Life is not a game

This article was written by Michael Laurence. Previously at Get Rich Slowly, Michael has shared his thoughts on investment risk and what happens when more money makes you miserable.

You hear the phrase “the game of life” all the time.

There are books on Amazon instructing us on how to win at the “game of life”. Hell, Milton Bradley’s “The Game of Life” from 1860 — still sold today — was the first popular board game in the United States.

In the Real World, the game of life’s rules and criteria for success are vague and never explicitly stated. But we all know what they are. To win, you need:

  • money (or, more accurately, conspicuous consumption)
  • physical attractiveness
  • kids who go to great schools and are athletically successful
  • and so on

“The game of life” has become more than a metaphor. Many people — obsessed with their status, career, or where their kids go to school — have internalized this idea and literally view their life not as something to enjoy, but as a competition to be won.

This is a tragedy. Life is not a game.

A game is an activity where you compete against others. In games, players pursue goals with no intrinsic value. It doesn’t really matter who puts a ball through a hoop (or over an arbitrary line) more frequently, right? Games are governed by external rules that the players have no role in creating but which they nevertheless must follow. In most games, there’s only one winning player or team. Most participants are “losers”.

Before I go on, let me say I love sports — both playing and watching. Games are a lot of fun. They’re great hobbies.

Games are, however, a terrible template for life.

The Good Life

For one, that which is important in life can’t be competed over. While each of us has our own specific vision of the good life, we can all agree a good life tends to have certain characteristics: living by a set of ethics, maintaining meaningful relationships, time to pursue hobbies, and fulfilling work.

Interestingly, these are all abstract, subjective goals that don’t fit into a competitive framework. It’s impossible to measure and compare whether Tom Smith or Jane Doe have more meaningful relationships. How can you say who is more fulfilled at work? How do you quantify how well you (or I) adhere to a code of ethics?

On the other hand, it’s easy to compare the tangible, objective criteria of “success”: who has a nicer car, a bigger house, a more prestigious job, and kids at better schools.

If you view life as a competition, you naturally prioritize those things that can be measured, those things that can be competed for. This means that you focus on objective — but ultimately petty — concerns. The competition subordinates what is meaningful in life to trivial prizes that can be competed over.

Choose Relationships over Competition

What’s more, competition corrodes relationships.

While relationships are complex, at their core all healthy fulfilling relationships require genuine mutual affection. Simply put, you should be rooting for the people in your life to succeed, happy if they get a promotion or their kid gets into Harvard. This is next to impossible if you view your life as a competition and the people in it as competitors.

When you view life as a game, you want others to fail — or at least to be slightly less successful than you are. Viewing life as a competition converts friends and family from people you care about to these uneasy, ambiguous relationships where you’re partially rooting for these people…but simultaneously also trying to beat them at the game of life.

Needless to say, this isn’t conducive to genuine closeness.

Play by Your Own Rules

Following other people’s criteria for success negates what you value.

Finite and Infinite Games by James Carse You’re a unique individual, with your own strengths and weaknesses, your own goals and preferences. The good life is about trying to live according to your values and make the trade-offs that maximize your happiness. This simply isn’t possible when you abide by what the game values: money, consumption, academic prestige, youth athletic excellence.

The moment you enter the game, you’ve surrendered your autonomy and are prioritizing what others deem important. You’re chasing life goals that you had no role in formulating but which now you’re pursuing for the sake of “winning.” Any “victory” in a game where you’re living life on other’s terms will ultimately prove to be Pyrrhic.

Prepare to Lose

You can (and likely will) lose the game of life, which like all games is zero-sum.

Maybe you’re one of the .01% who is incredibly smart, affluent, charming, and physically attractive, who finds a wonderful spouse, and has a bunch of cute kids who end up in the Ivy Leagues. If that’s the case, I’m happy for you.

For the other 99.99% of us, the bad news is that we’re going to deal with frustrations and setbacks and many things we simply don’t excel at and never will. The good news is that we can still have a great life if we simply deal with those things as they come, comfortable with who we are, surrounded by people we care about and who love us unconditionally.

However, it’s difficult to have a good life when every time we fail we feel shame and embarrassment as we compare ourselves, unfavorably, to people we deem more successful. If you’re playing a “game,” the stakes of life’s inevitable failures and disappointments are so high that it makes life a terrifying ordeal, haunted by a specter of public defeat at the game.

This is no way to live.

Final Thoughts

Comparing yourself to others has no good outcome. Either you look around and consider yourself inferior to your peers (which makes you insecure and unhappy), or you deem yourself superior (which makes you arrogant and egotistical). Neither is conducive to happiness or to being a good person.

Games are fun and competition is fulfilling — provided they involve trivial things. By all means, go all out to win when you golf, run a 5k, or play fantasy football. But when those things are over, look around at your family, friends, career, and value system and realize that those things are way, way too important to be trivialized by turning them into a game.

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There are 4 comments to "Life is not a game".

  1. Anne says 15 August 2022 at 07:48

    I think this is a very valuable post, but I would like to add one more thing that has a huge amount of value that one has no control over and that hugely impacts your life. And that is the family in which you were born and their emotional health.

    One can spend many adult years trying to overcome nuclear family inflicted damage. And with that damage there often comes poor decisions in young adulthood (think teenage girls having babies) that shape an entire life.

    It’s certainly correct to say “concentrate on your relationships” but some spend a lifetime trying to have familial relationships that will never be healthy.

    • Liz says 25 August 2022 at 13:00

      This is SO TRUE!!! It took me decades to figure out how my formative years in my family shaped my personality and quirks. I made so many mistakes as a young adult that still ripple in my life to this day (and I know most people could say that). You just assume everything you were taught and told as a child was correct and true, until you realize some of it wasn’t.

  2. Kiryn says 15 August 2022 at 12:36

    Games are not inherently competitive. I’ve been playing games my whole life, 99% of them either by myself or cooperative. The point isn’t to win or to make others lose.
    The point is to have fun. To reach a goal that is either given to you or one that you make up for yourself, to experience having done it or to challenge yourself. Sure, one type of goal found in games is to have more points than everyone else, but those types of games are boring because they are meaningless. Why should I care how many points other people have, when one or the other most likely has some fundamental advantage? I’d much rather be trying to surpass my own high score by improving myself.
    Go exploring, learn new things, tell stories, build something amazing, help other people. It’s not that life isn’t a game, it’s that you have to ask yourself what kind of game you’re playing and what kind of goal you’re challenging yourself to reach.

  3. Steveark says 15 August 2022 at 12:59

    I’m one of the ones who gamify most things because it motivates me better than anything else. I’m so very lazy by nature but if I saw it as fighting for the money, status and advancement I wanted I could prod myself into working hard and having fun doing it. But I did not find being madly competitive at work to be a barrier to being a team player, fully sharing credit and rejoicing in my competitors’ victories. We were all friends, I simply made the rules of my game to take the high road and anything I gained by derailing others would not count in my mind. I wanted to get the top job, which I did, but not at the expense of others. In fact all my direct competition did as well or better than me we are still friends decades later. Because it wasn’t a zero sum game. Our company was growing all the time. It was buying new chemical plants, building new plants and had room for more than one person to win.

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