Life is a Game

Bloomsbury: Life is a Game
Amazon: Life is a Game

What game design tells us about the human condition

What if life is a game?

Many writers and thinkers have said so; but what does it mean? In this book, economist and game design professor Edward Castronova tackles the question head on. If life is a game, there are rules, players, and victory conditions. There are good ways to play, and bad ways to play. Castronova uses the new field of game design to review life’s game, to understand it better, and to assess the strategies that people commonly use.

Applying game design to the game of life yields two big insights. First, there is a strategic layer of our thinking, a place where we don’t necessarily think about our grand commitments but rather what those commitments tell us to do. The strategic layer is where strategy is born. Castronova argues that we can all get along better if we shift some of our attention from the Big Issues of philosophy and theology to questions of basic strategy. Buddhist and Benedictine monks deeply disagree on who God really is, but they both think that a good life strategy involves a lot of prayer. We may not ever agree on the big metaphysical questions, but we might be able to build rich communities around basic strategies of life on the strategic layer.

The second insight is that we all have stances, combinations of deep commitments, general strategies, and day-to-day tactics for living in the world. Castronova argues that we could be a lot happier, on an individual level, if we thought harder about our stances. Stances can be good or bad, and game design thinking can show us fairly quickly where stances go wrong. Castronova puts forward a number of general game design criteria for judging stances, such as consistency, flexibility, and robustness. He also reviews some of the more common stances that people use today, such as hedonism, orthodoxy, excellence, and mysticism.

Game design can’t tell us whether God exists or not, but it can help us integrate our ideas about such things into better strategies for living day to day. Game design doesn’t tell us what the victory conditions of life are, but it can help us achieve the victory conditions we believe.