Playing Games to Leave Games

Sam is a 2014 blogging resident visiting us from his home blog at Moore’s Hand.

When I was a kid I played a lot of chess. On Saturdays my mom and I would get up early and drive an hour to a high school somewhere around Michigan. She would bring a box of old New York Times and read as I played five rounds of chess against other 6-, 7-, and 8-year-olds.

The games were typically G/30 or G/45, which means each player had 30 or 45 minutes to make all their moves. If you finished your game early you would have to wait for all the other games to finish and the organizers to calculate the rankings and matchups for the next round.  That process would usually take about an hour, which doesn’t seem like a long time now but of course did at the time.


Me at 9 after winning the MI state championship

For the four or five years I was into chess, I was into chess. My favorite movie was Searching For Bobby Fischer, the story of child chess prodigy Josh Waitzkin as he discovers the game, falls in love with it, and goes on to win (several) US Junior Chess Championships.

Skip ahead to one evening, ten years later. It’s 2007, and I’m a sophomore at Stanford, working for the college paper. The editor-in-chief hands me a pre-publication book, written by Josh Waitzkin. He’ll be speaking on campus next month. Want to cover it? I about jump out of my chair at the chance to meet my childhood idol.

An obsession with technique

Waitzkin’s book, The Art of Learning, turns out to be a sequel of sorts to Searching for Bobby Fischer. It’s the story how Waitzkin, at age 20, burned out of chess and, eventually, found his way to martial arts. I devour the book, of course. After the event finishes I walk with him for an hour around campus, doing some combination of hagiography and interview, before he leaves to track down an old buddy who just started a job at Stanford.

What I found fascinating in the book and in our discussions is Waitzkin’s obsessive focus on improving technique.

To Waitzkin, technique can be decomposed, through reviewing past games or watching video of tournaments and practices. Spurred by instinct, it can be broken down to its smallest constituents and then reconstructed, as he does repeatedly with his sparring partners:

When I went home and watched the video, I studied each of these moments frame by frame to see what happened. Sometimes I would see myself triggering into a throw just as Dan’s blink began; maybe my footwork would fall into rhythm with his in a manner that opened up a tiny gap of momentum to ride, or I might catch him at the beginning of an exhalation.

There were many moments like this, each of which I studied until I understood. We would then convert what had been creative inspiration into something we understood technically. (p.230)

The ‘art of learning,” Waitzkin argues, starts here — with this deep understanding of technique. The next steps of his program are the willingness to give up old habits, and the sheer physical and pain endurance to practice until new techniques become habit.


The two faces of Josh Waitzkin

Waitzkin illustrates this with examples from both chess and tai chi chuan. But the difference in form between these domains obscures a larger point: these techniques are honed for the world of competitive sports.

Here’s another way to make the same point, from the tech world: where has first-person video caught on?

Google Glass started out with the coolness factor of its parent company, but has flopped. MOOCs haven’t lived up their 2012 hype. Sure, they’ve grabbed some low-hanging fruit, but Andrew Ng of Coursera has moved on, and Sebastian Thrun is turning Udacity into yet another corporate training company. Twitch, on the other hand, hit a nerve within the gaming community, and was recently acquired for $1B by Amazon.

Let’s rephrase that: a site for watching other people play video games is worth a cool billion and handles the fourth-most amount of traffic on the Internet.

As your local Counterstrike or League of Legends ninja will tell you, gaming is all about technique. Watch them, or browse through technique instructionals on, say, World of Warcraft.

The anatomy of games

After I was done chatting with Waitzkin, he went to hang out with his old buddy, whose new job was as the school’s head football coach — Jim Harbaugh.

Harbaugh spent ten years quarterbacking in the NFL for the Colts and Bears, before retiring and turning to coaching.  He and Waitzkin had met through an institute advocating this technique-driven approach to performance. Harbaugh is quoted a couple of times in Waitzkin’s book, commenting on specific counterproductive patterns he’d noticed in himself, and how he’d adjusted his behavior.

Though retired players like Harbaugh frequently try the coaching transition, it’s rarely successful — in fact, the successful-athlete-turned-failed-coach is almost a cliche.

In 2007, Harbaugh had just arrived in town, having racked up a decent record at a Division I-AA school, to take over a 1-11 team that was the laughingstock of the (then-) Pac-10.


The two faces of Jim Harbaugh

A couple weeks after Waitzkin’s visit, Harbaugh’s Stanford team pulled off the biggest known statistical upset in the history of college football, beating then-#2 USC as a 41-point underdog.

A couple years after that, Harbaugh coached Stanford to an 11-1 record and a #4 BCS finish. He was promptly snapped up by the San Francisco 49ers, who have since gone to one Super Bowl and two NFC division championships.

These kind of second-act successes — both Waitzkin and Harbaugh — tend to indicate excellence in a broader domain encompassing both fields of expertise.

