This is part of The Blogging Gauntlet of May 2016, where I try to write 500 words every day. See the May 1st post for full details.
From ignorance, lead me to truth.
From darkness, lead me to light.
From death, lead me to immortality.
(Translation of the Pavamāna Mantra)
As a kid, I played a lot of games. That hasn’t really changed since college.
In Dustforce, I’ve logged 316 hours.
In The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth, I’ve logged 212 hours.
In Dominion, I don’t know how many hours I’ve spent, but I know I’ve played about 3500 games.
This is a ton of time, to put things mildly. It’s so many hours! I could be doing so many more productive things. And sure, that’s true, but playing games is fun, I need ways to relax, and playing games doesn’t automatically make you a lazy person.
In fact, far from it. Despite all the time I’ve spent, I’d say gaming has been a net positive force in my life.
First, I should explain my viewpoint on games, to clarify where I’m coming from. We’re diving into philosophy land here - hold on to your hats.
All games take place in their own world.
That world follows certain rules. For example, baseball. There are two teams. There are four bases. There is a pitcher, and a shortstop, and so on. There are strikes and outs and home runs.
This is true of all worlds, but for worlds constructed by games, the rules of the game are the rules of the world. When you get three strikes, you’re out. This is a fact that you cannot argue against. It’s how the world works.
In this viewpoint, playing a game is the same as taking actions in the world, game strategy is the same as task planning, and winning a game is the same as executing a series of actions that maximizes your win percentage.
When viewed this way, deciding whether to buy Park Place in Monopoly is similar to choosing where to go for lunch, or what job to pick. However, there’s one key difference. Game worlds are much simpler than the real world.
In the real world, I’m a pretty quiet person. But put me in a game of Resistance, and I’ll talk a bunch. What changes? If I’m playing Resistance, everybody’s context changes. The objective is very simple: find the spies, or pretend you aren’t a spy. The rules of Resistance place very heavy constraints on everyone’s behavior, and within those constraints it’s massively easier for me to judge social behavior and make reads on whether someone is hiding something or not. And I don’t have to worry about what to talk about, because everyone’s only going to talk about Resistance. That’s something I know.
This leads into my next point. When the rules the world follows are simpler, it’s easier to act optimally. In Dominion, one of the first lessons people teach is that all cards are judged relative to one another. What matters is not how impressive a card looks, but how impressive it looks compared to cards of similar cost.
You may recognize this as a textbook example of opportunity cost.
I’ve seen other life lessons over the years. A simple strategy can be better than a complicated one. Dominion is zero-sum, so you don’t need to be good, you just need to be better than your opponent. The thousands of Dominion games I’ve played have thrown me into tens of thousands of situations where I’ve gotten to practice implementing these ideas. Sure, the context is different, but the core skill is the same.
About two weeks ago, I was playing a game where I had fallen behind due to bad shuffles. I paused to take stock. I needed a lucky break to have a shot. After thinking for a bit, I wagered the entire game on drawing cards in exactly the order I needed. It was about a 10% chance of happening, and if it went wrong I’d be so behind that I’d have to resign.
The choice wasn’t intuitive, but when I envisioned the worlds where I won the game, they all needed that 10% chance to come true. So I risked it all, and went for it.
And it did.
And I won.
On one hand, it didn’t feel like I deserved to win. On the other hand, I won. I made the perfect calculated risk, and it paid off.
Yes, I could have been doing something productive instead, but you know what? I wouldn’t trade that victory for anything else I could have done in those 15 minutes.