The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Life is a Toy, Not a Game

In game development there is a distinction between toys and games.   A ball is a toy. Soccer is game.  You can do many things with a ball, which are fun, which are not games. It is when you add rules and the ability to win or lose, that a toy becomes a game.

Really life is whatever you want it to be that you can manage to create, while not dying.  Dying is not a loss state if you’re treating your life as a toy, it’s just the end of being able play with life, your toy.  Same thing if you puncture your ball such that it won’t work as a ball any more.

So with toys there are end-states, like death or even just deciding to stop playing, but there are no win states which are externally imposed or socially agreed on.  In soccer we know how we can use the ball (don’t touch it with your hands); how goals are scored, how many people plays, how you win.

If you’ve played it, think SimCity – the city simulator.  There are no win conditions.  If you want to create a huge slum filled metropolis, great.  A small utopian community with great public transit?  Great.  SimCity has no rules, it only has world simulation physics.  These physics don’t match the real world, they are an approximation and a theory, and they limit how you play, but they don’t make SimCity a game: it’s a toy, you decide what sort of city you want.  You can create your own win situation “when I create a city of 5 millions with an average income of over 50K”, but that’s not imposed by the program.  With a ball you can decide you “win” when you can reliably make free shots four times out of five.  But ultimately win conditions in a toy are arbitrary: a matter of personal choice.

Who wins life?  If  you die with the most power or money, did you win?  If you did the most good, do you win?  If you enjoyed yourself the most?  Made great art?  Raised great kids?  Went fishing as often as you wanted?

Life has its own physics, of course, you can’t fly without external aid, for example.  Objects have gravity.  Our bodies impose both abilities and limitations on us, including massive mental limitations most people are only dimly aware of.  Our senses order the play field in a way very similar to cameras in computer games.  The world you see, and smell, is very different from the world your dog sees and smells; let alone the world a bat, with echolocation, inhabits.

Humans set up games all the time.  Capitalism is a game with rules, and coercive penalties for breaking them.  Democracy is, as well.  Hang up a shingle as a doctor without getting society’s approval first and see how long it is before the cops pay you a visit.

Different societies love different games.  Much of Dark Ages and Medieval Europe loved the faith game: the people they idealized were the truly pious, especially the renunciates who kept their vows, like friars and hermits and the occasional strict monastery (they tended to prefer giving gifts to nunneries, nuns being regarded as less likely be engaged in constant drunkenness and debauchery).

For much of Chinese history much of the big game was the examination game: how well you wrote tests based on your knowledge of classic writings and their commentary.

Each game favors are certain type of person: the men and women who rise to the top of the capitalism game have almost no qualities in common with those who rise to the top of the renunciate game, and almost nothing in common with the scholar-bureaucrats who ran the Chinese empire so often.  Different qualities and different development were rewarded.

None of this alters the fact that life is a toy, like a ball or SimCity. You can add rules to it, and enforce those rules with sanctions, but ultimately each person decides their own win conditions.  One of the decisions is whether to play one of the approved games, of course, and many people don’t realize they can opt out of much of those games.

A society’s level of coercion is easily measured when thought of in these terms: how hard is it to opt out of the socially mandated games; or at least how onerous are the requirements of those games?  Will you die?  Go hungry?  Just not get as much approval? How many different games are there, and how easy is it to move between them, so that you can find a way of playing with your toy that isn’t obnoxious to you, and is at least somewhat socially approved.  It’s hard, today, for example, to be a monastic or a hermit; society in the West isn’t set up for it: people won’t feed you.  In Thailand, on the other hand, it’s pretty easy.  People not involved in the monastic or hermit life think those lives are valuable and are willing to support them.

You’re probably thinking “monasticism and hermitting produces nothing”.  First, it’s not true: it produces truths, and temples and teachers and teachings which non-monastics value.  But even if true, it would be irrelevant: the choice of what games societies support is largely non-rational, and based on esthetic, moral and ethical choices, along with pure power considerations.  Bankers in the Western world were a net negative through 00s but they had the power and were valued deeply enough by certain parts of society that they were bailed out for a cost of trillions.  Suburbs are economically unproductive, pure consumption to a degree that shames monastics and hermits, yet US society is largely set up as a giant subsidy for the suburban lifestyle, because Americans value having a house with a yard away from a lot of other people, surrounded by a bunch of other houses very similar to theirs inhabited by people very much like them, generally far from any productive activity.

