Life Is A Game Essay

Life is a game. This is your strategy guide

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Real life is the game that – literally – everyone is playing. But it can be tough. This is your guide.


You might not realise, but real life is a game of strategy. There are some fun mini-games – like dancing, driving, running, and sex – but the key to winning is simply managing your resources.

Most importantly, successful players put their time into the right things. Later in the game money comes into play, but your top priority should always be mastering where your time goes.


Life begins when you’re assigned a random character and circumstances:

The first 15 years or so of life are just tutorial missions, which suck. There’s no way to skip these.

Young adult stage

As a young player, you’ll have lots of time and energy, but almost no experience. You’ll find most things – like the best jobs, possessions and partners – are locked until you get some.

This is the time to level up your skills quickly. You will never have so much time and energy again.

Now that you’re playing properly, your top priority is to assign your time as well as possible. Every single thing you do affects your state and your skills:

This may sound simple, but the problem is you won’t always know what tasks to choose, and your body won’t always obey your commands. Let’s break it down.

How to obey your own commands

Many players find that when they choose to do something – say “go to the gym” – their body ignores them completely.

This is not a bug. Everybody has a state, which you can’t see directly, but looks something like this:

If your state gets too low in one area, your body will disobey your own instructions until your needs are met. Try studying when you’re exhausted and hungry, and watch your concentration switch to Twitter.

Your willpower level is especially important. Willpower fades throughout the day, and is replenished slightly by eating, and completely by a good night’s sleep. When your willpower is low, you are only able to do things you really want to.

Every decision you have to make costs willpower, and decisions where you have to suppress an appealing option for a less appealing one (e.g. exercise instead of watch TV) require a lot of willpower.

There are various tricks to keep your behaviour in line:

  1. Keep your state high. If you’re hungry, exhausted, or utterly deprived of fun, your willpower will collapse. Ensure you take consistently good care of yourself.
  2. Don’t demand too much willpower from one day. Spread your most demanding tasks over multiple days, and mix them in with less demanding ones.
  3. Attempt the most important tasks first. This makes other tasks more difficult, but makes your top task more likely.
  4. Reduce the need to use willpower by reducing choices. If you’re trying to work on a computer that can access Facebook, you’ll need more willpower because you’re constantly choosing the hard task over the easy one. Eliminate such distractions.

A key part of playing the game is balancing your competing priorities with the state of your body. Just don’t leave yourself on autopilot, or you’ll never get anything done.

Choosing the right tasks

Choosing the right tasks at the right time is most of the game. Some tasks mostly affect your state, e.g.

Others mostly affect your skills:

You need to put time into things that ensure a healthy state – like food and sleep – to keep your willpower high. And then you need to develop your skills with what you have left.

Some skills are more valuable than others. Good ones can open up whole paths like a tech tree:

Others are dead ends:

Combinations of skills are the most effective. It’s very hard to max out one skill to be the best – in fact, that’s often impossible. But it’s much easier to get pretty decent at lots of related skills that amount to something bigger, e.g.

See how psychology just helped you become both rich and attractive? You should study that.

Where you live

Your environment has a constant impact on your stats, skills, and your chances of levelling up.

It’s possible to play the game well almost anywhere, but it’s a lot easier in certain places. If you’re female and in the wrong country, for example, you can’t unlock many achievements.

The odds of anyone being born in their optimal location are virtually zero, so research your options, and consider moving early. Location is a multiplier to all of your skills and states.

Finding a partner

Attraction is a complex mini-game in itself, but mostly a byproduct of how you’re already playing. If you have excellent state and high skills, you’re far more attractive already. A tired, irritable, unskilled player is not appealing, and probably shouldn’t be looking for a relationship.

Early in the game it can be common to reject and be rejected by other players. This is normal, but unfortunately it can drain your state, as most players don’t handle rejection or rejecting well. You’ll need to expend willpower to keep going, and willpower is replenished by sleep, so give it time.

