The Difference between Games & Life

by practicalspactical

In an otherwise shoddy and circumlocutious essay on Bear Stearns and over-confidence, Malcolm Gladwell does pull out one of those interesting little titbits he’s so famous for in telling us all the difference between games and life:

“It makes sense that there should be an affinity between bridge and the business of Wall Street. Bridge is a contest between teams, each of which competes over a “contract”—how many tricks they think they can win in a given hand. Winning requires knowledge of the cards, an accurate sense of probabilities, steely nerves, and the ability to assess an opponent’s psychology. Bridge is Wall Street in miniature, and the reason the light bulb went on when Greenberg looked at Cayne, and Cayne looked at Spector, is surely that they assumed that bridge skills could be transferred to the trading floor—that being good at the game version of Wall Street was a reasonable proxy for being good at the real-life version of Wall Street.

It isn’t, however. In bridge, there is such a thing as expertise unencumbered by bias. That’s because, as the psychologist Gideon Keren points out, bridge involves “related items with continuous feedback.” It has rules and boundaries and situations that repeat themselves and clear patterns that develop—and when a player makes a mistake of overconfidence he or she learns of the consequences of that mistake almost immediately. In other words, it’s a game. But running an investment bank is not, in this sense, a game: it is not a closed world with a limited set of possibilities. It is an open world where one day a calamity can happen that no one had dreamed could happen, and where you can make a mistake of overconfidence and not personally feel the consequences for years and years—if at all. Perhaps this is part of why we play games: there is something intoxicating about pure expertise, and the real mastery we can attain around a card table or behind the wheel of a racecar emboldens us when we move into the more complex realms.”


Games are bounded. There can be no real surprises in a game. The determinist view of the Universe would hold the same thing of life, that at some deep level, everything responds to basic rules. This is true — one way of looking at life is as a Game, with an incredibly complex and unknowable to humans rulebook of possibile moves.

However, it is more useful to call this sort of thing not a game, because the rules are unknowable, because no matter how good we become at whatever we think is the game, the game is always bigger than it seems, our information is miniscule, and all our expertise will come to nought.

Is that right? Call it an infinite game, with mutable and unknown rules — is this world, Black Swans are the rule, and you cannot play against Black Swans, you can only play under them, against their unending coming — Life is not a game, but a ride — life is life. Efforts to control it may in the shortrun be successful but in the long term are doomed to fail & run the special risk of limiting our view of what life really is.

Life is not a skinner box. It is not a hand of poker, or a perfect play of chess. An IBM Cray cannot yet live. In Finite and Infinite Games, the author calls the Finite Player the serious one. But to be distracted by Finite Games is to be unserious, to take life as something far more limited than it is.

Winning and losing. Living and dying. They are not the same. Why the Midlife Crisis novel? Why the hollowness of modern existence? Is it not this revolt against robotocism? I shall be more than a Robot. I shall not be limited to programming. Game Players. I leave the gameboard. True unfiltered unvarnished bloody experience. With all its vicissitudes. Sand in my eyes and wounds. Broken bloody feet. Screaming pain. Reality.

Or I could sit in an office, stare at a screen, and move papers around my desk. Or I could roll dice and call it life, and ignore the hunger abstracted out of my daily life. Enjoy every sandwich. Ignore every sandwich. Two hands, two eyeballs, and a Hewlett Packard financial calculator. Silicon paths. Hourglass on my table.

life and something after