That’s an esthetic choice: it’s a choice about what the good life is, “the good life is living in suburbs, therefore we will subsidize suburbs massively, because that’s how we want to live”.

That subsidy is a direct drain on all the people who look at suburbs and hate them, and don’t want to live in them.  Living in suburbs requires economic relationships, embedded in law and custom, which are coercive and unequal.

“You win if you buy a big house in the suburbs, have 2 cars and 2 kids and die comfortably”.

That’s a game statement.

Now some people have probably been offended by me calling life a toy, because we think of toys as trivial and disposable and we like to think that lives aren’t, even though we certainly very often act as if other people’s lives are disposable.  But the word communicates that life is something you decide what you’re going to do with.  Life always ends: there are no immortals—so what enjoyment or satisfaction are you going to get out of your toy before you no longer are able to play with it?

And, perhaps, what sort of society do you want to live in, so that you can get the most out of that toy?  And do you care if others are able to use their toys as they want, or not?

There’s no bedrock here, there’s no ultimate source of authority.  Unless you believe in God, there is no system of reason which can logically prove that we should be kind or cruel, want money or not want it, be hermits or epicures; or anything else.

So, what are you going to do with your life, your toy, and how are you going to help, or hinder, others in their enjoyment of their toy?

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  1. The Infamous Oregon Lawhobbit

    And are you going to remember not to touch or take other people’s toys without their permission.

    Awesome analysis! Time to finally donate a bit to the site, I think!

  2. excellent piece of analysis. well done.

  3. Life is any game we make it and we’re the toys in that game. The current game is called Civilization and us toys have been playing it for some ten to twelve thousand years now. Maybe it’s about to end. If there are any toys left, I winder what game they’ll think up next?

    But better yet, countries are not toys although they’re made up of lives. Some in this game of Civilization treat people and countries like toys. The goal is to accumulate as much wealth and power as possible and hold on to it for as long as possible. Ukraine is no different.

    I don’t have much faith if any, but you must try for posterity’s sake.

    Ukraine Peace Proposal

  4. BlizzardOfOz

    I would say that life is a toy only insofar as you treat it as a disconnected atom (which I suppose is a modern perspective, or postmodern?). It is a game, on the one hand, from the perspective of biology; and then also, from a spiritual perspective. The first (biological) is undeniably real, and nature has its own rules for selecting winners and losers. The second (spiritual) is less knowable to us, and a small minority deny its reality altogether; but most people acknowledge a spiritual “game”, although there is a wide variety of interpretations of its rules, from Pascal’s wager and Calvinism, to Buddhism, Taoism, …

    So I can see how you could disavow the biological game — after all, you could say that it is our genes that win or lose, and we ourselves are pawns from that perspective. But disavowing the spiritual game seems nihilistic to me. Or is it?

  5. Phoenician in a time of Romans

    This topic is covered in James Carse’s _Finite and Infinite Games_

  6. This made my brain dance.

    I fall under your “if you cannot afford” criteria that you so generously offered, so I am not providing financial support for your writing. But I would, and thanks to all of the others who are supporting you. For they are supporting me as well.

  7. atccoper


    If life is a game, biologically speaking, what is the goal? How does one win? Via immortality, say the singularity or some other means?

    A more minor question, but still along the same lines – what are the rules, and how well are they described via science? I’ve long thought all the low hanging fruit of scientific discovery has already been picked – say the transistor as the last real revolution. That’s just me guessing though, it’s not something I claim to know.

    I’m sympathetic to the toy metaphor. It has the air of the existential about it.

  8. BlizzardOfOz

    If life is a game, biologically speaking, what is the goal? How does one win?

    If you believe that species are are shaped by the forces of natural selection/evolution, then you “win” by reproducing. The rules of that game should be hard-wired into our biology.

    what are the rules, and how well are they described via science?

    I think the rules of biology are very well described by science. But biology is sort of the substrate of human nature, and of course the rules of our higher or spiritual nature can’t be described at all by science. But saying science can’t grasp something is not the same as saying it is unknowable. I think that most religions are concerned with elaborating the “rules of the game” at this higher level, and the fact that there are certain commonalities among religions should tell you that those rules are intrinsic to our nature. But saying that life is a toy, rather than a game, implies to me that the spiritual realm is inherently unknowable — existentialism, as you say.