80% of finding someone comes down to being your most attractive self, which – like so much in life – just means putting your time in the right places. If you’re exercising, socialising, well nourished and growing in your career, you will radiate attraction automatically. The remaining 20% is simply putting yourself in places where you can meet the right people.

Money money money

Later in the game you’ll have to manage a new resource called ‘money’. Most players will find money increases throughout the early game, but that this actually introduces more problems, not less.

The most important rule of money is never to borrow it, except for things that earn you more back. For example, education or a mortgage can be worthwhile (but are not necessarily so, depending on the education or the mortgage). Borrowing to buy new shoes is not.

Depending on your financial ambitions, here are a few strategies to bear in mind:

  1. Not fussed about money. The low-stress strategy: simply live within your means and save a little for a rainy day. Be sure to make the best of all the time you save though, or you’ll regret it.
  2. Well off. Choose a career and environment carefully, and be prepared to move often to move up. You’ll need to invest heavily in matching skills, which will cost you time, and be careful not to abuse your state or you’ll burn out.
  3. Mega rich. Start your own business. It’s almost impossible to get rich working for someone else. Riches do not come from work alone, they come from  owning things – assets – that pay back more than they cost, and your own company is a powerful asset you can create from scratch. Compound your winnings into more assets, and eventually they can remove your need to work at all.

Later life

Your options change as the game progresses. Marriage and children will reduce your time and energy, and introduce more random elements into the game (“Emergency diaper change!”). This makes it harder to develop yourself as quickly.

Older characters usually have more skills, resources and experience, unlocking quests that were previously impossible, like “owning a house”, or “writing a (good) novel”.

All players die after about 29,000 days, or 80 years. If your stats and skills are good, you might last a little longer. There is no cheat code to extend this.

At the start of the game, you had no control over who you were or your environment. By the end of the game that becomes true again. Your past decisions drastically shape where you end up, and if you’re happy, healthy, fulfilled – or not – in your final days there’s far less you can do about it.

That’s why your strategy is important. Because by the time most of us have figured life out, we’ve used up too much of the best parts.

Now you’d best get playing.

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So much for the idea of the summer doldrums. July has instead been a month to reevaluate our most basic assumptions and beliefs. Higgs boson explains the universe! TomKat over! Fatalism and serendipity torpedoed globally!

Wait, you say, what’s that about fatalism and serendipity taking a hit? No, I’m not talking about the Libor scandal. Didn’t you see? FIFA, soccer’s global ruling body, announced that at long last it will allow the deployment of goal-line monitoring technologies. International soccer has taken the whistle out of the referee’s hands and entered the 21st century; sensors will now ascertain whether the ball has crossed the goal line or not. The sport will never be the same.

Like plenty of other legacies shaping our modern world, this development can be traced back to quarrels between English and Germans. In the 1966 World Cup final, the referee awarded the tournament-winning goal to Geoff Hurst, whose shot hit the crossbar and then struck the ground below without appearing to have fully crossed the goal line. Forty-four years later, in a 2010 World Cup second-round match between these same two powers, the refereeing gods (or rather the refs hustling to keep up with the action from dozens of yards away) evened the score by denying English captain Frank Lampard what appeared to be a clear goal to millions of TV viewers worldwide. In the final straw for FIFA, the English team (what is it with them and controversy?) benefited from a blown call in last month’s Euro Cup in a match against host nation Ukraine. And so, on July 5, after years of insisting on the purity of the “human factor”–no instant replay, no review of contested calls, no ball-tracking technologies to make for better TV–FIFA caved and agreed to allow the use of the type of sensors tennis and cricket already rely on.

Mark this moment as a historic milestone in the global decline of serendipity and “que sera, sera” fatalism in favor of American-style controlling exactitude.

There are no accidents in the United States, a Mexican friend in college once told me, an observation I find more astute with every passing year. What he meant wasn’t so much that we Americans don’t trip and fall, or get into car crashes, but that every such incident is obsessively analyzed and litigated in order to get at its root cause, apportion blame, and prevent its recurrence. So in America, people don’t just happen to trip; it’s the cities that fail to properly maintain the sidewalks. Playground injuries don’t just happen because kids are kids; it’s that parks fail to install cushiony surfaces. Stocks don’t just fall or rise of their own accord; some ostensibly rational reason must explain their day-to-day movements.

