What Games do you Play? – Business Strategy and Psychology #37

Hi Reader,

I’m experimenting with a big of a shorter format this week as I am starting a new job today and will have less time going forward than I have had up to this point. Let me know what you think about the format on LinkedIn or via email.

If you live in the UK or US, the vaccine roll-out is making it look like there is a light at the end of the tunnel. This weekend, seven day average deaths in the UK dropped below 100 for the first time since summer. If you live in Europe or elsewhere, keep you head up, Covid looks like it might be mostly gone by winter.

Have a boss week,


Mermaid Catch – Nicole Eisenman (B. 1965)

Playing Games

It is possible to think about life as a series of games. I find this concept to be quite useful for a number of reasons, including thinking about how to win the game, but when thinking about which games we want to be competing in.

Now, I’m also slightly autistic – normal social interaction has never come easily to me, so it helps me to think about social interactions as having generic scripts and parts to play??

Defining what a game is is a famously difficult task. Whatever aspect of games you can think of, there is a game that is a counter example. Think it needs multiple players? What about solitaire. Need to be able to win? Think about Dwarf Fortress. There needs to be an external system to interact with? Try 20 Questions. Wittgenstein used the example of trying to define what a game is as proof that understanding language happens through learnt associations not definitions.

For this discussion I’m thinking about a game in terms of there being two things: a goal, and a way to reach that goal. I hope that the following examples make the idea clear.

To break the rules, you must first master them.

Audemars Piguet

School as a game. School is a prime example for being thought of as a game. There is a score (grades) and a clear way to improve your score (studying). The overall goal of the game that is school is to get the best possible score in the final exam.

School also works within the metaphor because students receive frequent feedback on how they are scoring on the way to their final goal, and the levels get more difficult as you progress through the years. The same metaphor-structure applies to work – you progress through the promotions with feedback and requirements on when you can reach the next level. Instead of grades, you work towards 360-reviews or bonuses.

In a slightly more abstract way, driving somewhere is also a game. There are rules to the game (the rules of the road) and the aim is to get to your destination as fast as possible. There isn’t as much of a metric for getting a high-score or for driving better than other people, but there are certainly penalties for playing the game badly.

The final game example is a bit of a stretch, but a valuable thought nonetheless – a relationship as a game. Two people playing a game, on the same team, against the combined forces of the rest of the world and chaos. Instead of points, through your actions you can build trust and respect.

You have to learn the rules of the game. And then you have to play better than anyone else.

Albert Einstein

The value of thinking in terms of games is that you start to think explicitly about the types of actions that will help you progress. Rarely do most people have the clarity of thought required to consider what actions and which priorities move them towards their goal. You can also consider the other players in the game, and whether or not the game is cooperative (all parties can win) or competitive.

As a general rule, it is better to be playing cooperative games – if you try harder in a cooperative game, then other people will lift the standard of their performance, and all people in the game will perform better. In a competitive game, lifting your standard can mean that it is harder to succeed as other people will lift the quality of their play too.

Another use of thinking in terms of games is to think about what games other people are playing, and whether it is the same game as you. For example, at work, it might be useful to try to understand what game your boss is playing, and what the conditions for their promotion is, to see if you can help them out. Helping them to win their game helps you to win your game, and be more likely to get promoted.

Equally in a relationship, reminding yourself that your partner is playing the same game as you, and both of you would like the relationship to win, can help to put disagreements aside and come together.

Finally, when thinking about games, really think about which games you want to compete in. If you don’t want any further promotions and are happy where you are, then don’t bother competing in the promotion game. On a more important note, you should have a think about whether or not you want to play the promotion game in the first place – lots of people end up playing games they don’t want to play because it is what “other people” are doing.


First up, as a nice follow-up to last week’s article on elite schools in the US is another article on US private schools and how they pretend to be vehicles for social change, despite only entrenching society further. Next is a subject I find eternally interesting, the relationship between psychedelics and curing mental illness. Finally, what the fuck is an NFT?

I hope you enjoyed this week’s article – as always subscribe below to receive an article like this in your inbox every week.

Success! You're on the list.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s