What are games?
Games are everywhere. Every social setting and institution is made of games, mostly unwritten, that govern success and failure within. Games include things like dress codes, insider lingo, lunch break norms, name dropping, and other patterns of behavior and language.
Average people play games when opting out is painful. They comply with rules and norms to avoid shame, material loss, or physical discomfort. They view games as a necessary evil. They don’t see the opportunity presented by learning and winning certain games, only the cost of failing to do so.
They learn and play the games necessary for a life they can tolerate and opt out of those that require too much work and have little cost of ignoring (except, of course, opportunity cost, which average people are never very aware of). Average people don’t take ownership of the games they play, but instead believe they don’t have a choice. They think they have to play the games they play. Even when they opt-out, they often claim they aren’t free to play and disqualify themselves from the start.
Average people mock and scorn the games they don’t play. The best way to defend against feeling lazy or insufficient is to claim all the games you don’t play are pompous or ridiculous.
Of course they are right much of the time. Many games are pompous and ridiculous. Many games aren’t worth playing. But not because, as average people believe, they don’t have enough downside, but because they don’t have enough upside.
Elite and ascendant games
At first glance it can be hard to distinguish the way that elite and ascendant people play games. But the difference could not be more stark.
Ascendant people opt out of games when they calculate that the cost of playing is more than the gains from winning. They assess the gains and losses at stake and pick only games that get them what they want at the right price. They harbor neither bitterness nor excitement at the existence of games or the prospect or winning. There is always something beyond the game that they want, and their eyes are fixed on it.
Elite people never opt out of games. They can’t. They must win every game they meet. Moths to a flame, introduce a new game to an elite individual and they will immediately re-orient their life and begin studying how to play and be recognized as a superior player. They have nothing that motivates deeper than status within games.
When ascendant people play games they do it with self-awareness. They know it’s a game and they know they are choosing to play. They bring a sense of identity to the game, and playing does not involve a change in who they are, only changes in emphasis. In certain social circles, certain aspects of their identity will be more rewarded than others, and certain ways of describing the world. Ascendant individuals choose to bring to the fore and let fade to the back whatever aspects are necessary to win worthwhile games without losing themselves. The language and behavior patterns adopted in ascendant gameplay are not affectations, but regulations of the flow of information. Friends of an ascendant person hardly notice when new games are being played, because they see the same person simply navigating new situations.
Elite gameplay may look the same at a glance. Like ascendant people, they first assess and learn what is rewarded in the domain of the game. They are a quick study, often learning rules faster than average and ascendant people.
When elites play games they do so without self-awareness. They know they must do things to win, but they do not recognize the game as a game, but as the new Truth. When they discover things rewarded in gameplay, they become those things, rewriting their entire personal history in mere moments. These are not new terms and habits, but everlasting realities. They are not adapting and behaving in new ways, they have always and everywhere been like this. This is the narrative immediately adopted, and they believe it.
Because status within games is the deepest motivating factor for elite individuals, who they are at the core changes with each new game. It is easy to spot elite gameplay when you know what to look for. Think of the people who, upon each new book they read, use new terms they’ve never used before and adopt new beliefs and habits quickly and to the extreme, and do so with an air of “I’ve always been like this.” They fail to see how transparent it is to others that they have, overnight, put on a new skin. Friends of elite individuals always know when a new game is being played, because a completely new person materializes.
Elite personal narratives are not unlike the history in Orwell’s 1984. It’s not enough to say “We are now at war with Eurasia”. Elites must rewrite the story from the beginning; “We have always been at war with Eurasia.” Saving face is key, and elites are in perpetual fear of being revealed as impostors or frauds. They worry they’ll lose status if people know they are new to the game, so they play as if it is and always has been who they are. No one believes it but them.
Elites win games, and sometimes important games. They get the status they seek but miss the chance to define success for themselves.
Isaac Morehouse is founder and CEO of Praxis. This is part of a series, originally published on his blog, about the difference between average, elite, and ascendant.