There isn’t any misfortune or ambiguity that Americans can’t have a court, a blue-ribbon commission, an inspector general, a team of investigative reporters, an accounting firm, a law firm, or a conclave of referees conduct a ruminative post-mortem on, so as to explain, rationalize, and contain, in retrospect.

“Stuff happens” may be an idiomatic expression, but it’s purely an ironic one; the sentiment is not part of the American creed. We don’t shrug things off as a society. It’s a component of American exceptionalism that’s both admirable and aggravating.

Or at least it used to be. FIFA’s big news is one more sign that the rest of the world is catching up, emulating our American disdain for capricious fatalism. Our own version of football has become a case study for our societal inability to let life play itself out in real time, warts and all. NFL games now resemble legal battles in which the game (call it the evidentiary record) is frequently interrupted for review as coaches strategically deploy their challenges to calls made on the field, ever mindful of the burden of proof. Lawyering has become a big part of the game.

America’s difficulty with just “going with the flow” (another favorite expression that’s at odds with our national character) and accepting that “stuff happens” doesn’t manifest itself solely in this lawyerly zeal to get at the “truth.” It also manifests itself in our obsessive zeal to quantify, and catalogue, all things as they happen. Hence our worship of statistics. Millions of Americans now pay less attention to actual NFL games than they do to derivative markets created around them–fantasy football–that turn Sunday afternoons into a statistician’s dream. Baseball, to be sure, has been almost as reluctant as soccer to incorporate technology into its officiating, with fans tolerating a decidedly un-American subjectivity when it comes to defining strike zones. Then again, the game’s true purpose seems to be the production of crunchable data–no more so than in this Moneyball era. (What happened to Babe Ruth? The last great baseball film celebrated a management team’s devotion to obscure numbers.)

Soccer may be taking off in this country, but its roots will always remain suspect, reflecting alien, fatalistic traditions. The game’s very fluidity defies the creation of discrete episodes amenable to endless review; there’s not even a sensible way to break for TV commercials. The game is all serendipitous flow, and, sometimes, it’s all about frustration. Some games are fated to end 0-0 because the sport reflects the values of places where life is hard and can’t be conquered, where the default assumption when things go badly isn’t to find out whom or what is to blame. Soccer has traditionally been a statistician’s enemy. So much running around, so little data. But that’s changing under American influence. TV coverage now reports on the number of corner kicks for each team, assists for each player, time of possession for each team, and other stats that hardly anyone used to care about.

It isn’t that Americans were alone, or even at the forefront, in clamoring for soccer to adopt goal-line review technologies. But the pressure from fans around the world for FIFA to abandon its aversion to technology in pursuit of certainty reflects a growing Americanization of global attitudes toward fate, happenstance, and our ability to control the elements. It also reflects a market-based perspective that the stakes have become too high to tolerate human officiating error as one of the game’s charms. There are too many multi-million-dollar deals at stake, not to mention that British-versus-German antagonism.

Michel Platini, the former French midfielder who exemplified the artistry of uninterrupted flow on the pitch and is now the head of the European soccer federation, was adamantly opposed to the adoption of goal-line monitoring–and often portrayed as a Gallic Luddite for his refusal to go there. He insisted on retaining the human factor. World Cup matches would use the same rules and reviewing technologies (which is to say, none) as games in Rio favelas. All part of the flow of life, warts and all.

Platini understands the difficulty of restraining yourself once you start using technology to review and control all aspects of life. Only goal-line decisions will be reviewed, FIFA is assuring everyone; they won’t go crazy monitoring offside calls and obsessing about the evidentiary record for other purposes. Sure they won’t. At least not until they realize the stakes are too high not to.

Andrés Martinez is the editorial director of Zócalo Public Square and a vice president at the New America Foundation.

*Photo courtesy of seriouslysilly.

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