  9. John Merryman

    In the west, we tend to be object oriented and linear. The toy is an object, while the game is a narrative.
    This is an effect of deeper realities. Objects are nodes in the network and when lots of them get moved unidirectionally, the network compensates. This is called blowback.
    We conceive of this property of reality called time, in which the point of the present moves from past events to future ones. Such concepts as history and causal logic arise from this perception.
    The larger reality is that the changing state creates and dissolves these events, so it is they which go from future to past. To wit, the earth does not travel some fourth dimensional flow from yesterday to tomorrow. Tomorrow becomes yesterday because the earth turns.
    Time is an effect of action, like temperature. Essentially time is to temperature, what frequency is to amplitude. With time we experience the particular, while with temperature we experience the cumulative. That is why there is no universal clock, just the effect of many actions. In fact, as a faster clock burns/ages quicker, it recedes into the past faster.
    Reality is the dichotomy of energy and information/form. Energy manifests form, while form defines energy. The tension is that while energy is dynamic and compels change, form is static and resists it. So form must accumulate and/or resist energy in order to persist, but eventually succumbs.
    Think of this relationship in terms of a factory; The product/form goes from start to finish/beginning to end, while the process points the other direction, consuming raw materials, expelling finished product and radiating enormous amounts of excess energy/waste. Just as we as individuals go from birth to death, while the species moves onto the next generation, shedding the old. All the while consuming/absorbing and radiating/shedding energy/waste.
    So this wave of activity, which is the current state of human civilization is peaking and will recede, probably quite rapidly. The question then becomes as to what will arise.
    Now if history is any guide, it is likely the various fields of human organization will gravitationally coalesce around/collapse into some harder, more authoritarian mode.
    I think though, that a potential monkey wrench exists, to at least mediate this process.
    Given western thought is object and narrative oriented, we naturally coalesce into these corporate structures, as meta-individuals, moving through their territory, yet the eastern paradigm is more context oriented, understanding the individual as a reflection of its context, remaining rooted in the larger context and not presume to be opposed to it. Thus understanding the larger meaning is how well the present serves as a bridge between what came before to what comes after and is not obsessed with its own physical mortality.
    The essential manifestation of this western model is the theological belief in a universal deity, as an all-knowing absolute. The contradiction is that knowledge is a consequence of distinction and judgement, while the absolute is a universal state of equilibrium.
    So a spiritual absolute would necessarily be the essence of consciousness from which we rise, not an ideal form from which we fell. That raw sense of being, running through all life forms. One which focused to a point, is self centered, but when radiating broadly, identifies across the many individual forms.
    Right now the tendency is to become ever more focused on the individual self and its preservation, which creates an even more atomized society and susceptible to control by raw expressions of power.
    The advantage a top down theology gives to power structures, is that it equates cosmic authority with top down guidance, known historically as the ‘divine right of kings,’ but which even modern forms of authority naturally use, since it is assumed to be God’s will which must have put them there, rather than their own talent for riding the waves of fashion and passion.
    Bloody and amoral as they are currently being, the Israelis are providing a textbook case for why the notion of God as a father figure is flawed and remains fundamentally a tribal deity in the Jewish context. Not to mention that Islam is still floundering in a six hundred year trough, following their first thousand years success as one of history’s most effective social and political movements. While noting one major advantage Christianity has is that it was essentially founded on the concept of renewal and rebirth, even though the Catholic Church and other mainline denominations have done their best to obscure this origin of the trinity, as past, present and future hopes.
    In the bottom up nature of reality, good and bad are not some cosmic duel between the forces of righteousness and evil, but are the basic biological binary code of attraction to the beneficial and repulsion of the detrimental. What is good for the fox, is bad for the chicken and there is no clear line where the chicken ends and the fox begins.
    While this might be a very basic observation and seemingly amoral, it does explain the many complex and subjective factors operating in this world. Such as that what might be good in the particular, as in ‘go forth and multiply,’ can be bad in the cumulative, as when we reach the limits of the planet. As they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
    Meanwhile the premise of capitalism is that since money serves as a useful economic medium between disparate sectors of society, then the further atomized society becomes, the more it needs this financial mechanism as a social medium, providing an ersatz network to a society of isolated individuals and thus serving as a siphon to extract value.
    So now that we are finally reaching the edge of the cliff and it doesn’t look like too many of us are going to be raptured away in time, possibly we can start a conversation as to the nature of humanity on this planet and that we are all expressions of the same sense of being and as such, learn to exist with those around us and develop roots into our world, not needing churches and politicians to tell us what to do and banks to allow us to do it. It must be what those we live with are willing to do, as a group. Things like child and elder care, primary education, local building projects, etc. can arise organically from the community, even using mechanisms such as local public banks.
    When the Big Oak rots and falls, there will be space for lots of saplings and those most successful will be those least burdened by the parasites that brought down the old one.
    Hopefully some of this makes some sense, as any efforts to start a discussion would be moving in a positive direction.

