Vishanth T  Home  All Posts

Life is a single-player game

This tweet has been on my mind:

Life is a single player game.

— Naval (@naval) December 6, 2016

After giving the idea some thought, here are my views:

Most competition is mimetic; baby Asuka wants the toy that she sees baby Shinji has.

Asuka wants the toy because Shinji also wants (and has) the toy.

By observing other people, we have learned what we should desire, and make these shared desires come true through competition.

What interests me is how the incentives created by society, like money or status, breed mimetic, hyper-competitive systems like school or significant corporate sectors.

These incentives are multi-player games. They are often zero-sum, status games, but deemed necessary by society, especially in the Western world.

I'll never forget when my friend, Ananya, told me about a time where she was sick and missed school, so she asked one of her classmates for notes to study for a test. The girl gives Ananya her notes, and they write the test.

Ananya fails, and her teacher asks her what happened as she usually does well. She later finds out that the girl gave her fake notes to finish at the top of the class. It still blows my mind that someone took the time to make fake notes and distribute them, but these are the incentive structures in place. The girl wanted to garner status at Ananya's school.

The perceived importance of multiplayer games stems from two biological needs:

  1. To satisfy the brain's default need to maximize our ability to fulfill our desires.
  2. We evolved and now operate as if we live in a resource-scarce world. We think that more competition equals a better ability to filter weak people and claim these scarce resources. In reality, most of the people I know live in a post-scarcity world.

So the hyper-competitive, multiplayer games we play are extremely flawed as they take place in a world that is post-scarcity and rooted in the desires of others.

Enter the single-player games Naval mentioned.

Single-player games are rooted in doing what one desires with incentive structures they've chosen.

A personal example of one is poker; I wanted to play poker with the incentive to build new ways of thinking.

I often like to use the Socratic Method when determining the incentives behind how I want to spend my time, so asking myself, "why?" to get to the first-principle of my desire.

With poker, I applied the Socratic Method. My desire to play is because I enjoy activities that are intellectually stimulating and build new ways of thinking. Poker has both.

Status & money could be byproducts of poker or maybe not; it doesn't matter to me as these aren't the incentives behind why I want to play.

While playing poker, I consciously tried to do new and compare current myself to my past self rather than to someone else.

I believe that there will always be someone wealthier or better at poker, so comparing myself to others will only lead to envy & discouragement. I have compared myself to others many times, and each time, I lost sight of why I was doing the thing in the first place.

Yet when I started to compare myself to my earlier self, I remained intent on accomplishing the initial goal I set and felt gratitude for the work in between.

So I have applied this formula: understand how I want to spend my time + understand the incentive behind the desired activity + comparing myself to a past version of myself. Or as Naval would call it, a single-player game.


Note 0: I use the word "our" in "our desires" lightly given that the desires are likely the amalgamation of other people's.

Note 1: Single-player games aren't limited to literal single-player games, like poker, but are activities rooted in your desires.

Note 2: I like to use the Socratic Method as a way to determine how I spend my time, but I do think that a specific layer you stop asking why. I could have continued asking, "why do I like to do activities that are intellectually stimulating and build new systems of thinking?" But I don't think it would be productive. I haven't found the best way to articulate where to stop asking why I rely on intuition at the time of writing this.

Note 3: I would admit that what I've chosen to spend my time doing has been partially influenced by my environment. But two things: 1) Imitation isn't binary to me; it's relative. 2) Imitation itself isn't bad; it's a vehicle. I would think about how one is using imitation and what the incentive behind a desire is.