do to fix reality.  Here it is "Compared with games, reality is too easy.  Games challenge us with voluntary obstacles and help us to put our personal strengths to better use."

One feature of games that is more dominate in video games is "flow."  This is the state of working at the very limits of your ability.  Video games are programmed to provide that in a way that sports and traditional games don't as easily and directly.  Because of flow, a gamer doesn't want to quit playing.  They also don't want to win either, because that ends the game.  They'd rather go on being challenged (does this explain the former high school sports star and his depression?).  She is quite clear that competition and winning are not defining traits of games or gamers.

Another feature of recent games is that the rules and goals are not explained ahead of time.  Traditionally we learned those and then played.  Now most games begin with the player not knowing those and figuring them out before proceeding. 

What makes us happy is the hard work of these unnecessary obstacles.  Why, then, does this hard work make us happy?  It seems counterintuitive that relaxation or being entertained aren't what makes us happiest, but she cites research to show that they do not.  Hard work that we have chosen to perform actually is more satisfying.  She quotes Tal Ben-Shahar, "We're much happier enlivening time rather than killing time."

She quotes Brian Sutton-Smith, "The opposite of play isn't work.  It's depression."  Depression includes "a pessimistic sense of inadequacy and a despondent lack of activity."  The opposite of those are "an optimistic sense of our own capabilities and an invigorating rush of activity."  Gameplay, she writes, is the opposite of depression.

Interesting.  Could gameplay be prescribed as a therapy for depression and other mental illnesses? 

I've seen this work, though not clearly thought of it this way, in my pastoral care.  Often for someone who is depressed or suffering in some way, I recommend that they take on a project of doing something for someone else.

Hard work we are required to do doesn't animate like the hard work we choose to do.  So one thing she asks us to consider, "What a boost to global net happiness it would be if we could positively activate the minds and bodies of hundreds of millions of people by offering them better hard work."

 A final interesting addition to game theory she mentions is the experience of "fiero."  It is an Italian word with no direct equivalent in English.  It is the kind of pride and emotional high and that comes from triumphing over adversity.  It appears to be a universal emotional experience that most humans react to in exactly the same way "we throw our arms over our head and yell."  The Center for Interdisciplinary Brain Sciences Research at Stanford has concluded that fiero is "the emotion that first created a desire to leave the cave and conquer the world."  It is our most primal emotional rush.

Understanding games in this way, we should begin to get over some of our skepticism and mistrust of them and begin to contemplate about various activities in life "This could be a game."


I do think there are some interesting things for church and ministry to consider here.  I believe that the religious life is an adventure.  It is not about following some certain set of rules, duties, or obligations.  The spiritual practices and disciplines are not burdensome, but are ways of training ourselves that have rewarding outcomes.  I have not thought about them before according to the analogy of rules in game.  There are some limits to that analogy, of course, but it could be a helpful one.  Something of this has entered into my preaching on the Sermon on the Mount -- live this way because of the adventure of it, not because you were told you have to.

Could the concepts of flow and fiero be helpful?  Yes, I think so.  I'm going to have to contemplate them further and would love insights from you.  What do you think?  Let's talk this out and think creatively together.


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I've been working my way through the book and various interviews of her (and others) seeking information on integrating game theory into the church. I haven't blogged about it since but I did have a short writeup of the topic before I started the book if you want to read it:


Great! Thanks.

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