  10. atcooper

    I just wanted the win condition and rules stated precisely. That’s a game that everyone loses since all things die.

    I tend to think of the toy metaphore being more about the inexpressible, not the unknowable. There are things that can be known that cannot be expressed.

  11. someofparts

    Well, representing for the non-pointy-headed here, this post made me feel pretty good about what I’m doing with my toy. I’ve more or less succeeded in striking a comfortable balance between the emotional rewards of solitude, the righteous satisfaction of doing good for others and the epicurean joys of good pizza, fine whiskey and classic blues.

  12. Celsius 233

    Life is a Toy, Not a Game

    That doesn’t feel right. The toy bit. But then, I also hadn’t thought about it quite like that before. That’s the best I can do at this point.
    I didn’t care for the first three paragraphs. I like what you said about the contemplative life and choices.

  13. Celsius 233

    No, life is not a toy; it’s a gift. I’m thinking that *toy* trivializes the gift of life. When one looks at the vast diversity of life; the downs syndrome, the retarded, the crippled, the disenfranchised, the born into poverty and the abandoned; how is that a toy gifted?
    A toy requires an ability for play, to utilize the potential of the object termed toy. When one’s very life is dependent on a choice, made in the moment, there are no toys. Just life affirming or life destroying moments.
    Toys are for those who have the luxury of play…
    In this world, very few have that luxury…
    Those are my thoughts and considerations…

  14. hvd

    Celsius 233

    I am hard-pressed to understand why the hard lives you advert to are any more a gift than they are a toy. Misery is one hell of a gift. More to the point I don’t think you actually disagree with Ian

    I think you also misapprehend (if I dare to speak for Ian) the distinction he is trying to make between toy and game. The words chosen are to make that particular distinction and are not intended in any way to trivialize rather to raise the gift (toy) above the game(s) that we have created (they are not “natural” despite the religiously inclined attempts to claim so) and which all too often trivialize and limit our “enjoyment” of the toy (gift) oftentimes for the benefit of someone else’s “enjoyment.”

  15. Celsius 233

    @ HVD
    Well, you may be correct. I guess I never felt *life* needed to be defined because it just *is*.
    And yes, we love to play games (re: Eric Berne) and a game free life is a rare thing indeed.
    As to games not being natural? I posit they are as natural as rain and we humans are incapable of acting outside of our nature. Which is to say everything we humans do, no matter our judgments, is a part of our nature. Humans are incapable of an un-natural act, IMO.
    If nothing else, this thread has sparked an interesting inquiry…

  16. Spinoza

    I wake up every goddamn day and tell myself something along the lines of this. By the end of the day its hard to think that my toy ain’t broken. Regardless, this was a lovely essay, that made me happy. Gave me comfort.

    I’m with you someofparts, need to rep the rest!

  17. OldSkeptic

    Sod the ‘games’.

    I am trying, after a very long time.. too long a time…far too long a time, to be myself. To have MY life.

    There was a book published not long ago by a palliative care nurse in the UK about the regrets of people dying. There were quite a few, one of the major ones was ‘I wish I had been myself’.

    For me? After 50+ years of burying it, hiding from it, lying about it.. I now accept I am transgendered and I’m transitioning. And because of that I am more content.
    For the first time in my life I have some ‘peace of mind’. Which for me is a ‘blessed state’.

    Just to feel nice and comfortable in myself.Trust me, if you have never had that basic comfort…it is s**t. A constant, unending conflict within yourself. You don’t want it, though if you were mean you might wish it on your worst enemy.

    Mark you are so right that in the end ‘inner peace’ (however you personally define it) is the finest thing to aspire to.

