Playing the Game

All the world's a game · And all the men and women merely players

Everywhere you look there are games all around.

Everyone plays, but they play different games. It might be the money game, or the power game. Or the status game or the leisure game. Or any other game.

But it’s still a game. And someone who decides he’s not going to play is just playing a different game, that’s all.

There are many kinds of games.

Playing for Yourself

Some games you play for yourself – just because you want to, simply for the sake of it. Those games are the most fun to play, and these sort of players are always the best at them.

You can usually identify these players by the fact that they’re playing long past the point where the marginal utility is high. Like a billionaire still working long hours or an athlete at the top of his game continuing to practice daily. The improvement is marginal or almost zero – they could easily get away with much less work. Maybe some of them do it out of insecurity or insatiability, but many just like playing that game.

I don’t think you can be really good at anything if you always think of it as a chore and a burden. Of course, there’s no reason you have to be good at anything if you don’t want to.

But it’s inevitable that even the best of games will always have moments where it feels like a grind. Like a beloved and otherwise enjoyable video game where you annoyingly keep failing to clear a level. It’s people who genuinely enjoy playing who have the foresight to know that the frustration is inevitable as you try to level up and it’ll soon pass. They know how fun the game is, so they won’t abandon it easily. Whereas people who’ve played less only see the torture, and don’t see any reason to continue.

Perhaps that’s why a person is much likelier to quit in the early stages of an endeavor. As people stay on, there’s self-selection and the churn is much less.

Playing for Others

The other kind of games are the ones we play for the sake of other people.

These are far more common than the ones you play for yourself. Many people might never play a game for themselves, but everyone plays at least some games for others. I think it’s impossible to avoid playing this, no matter how individualistic you might think yourself to be. These are the games that are everywhere.

I should clarify that I’m not talking down from a pedestal. I play them too. I’ve often wondered why I asked a lot of people the question, “How are you?” Most times, I don’t really care, and don’t want to hear the answer.

But it’s just the rules of the “talking to people you don’t have much to talk about” game. You can call it manners or social etiquette or whatever, but at its core it’s a game you play.

The same thing applies to people’s behavior in most hierarchical setups or fulfilling social obligations.

The Rules of the Game

Every game has a set of rules. You can’t play chess if you decide you can move any piece anywhere. And if you can’t play, you can’t win.

So if I decide I want to play chess, I’ll have to accept that chess has rules and I’ll have to learn those rules.

Every “rule” takes away some freedom. Because I want to play chess, I’ve got to give up the freedom to move the pieces the way I want to. And move them only the way chess rules allow. I accept the rules of the game because I think that the freedom I’m sacrificing is worth the gain I’m getting by playing.

The only reasons to do that are either intrinsic or extrinsic. It’s either the first kind of game you play for yourself, or the second kind you play for other things or people.

So maybe you like chess a lot, in which case you don’t mind being bound by the rules. In fact, you’d prefer it, and you’d hate to play with someone who doesn’t follow those rules. You’re probably one of those rule enforcers yourself.

Or you want something else and you think you’ll get it by playing chess. You might want to make money playing as a chess pro, or do it to impress people.

Games are Everywhere

It’s good to know when you’re playing a game.

One reason is so that you know it is just a game – you can always not play, if you’re willing to bear the cost. It’s not compulsory to play – but playing probably offers some benefits. So it’s worth asking if they’re more than the costs involved.

Is talking to someone out of politeness’ sake worth giving up an hour? If you close your mind and don’t go beyond a cliché like “it’s the done thing” or “it’s rude not to”, you’ll never really know the answer to this question. If you know it’s a game, you can always at least think about the consequences of not playing, and decide for yourself based on the merits of the case.

The other, and I think more compelling reason to think about games, is so that you can play the game better.

It’s easy to confuse a game for objective reality; yet, they’re never the same. Especially man-made games. The most common example and probably the paradigm of games are tests or examinations, especially competitive ones.

There’s an immense difference between ” Actual Knowledge or Learning” and “Doing well on a test”. Very often, they have little or no relation to each other. Only good players themselves can design games that test real knowledge, and I think that these sort of good players are very rare.

One way to do well on tests is to forget the test and decide you’ll develop a deep understanding of the subject. If you do that, you probably will do well – unless it’s a terrible test, which unfortunately most tests are. This is much easier in the natural sciences – they’re far more objective. There’s usually one right answer, and you can almost always point out flaws in reasoning.

Even here though, assuming you care about doing well in the test, you still need to play the game by sticking within the prescribed syllabus and not getting carried away reading things you find more interesting.

But in softer subjects it’s much easier to play the game instead. There’s never a ‘right’ answer, everything is often defended with the claim that “this is one view or perspective”. More importantly, the focus isn’t on arriving at the “truth” – partly because there is no consensus on truth – but majorly because the focus is on giving the game designer what he wants.

What does the playing the game mean here? It means knowing that there’s a human being, and often not a very interested one, who’s going to read what you write. You play by understanding and following the rules of the game. You write what they want to hear – which is what their opinion is likely to be.

And what makes their life easy – which is unlikely to be lengthy, convoluted and brilliantly articulated arguments. Those doubtful should try this. Write out in a test exactly the opinions that your professors have, regardless of what you believe yourself, not even opting for safe “balanced” answers.

I knew tests were games, but I was still surprised how effective playing the game was when I tried it. This is the reflection principle – like a smooth surface, reflecting faithfully back the light incident upon you.

It’s easy to play this game, and it’s surprisingly effective, but it gets boring very quickly.

A more amusing, more challenging game I generally prefer is the mirror principle.

I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.
Whatever I see I swallow immediately
Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.
I am not cruel, only truthful

Sylvia Plath, The Mirror

Like a mirror, reflecting faithfully what is before you, even if it makes the one looking at you unhappy.

