We Broke the Game

The video above is worth watching in its entirety, perhaps several times. A friend on Facebook posted it this morning, praising it for its evenhanded depiction of the different ideological factions that are struggling for control in the west. I also think it’s spot on, particularly in its depiction of the relationships between members of a society as a game composed of subgames which compete with each other for players.

Games are patterns of social interaction. When we interact with other people, we are always playing games. There is a set of rules, often implicit, that governs our behavior. If we break the rules or refuse to play the game, then other people don’t know how to interact with us.

A game can only exist as long as people choose to play that game. Thus, if a game is not playable, it will not last. Sometimes, games compete with each other to govern the same kinds of social interactions between the same people. In theory, the game which is more playable will do a better job at attracting players, resulting in the obsolescence of the other game.

In practice, however, people are not always free to choose the games they want to play. A powerful minority can coerce everyone else into playing a bad game.

In the beginning of the video, there’s a balance between the competing games, although the games are still competing. The metagame allows for competition between the different games so that natural selection can do its work. The woman on the far left can try to make the outcome of the game more equal, and the man on the far right can try to win. They get in the way of each other, to a degree, but it is possible for them to play their respective games without causing the game as a whole to implode. Neither the woman on the left nor the man on the right are particularly happy about the way the game is working, but they’re not so unhappy about it that they will just stop playing.

Towards the end, the woman on the left pushes too far by playing the hate speech card, arbitrarily punishing the player who won the game even though he was trying to make the game as playable as possible for everyone. The other players have three options. First, they can acquiesce and play the game in its new form. Second, they can quit playing the game. Third, they can push back with equal force to change the rules of the game in a way that favors them. The white male moderate takes the third option.

The moderate would have preferred to maintain the balance between the competing subgames. He wanted everyone to be happy, if possible. But the woman on the left wasn’t going for it. She radically altered the game to produce absolute equality, making it pointless for anyone playing to win. In response, the moderate makes the same kind of alteration in his own favor, making the game playable, but not necessarily particularly fun for those with fewer privileges.

The lesson is clear. You can attempt to change the game, but you can’t do so unilaterally and expect everyone else to just go with it, unless you actually have the power to do so. The use of force by one party invites the use of force by other parties with more power.

Another valuable lesson is that there is no perfect game. The best we can do is play a relatively free metagame in which flawed subgames can compete and in which players can choose which games to play. The reason there can be no perfect game is because we cannot possibly agree on what a perfect game would be. Someone’s conception of justice will always be violated. We have to negotiate, otherwise the game will be determined by who is most willing and able to force others to play.



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