We can call this domain competitive game-playing, or competitive sports. (And for simplicity, I’ll just use the word ‘games’ hereafter.)

Game-like environments tend to share the following characteristics:

    • A few, all-important, game periods. The vast majority of time is spent preparing for the big day.
    • Static ruleset and domain. Proposed rules changes, even small ones, provoke huge debate. Playing basketball one season and baseball the next prevents success.
    • Highly structured practices; focused on skill development. Often these are organized by common situations in competition, with drills created to train for each subplot.
    • Videotaped competition, allowing for the aforementioned technique retrospective.
    • Extremely quantified success — starting with the overall team win/loss statistics to five to ten statistics for each individual player. The greater the quantifiability of results, the fiercer the competition.
    • (Generally) zero-sum. If I win, you lose, and vice versa.
    • On-the-field / off-the-field distinctions are often invoked around questionable behavior
    • Time flows in season/off-season cycles.

The dangers of game-obliviousness

These common elements are, in themselves, interesting — ‘gamers’ and ‘sports fans’ conjure up two completely different demographics. Yet a League of Legends champion and a career NFL linebacker share a common environment that cuts across these categories.

The effect of seeing the world through the lens of games is perhaps a topic of another post. It’s fairly common in certain heavily competitive professions, of course: professional investing, sales, the military. The lens of games has been used at a very high, abstract level in the ‘finite and infinite games’ Carse describes; and it’s been used in a very low level in the ‘Games People Play’ described in transactional analysis.

But something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently is the converse — how non-game-like environments seem to spread obliviousness to games.

Consider software engineering. Talk of technique is common, but structured practice or drills are unheard of. Work importance is relatively constant over time, rather than centered around a few gamedays. There’s no real accepted skill hierarchy; attempts at even constructing one are rare.

Engineers are renowned for failure to recognize the important game situations in their midst.

Patrick McKenzie has made a living out of teaching engineers to play the SaaS pricing game. Steve Blank has done the same for the customer development / sales cycle game. Engineers-turned-startup-CEO are often blind to game dynamics in the corporate budgeting process. A large part of tech’s diversity problem is because engineer interviewers aren’t sufficiently attuned to the game dynamics of the hiring process.

Another, extremely common, example involves your stereotypical long-married couple.

When first getting to know each other, Alice and Bob’s courtship involved short amounts of time together, bookended by exhaustive date planning beforehand and excited recounting to friends afterwards. This preparation and deconstruction compressed large amounts of meaning into relatively short time periods, along the way generating lots of warm fuzzies.

Nowadays, Alice and Bob spend far more time together, but mostly in a well-worn routine. They jointly perform perennial tasks: keeping the house clean, making and eating food, perhaps spending time with the kids. Dates are infrequent and seem mostly to involve Netflix and pizza delivery. Each wonders why the relationship seems to be getting stale. Among other reasons, they’ve neglected the (positive-sum) competitive game dynamics that enlivened their courtship.

Playing games to leave games

The preceding examples hint at a succinct summary of the relationship of competitive games to life:

Games often serve as the cheap trick in a Double Freytag narrative.

A meta-narrative-framework for games

Venkatesh explores the Double Freytag in Tempo; it is a meta-narrative, an arc most narratives follow.

We start some journey after a ‘cheap trick’ that brings initial success; settle into a routine through a valley far longer and harder than it is often portrayed; and go through a high-intensity, last-minute push as liftoff — the event giving meaning to the whole narrative — approaches.

How might games might serve as the ‘cheap trick’ in a narrative?

  • The game of job interviews and salary negotiation is followed by the slog of working day-to-day
  • The game of college admissions is followed by the valley of doing well in school (or ‘taking advantage of the college experience,’ or whatever)
  • The game of initial courtship is followed by the long journey of a relationship.(Reese Witherspoon’s ‘bend-and-snap’ routine makes this point hilariously if satirically)
  • The game of raising venture funding is followed by the long slog (valley) of building a company. This often repeats several times before the separation event: acquisition/IPO/shutdown
  • The game of enterprise sales is followed by the slog of account management.

In one of Waitzkin’s most moving passages, he notes that a chess beginner learns piece values in order to calculate the merit of a potential exchange; a chess expert intuitively knows the piece values in any potential exchange, so he can step back and analyze the position on a deeper level. Numbers to leave numbers, Waitzkin calls this; form to leave form.

In our narratives, we leave the cheap trick behind to press towards a separation event. We play games to leave games.

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About Sam Bhagwat

Sam Bhagwat is an economist/data scientist by training. His ribbonfarm posts explore complex economic systems. Follow him on Twitter.


  1. runge made a similar point to goethe:

    the challenge—that long, hard valley—is in voluntarily abandoning the structure and apparent competence of the learning stage. i guess you could also be forced to do it.