If life is an arcade, what games do you play?

Introduction

When I was young, we would go to the arcade. At the arcade, there were games that took tokens and spit out tickets. When the adult gave us our tokens, most kids would run around aimlessly, feeding tokens into games and laughing and getting a ticket or two, but nothing much. However, I wasn’t playing yet. I was picturing myself walking out with a G.I. Joe action figure from behind the counter that costed 100 tickets.

So, I waited, paid attention, and learned. I studied the other kids and counted the tokens they dug out of their pockets. I noted how many tickets buzzed out of the machine on a win. But most of all, I began understanding the differences between luck and skill, and the cost of amusement.

When I knew enough, I pounced on the game that gave me a good chance of winning that 100 tickets, but that also gave me a bit of fun even if I lost.

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How do we choose what games to play? Well, it depends on the game and the possible results.

Consider three types of games: Random Guesses, Estimated Predictions, and Educated Aims.

Game Is like… Know the answer options? Will more info help? More info means more answer options? Time spent analyzing
Random Guess Rubber Band Yes No No Seconds
Estimated Prediction Trebuchet Maybe Yes Yes Minutes – Hours
Educated Aim Rocket Program No Yes No Hours – Days
  1. Random Guesses = Rubber Bands.

It’s like grabbing a rubber band from the desk, pinching and pulling back one end, and then releasing, flinging it across the room. A Rubber Band game is a quick hit of adrenaline and lasts only a few seconds.

Rubber Bands have low stakes. I know little going in, it doesn’t take much skill, and I don’t learn much while analyzing. Reward and risk are small. Winning and losing have a trivial effect on my life. There’s a low-cost threshold required to play. I know the answer options beforehand (for example yes/no, or any number 1-10).

So, for example, while walking down the sidewalk I decide to guess the state of a car’s license plate before seeing it. It’s not worth spending much time deciding whether I want to play or not, because it’d be so quick to take a guess. And I can stare at the side of the car all I want, but it won’t really help me guess the license plate any better.

  1. Estimated Predictions = Trebuchets.

It’s like pushing a trebuchet into place, measuring distances, angles, wind speed, placing the projectile, coordinating responsibilities among engineers, and pulling the lever, hurling the rock across the countryside.

Trebuchet games are a step up from Rubber Bands. Trebuchets are more complex and have higher stakes, requiring minutes to hours of play. More skill and knowledge are required to win. But luckily, I can learn more to increase my chances. Reward and risk are higher. Winning and losing significantly affect my life. There may be a substantial cost threshold required to play, because while Rubber Bands involve me as an observer, Trebuchets require me to participate in the game as an actor. Either way, I may know the answers going in, or may not. In that case, more effort helps not only to win, but also to figure out the possible answers. But with both Rubber Bands and Trebuchets, all answers can be found eventually.

So, for example, even though this car in front of me has its left blinker on, it’s been on for a while without switching lanes, so it’s probably not going to switch lanes (I’ve seen this before). Based on my analysis I’m gonna go ahead pass this car with its blinker on. What happens next is the result of the bet: discovering whether the car turns left or not. The longer I drive behind this car with its blinker on without it turning, the more likely it is that the driver left the blinker on by accident; conversely as time goes on the more likely it is that the car will turn if it had intended to.

  1. Educated Aims = Rocket Programs.

It’s like researching and developing and testing and managing for months to build a sustainable program to launch rocket after rocket into space. Rocket games are immensely complex have the highest stakes of all: your life. The utmost skill and knowledge are necessary to even start playing. Rewards include a fruitful and successful life, while risks include death: both immediate and creeping. There’s no end to Rocket games. Any possible answers can’t be verified as the winning play, which means there is no clear winning or losing: the game always continues while players put hours and days and years of life into playing.

The key to Rockets is the cost threshold to play. The value earned or lost in Rockets is the journey toward finding and aligning life along the best possible journey rather than winning the game itself. Before playing, I must make a conscious decision to dive into the game that has no end, in which I bet my life over time to seek the answer that may not exist. But if I do well at the game, my Rocket Program will be healthy and send many rockets to space, discovering countless new horizons.

Suppose I have a convertible car. I drive my convertible, and not something else, because I am betting on its value over real and potential costs. I trust that I can drive it from point A to B consistently and stylishly and in accordance with my values. Even though I may have to replace the brakes soon, the value of the convertible to me is greater the cost over the long term, or at least I think it is. There are so many variables of value and cost, both present and future, that it’s impossible to determine the most rational choice. And the infinitude of life means that I can’t even fathom how many choices are even possible. So, my gamble is the continued driving of my convertible… for now.

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Conclusions

Different games require different amounts of tokens, involve different levels of skill and luck, and spit out different types of tickets. Consider all three aspects of the game before you play.

Rubber Bands: Spend small amounts of tokens, because you’re paying for fun and amusement. The choice to play can be so instantaneous that it doesn’t take much to decide to play. Know that you may get one lousy ticket even if you win.

Trebuchets: Consider first whether winning would give you enough tickets to warrant the higher number of tokens, higher level of skill, and higher level of analysis that you must spend to play, find additional answers, and win. Also, think about whether the risk of losing those tokens without a payout would cripple you beyond repair.

Rocket Programs: Figure out whether you’d like to live as the player who plays this game, feeding in tokens without getting any tickets. The skill and analysis required to play, however, rub off on you so much that playing the game changes you, for better or worse. Is the aim noble? Is it in accordance in values? Such games involve asking: What is God? How do I aim at the highest good? Seeking that, you’re gonna learn so many good things you can do, some of which may resonate; hopefully you end up doing some of those things and producing good in the world. Or, what evil am I capable of? This will give you awareness that you won’t fall into the downward spiral of mistrust, into consenting to genocide.

“Stare at the abyss and the abyss will stare back at you.” When deciding what game to play, consider how the game will be playing you.

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