27 November, 2017

You Don’t Earn Points By Not Playing The Game

Intuitively, a game is some form of social interaction among players, guided by rules, motivated by points, and solved through strategies. However, unlike board games or video games, real life games come with arbitrary rules you didn’t make, bad players you didn’t choose, and strategies that you may not like. Real life games can be confusing, unwinnable, or plain unfair. We don’t like playing these games, but we don’t earn any points (i.e. things we value) by not playing them. I decided to codify some of the games I’ve observe in which players willfully resign into non-participation, resulting in losing points they could have earned.

The Dating Game

An example of avoiding gameplay is in the realm of dating. People claim that they don’t don’t like playing games when texting one another. Players become frustrated when they wait a long time for a response. “I don’t like playing mind games,” they proclaim, and they begin to text their date whenever they are available, and have response-reply ratios that are outside of what’s considered the norm.

These players may feel self-righteous, and they may feel better about themselves and their authenticity, but they don’t earn points in the game. There is a behaviorist interpretation of how to optimally space out the delivery of texts, and if you deviate too much from the prescribed norm, you’re not going to have much luck. Text someone too often, and you’ll come off as needy and desperate. Text someone infrequently enough, and the relationship you’re building with this person decays faster than it’s being built. So when these players become frustrated from their lack of success, they blame the game even though they have decisions they can take to maximize their success.

Players often self-sabotage their outcomes by avoiding decision making, but since the omission of a decision has a tangible outcome from the game, players incur a greater cost from not making a decision than from making a poor one. Some friends have resigned to celibacy because they don’t like the ritualistic “song-and-dance” of dating. The fallacy here isn’t that they should be sucking it up and start dating. It is perfectly fine to decide that the resources required to effectively play the dating game are too costly for the other development of other verticals of your life. You can also decide that some of the prescribed dating strategies are unethical, and therefore something that is unappetizing to follow. That is fine and a perfectly self-consistent decision. The discrepancy comes when they decide they don’t want to play the game and yet they expect to be married before they turn 30. It’s unreasonable to not play the game and yet expect good outcomes from your decision.

Ultimatum Game

Sometimes we get emotionally jostled into not playing the game, even if it hurts us. Experiments from the influential ultimatum game illustrate how much humans are willing to pay to punish another player who behaves unfairly. Most participants reject offers that are outside of a 60:40 split, and this ratio doesn’t change much as the stake involved changes ($1000 vs $10).

These experiments show a flawed thinking that sometimes we hate playing the game so much we are willing to spend unreasonable amounts of our resources to punish other players. I myself fall into this trap quite often. When traveling in Shanghai, I accidentally left a phone in an Uber car. When I contacted him, I told him I was super thankful that he still has my phone, and asked him to meet up with me somewhere. In my sense of gratitude, I told him I would compensate him for the time he’s losing not driving people around. Considering the opportunity cost of him not driving Uber to run this errand for me, I figured I’d be generous and triple his opportunity cost to give him 150RMB (~$23) for 30 minutes of his time. Upon hearing my gratitude, the driver’s voice turns stern and he says, “300RMB” (~$45).

That’s ludicrous. We got into a 20 minute argument over the price. He tells me that he needs to make a living and not spend frivolous time running errands for free. I told him 150RMB is way more than he would make driving Uber for that hour. He says that this phone must be important to me so I should be willing to pay more for it. I told him that I bought the phone for $90, so I would be paying half the price of the phone to get it back. He tells me that should be worth it between no phone and a phone. He was right, and I was incensed that he knew what his leverage was.

So I decided I didn’t want to play his game, and negotiations fell through. I lost my phone, and I paid $90 (a lot more if you consider what utility that phone brought me) to punish a bad actor, without any good reason why I would confer the benefit of his corrected behavior in the future or if he would even change his ways.

I didn’t earn points by not playing the game, and I was proud of it.

The Wisdom Game

Some players don’t like playing the game because they don’t want to take on the responsibility of putting their ego on the line. An example of this occurs when fence-sitting on an intellectual debate. If you don’t have a stance on a particular issue, you don’t have a position your opponents can attack, and you save face from siding with an opinion that turns out to be wrong. Eliezer Yudkowsky’s expands on this in his article “Pretending to be Wise”:

On this point I’d advise remembering that neutrality is a definite judgment.  It is not staying above anything.  It is putting forth the definite and particular position that the balance of evidence in a particular case licenses only one summation, which happens to be neutral.  This, too, can be wrong; propounding neutrality is just as attackable as propounding any particular side.

Likewise with policy questions.  If someone says that both pro-life and pro-choice sides have good points and that they really should try to compromise and respect each other more, they are not taking a position above the two standard sides in the abortion debate.  They are putting forth a definite judgment, every bit as particular as saying “pro-life!” or “pro-choice!”

— “Pretending to be Wise” Eliezer Yudkowsky

The Interviewing Game

“Why should I practice my interviewing skills? I know I’m a good engineer. Interviews are a separate skill from what I do on a day-to-day level, and they do a terrible job at evaluating whether someone will be successful at their jobs, so why should I change? It’s the system that needs changing.”

You can be self-congratulatory about not playing the interview game, but if being bad at interviewing is going to cost you a 20% probability of getting hired at a place that has a $20,000 salary bump, then congratulations, you just cost yourself $4,000 for something that’s fixable in 10 hours of practice. It’s self-aggrandizing to think the world needs to bend around you, and it’s naive to think individual actions are going to change the system.

The Why Bother Game

“Why should I even try if I can’t be the best in my biology class? There are always people better than me.”

What do you call someone who graduated from medical school with all C’s?


There are very few skills that you can be the best at, but often you can still earn points (in this example, lots of $$$) by being mediocre. We tend to overemphasize the individualistic culture of being the “best” at something, but the reality is that you’ll almost never be the best, but you can always improve, and improvement confers points.


Some of the games you play are going to suck, but you have to understand that these reactions are emotional and hold no more weight than the negative emotional distress they bring. Often, when you recognize these games for what they are, I think you’ll be able to more clearly evaluate your decisions.

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