    Now, if all these nutjobs don’t blow up the world, I actually have some prospects of a reasonable and content life for awhile.

    Got a good dog too…..a Kelpie….and when it all gets bad….well I have a Kelpie…lol. You have to have one to understand that.

  18. markfromireland

    @ OldSkeptic August 3, 2014

    I trust it’s not too late to say congratulations. Are you sure it’s really a dog and not a water horse in cunning disguise?


  19. OldSkeptic

    Thanks for that.

    Good one…lol. Not quite, more like this×370/australian_kelpie_dog.jpg

    But you never know……”what are you hiding from me Jo”? He is a wizard in the water after all………

  20. OldSkeptic

    I should add, hardest but best personal decision I have ever made. My only regret is not doing it 10 or 20 years ago.

  21. Celsius 233

    @ OldSkeptic

    Better late than never, no? Cheers…

  22. OldSkeptic

    Thanks Celsius.

  23. Formerly T-Bear

    Would add my €0·02 to MFI and Celsius 233’s comments as well. Just don’t go and lose that wonderful voice you have, or your intelligent humanity.

  24. OldSkeptic

    Thanks T-Bear. Your’s and MFI’s and Celsius’s support mean a lot to me.

  25. OldSkeptic

    It is a funny old world. At New Year I was talking to a young lesbian girl (if you are facebook friend you can see our pictures)…smart as a whip and studying science (forgot which discipline, lot of wine that night) . Well is was a science fiction fancy dress event (I went as River Song).

    Such a diverse interesting and friendly (and very often extremely intelligent) crowd.

    As she was insecure about herself I mentioned Fabiola Gianotti and the stunning way she announced her team’s part in the Higgs Boson discovery. It was stunning and mesmorising…because she abandoned all the standard expectations of a female presenter. She dressed down (a no-no for females) and dominated everything with her intellect, not her looks.

    I said to her, watch that video and aim to be like her. A respected mind first, a male or female (or transgendered) second. Be valued by what you do, not how you are expected to present or act. And, I said to her, because she was so scared she would never have a partner (like straight society, gays and lesbians do have their OWN issues and rules..and gay/lesbian ‘geeks’ do not do well in the mainstream) do that and you will find a real partner that shares your life and dreams and hope.

    As for other role models… Grandfather brought up 3 children by himself and cooked and cleaned every day (after working in the shipyards). Great cook by the way…and could sow and knit…..and play chess and he gave me a first edition copy of Einstein’s own book on Special and General relativity (which was far better than many of the textbooks I had to read when I did Physics at University).

  26. Celsius 233

    @ OldSkeptic
    August 8, 2014
    As far back as I can remember I have always had gay and lesbian friends. I was always respected for being straight and always respected their lifestyle/biology, which is why I got invited to many functions. One of my dear friends was abused by his lover and I offered support and lost some friends to Aids. So, I do have familiarity with social and cultural mores and norms.
    Frankly, gay’s and lesbian’s really aren’t any different than straights; it boils down to who they sleep with as far as I can see.
    I’ve also known a few trans-gendered, but will admit to not being well informed on details.
    The country I’m living in now has a huge population of gay and lesbian with many trans-gendered as well. The society here is very tolerant, far more than the west.
    So, you’re in good company and a healthy future.

  27. OldSkeptic

    Celcius well said. I just read a great saying: Sexuality is who you sleep WITH, gender is who you sleep AS.

    What ‘lower bits’ you have and who you bump them with has very little correlation to what kind of person you are.

    Though I have noticed in recent times that the younger TG/gays/lesbians I meet are almost universally nice people. I think mainly because in these more accepting times (and areas of course) they don’t have the angst and neuroticism that some of us older ones do from hiding and pretending for so much of our lives. And being continually surrounded by diversity they are far more accepting of others than many straight people are. For them it is just normal.

    At the last Pride march here in Melbourne my group was followed by a young transgendered one. And the thought struck me “that’s really why we are marching”. Not for ourselves, but so the kids don’t have to go through all the crap we did and can have good lives right from the start.

  28. OldSkeptic

    For those interested, this a lovely TED presentation by Norman Spack: “How I help transgender teens become who they want to be”.

  29. Celsius 233

    With your abilities of erudition, you might want to consider creating a blog, TG centric, for the general who-with-all, who want to know, what is what.
    And if you do, let me know so I can keep informed…

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