The reflection principle is the reason I’ve never believed tests in soft subjects have any reflection on a person’s intelligence. The tests just mean they knew how to play that particular game well.

I said playing this game is boring, but there are circumstances where I would recommend it wholeheartedly. That again comes down to cost-benefit – if you’re preparing for a test or a similar game where you might lose a year of your life if you fail, or if you might lose your job – it’s not a bad idea to play the game instead, at least for a while.

Games are a Control

Many people seem to play games without ever thinking about whether they’re worth playing.

It’s most visible in school where you play the chasing grades game from a very young age without wondering whether it even matters. Does it make any difference what you scored in grade 5? You could probably wing it till you’re a year or two away from college.

It doesn’t really end in school though. You can see a lot of people put themselves through a great deal of effort, not because they enjoy it, but in the hope of getting a medal or a certificate.

I’m probably biased, but I would consider myself crazy if I spent hours reading boring things I don’t want to read just to get a little circular metal piece tied to a ribbon. Or a sheet of paper.

Perhaps those things actually mean a lot to other people. It doesn’t matter. The point is not to judge but to be able to decide whether it matters to you, instead of playing the game because everyone else is.

It’s better to focus on the implications – which is that it’s easy to give up your freedom to play a game that you don’t even care about.

Games can be dangerous. The first step is when you forget it’s a game and confuse it for reality.

It’s the same thing as confusing the metric for the goal. The salesperson who sold the most pens is the “best” employee. The student who scored the highest is the “best” or “smartest”. It’s because you define “best” as “selling the most pens” or “scoring the most on a test”.

And people begin to believe it. The “best” student believes he’s the best, and the others believe they’re not. The truth is that they are the “best” at playing the game. Whether it’s selling pens in a quarter or scoring the highest on a test.

Change the game and you get a new “best”. The salesperson with most repeat orders or the student with the highest improvement in scores over a year. Every “best” is gameable.

When people confuse the game for reality, then the game becomes dangerous. Because now the game does shape reality since they’ll tailor their behavior according to the rules of the game.

It’s like Marx’s predictions in a way – whether or not they would have turned out to be correct (which perhaps is unlikely), the fact remains that the predictions themselves altered reality because people reacted to the spread of his ideas.

So, if you wanted to defend him, maybe you could say that the world, or the circumstances in which he made his predictions no longer existed and therefore he was not “wrong” even if he wasn’t “right”. This is merely an analogy, not a defense of Marx.

This is the same idea as “nudging” people to shape behavior by creating incentives that align their behavior with what you want them to do.

If the boss starts measuring the number of pens sold, every salesperson will focus on that, because the one who sells the highest wins the game. And everyone starts gaming it – a salesman with some sense will offer free or heavily discounted pens just to sell more, because he only cares about sales, not profits.

It’s even more common when you see admissions to top universities. The standard way to get through is to have the usual well-rounded profile – volunteering and doing whatever else admission officers want to see.

It would be crazy if everyone just happened to have the exact interests that most universities look for when they select students. It’s much more likely that university admissions themselves shape those interests.

Or take competitive examinations, where millions of people spend years of their lives studying subjects like physics or polity. Why? Because those are the rules of the game – to win the game you need to do that.

Change the rules to something like dancing and within a week everyone will spend hours practicing their dance moves. Because now that’s the game, and it’s changed reality.

Play Games

I summarized The Stranger a long time ago, with a remark I admit was highly paradoxical: “In our society any man who does not weep at his mother’s funeral runs the risk of being sentenced to death.” I only meant that the hero of my book is condemned because he does not play the game.

Albert Camus

This isn’t to criticize people for playing games; everyone does, including myself.

It isn’t to say you shouldn’t play – I doubt that’s possible in reality. It almost certainly wouldn’t be desirable – Camus’ words aren’t too farfetched.

To not play would be to react spontaneously and naturally to every situation; to be free of all external influence. It means a naivety and innocence in not even knowing about the game.

That isn’t possible in reality – because even when you choose not to play you’re still aware of the rules of the game and you decide it’s not worth it. It’s like playing the game of not playing the game other people play. But that’s still playing a game.

I guess this is the involuntary burden of socialization that you can’t cast off. Only someone who’s grown up without this baggage, who’s not even aware of the rules of the game, and therefore abstains from playing not out of intention but out of ignorance, which I would choose instead to call simplicity and innocence, and above all, authenticity, could achieve that.

Someone like Meursault in Camus’ book The Stranger.



well played!!

S.A. Bhagyashree

👍👍 !!


One of the best pieces I’ve ever read in a really long time. Kudos to your writing! Keep enlightening people <3

Poojjaa Patel

Samaj mai nai aaya lekin padh k acha laga 👍


what do you think about IAS officers posting entry videos, strategy videos at a rate of 5 videos per week, etc., etc.?
do you think that these things will dilute the credentials of the service in the long run?

PS – dude, it’s kinda hilarious that people post videos of themselves getting in a car.


Yaa. Lots of students are motivated by watching so cold upsc motivation video. They don’t understand what demand this service. Foolish cat race


This post changed my view on activities that I objectively do with a lens of ‘game’ on them. This makes a lot of sense and, indeed, we are all players. 

This is a very intriguing post.


Please write more of such content, I can connect with your observations on life +professional life or whatever form of work-life.


“I used to think how can you be so good at everything” – I equally felt that way. More when – he do those things, many like me will only understand and ‘try to’ implement. Initially felt inferiority to be honest, later understood process matters. I will be happier if I try, irrespective of stage where I may end up. Glas if you share your thoughts on Funism or your blog. TIA


I don’t know why but I read it like how Dwight Schrute would speak.


Summary of the article is that we shouldn’t play any other character which we are not! No acting. Be free of everything 🙂