The Social Game

People across the country were shocked a few years back when the first suicide due to online gaming hit the news. Since then, stories along the same lines have garnered increasing publicity — more suicides, prison-worthy parental neglect, and, of course, the plight of “Warcraft widows” whose husbands spend forty hours a week online. How could something as trivial as an online game cause so much psychological trauma? There’s more: people actually pay real money for “virtual” — read, fake — items that have no use whatsoever outside of a given game.

It’s not as mysterious as you might think. Humans are conditioned to play games, because playing games has kept us alive. Traditional games train athletic skill or cognitive ability, or serve as a metaphor for communal mores, as in the case of the Chinese game of Go. Games also teach us how to cooperate, to share resources, and to follow complex sets of rules.

The greatest game we’ve yet invented is also what most people believe to be the most important: the game of society itself. That game got its start with the first flickers of real intelligence, when language and mental constructs of causality began to supersede simpler genetic imperatives. With those, the potential for reciprocation became more complex. Rather than relying on the ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’ mentality of our primate cousins, we were now able to make agreements that extended consciously into the future–you help me protect my home, I’ll help you protect yours. We were also able to begin to exchange goods, and to set up more advanced structures of social hierarchy. When some bright chap hit on the idea of currency, or abstract “exchange points,” the social game really took off, and has been blazing along happily ever since.

When you go to work to earn money, you’re playing the society game. You’re also playing when you buy a new car to impress the neighbors, when you mow the lawn, or when you refer to another person as “sir” or “ma’am.” The social game exists because it facilitates human cooperation on a massive scale, and humans who don’t play — who, in other words, head into the wilderness to strive for perfect self-sufficiency — tend to die. The social game’s rules vary from community to community, but it always the same basic purpose: to guide how one human can influence the actions of another.

Money is a perfect example of this. A one-hundred-dollar bill has almost no inherent value. The digital data that represents your bank account has even less. Even gold, that pure standard of value, has little real use beyond jewelry and a few industrial applications. The reason all these things are “valuable” is that there are so many other humans, with access to real-life skills and resources, who are also playing the game. The only real use for money, then, is to control the actions of other human beings who value it. Take part of a farmer’s crop without paying for it, and he’ll be angry; pay for it and he’ll be happy. The only effect money has in this case is to control the farmer’s response to your action (taking the crop). It has no effect on the crop itself, or on your own action in taking it.

This is all part of the pragmatic approach to economics, of which more in a later essay. For now, though, let’s look at one of the subconscious effects of the social game. Like most social mammals, humans have an instinctual respect for social status. Some relics of the pre-linguistic stages still apply here — we tend to respect individuals more who are physically healthy (able to fight and successfully raise offspring), as evidenced by such traits as height, hair, body type, and symmetry of features. Much of our respect, though, is tied up in the way a given individual plays the social game. A short, pudgy, balding man who owns a business that’s makes millions of dollars every year can take his pick from a line of beautiful women, and the attraction isn’t all greed. Individuals, especially men, who are “successful” in the social game are more attractive and more respected at an instinctual level.

That particular axe swings both ways. It also means that we have a biological imperative to do well in our community. In the context of the social game, that means displaying self-worth, and manifests itself in houses that are too big, competitive Christmas light displays, ridiculously overpriced designer clothing, and constant striving for more digits on the paycheck.

The recent economic crash has shown us that these kinds of status displays, like our cravings for high-calorie fatty foods, are no longer necessary. And yet we struggle on, convinced that if we just make enough money or buy enough toys, we’ll avoid being a “failure” — we’ll avoid losing the social game. What, then, can we do? We can’t just refuse to play, unless we feel like living in a cave in the Canadian rockies for the rest of our lives.

The first step for the Euthorian is to understand how the social game works. Understanding grants freedom. When you realize the uselessness of making money simply for status reasons — for having a “high score” — you are free to relax a little more, to not worry so much about getting that six-figure salary. Likewise, understanding status symbols as only that frees you from needing them, and allows you to spend your money on worthwhile products. More on consumption vs. creation in a future essay.

The second step is to use one’s knowledge of the game to control it. When you begin to play consciously, you play better. You can set your actual goals, and play the game accordingly. A little less than a year ago, for example, I decided I wanted to take a long-term voyage around the world, without ever flying. Almost no social-game-defined “success” would allow me to achieve that goal, so I focused on using the game to my own advantage — to establishing a medium-income but maximum-freedom profession that granted me perfect geographic mobility. I leave in May.

Understanding the game and the rules most people are forced to play by gives you both freedom from and control over your local social structure. Some of our fellow humans have been becoming increasingly aware of this, resulting in “life-hacking” blogs springing up across the internet, of which Tim Ferris’s Four Hour Workweek is only one example.

Seeing society and economics as a combined game meant to regulate cooperation also helps when thinking about law and social engineering. We’ll discuss that aspect of the social game in a future essay.

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