95. Eight thoughts on gaming the system

I wanted to write about gaming.

First, because gaming interests me. Second, because I’ve recently slipped below the top 50, which means I’ve lost the nice “Top Writer, Gaming” badge on my profile. How fickle is human motivation.

That left the obvious question. What to write?

I figured that I’d write about a different kind of “gaming”. Gaming the system. This seemed fitting, since I earlier wrote a post concerning how the new Top Writer badges were motivating, but also how I feared I’d want to attempt to game the system. Now that fear went from thought to reality.

So let’s talk about gaming systems for a moment.

I’m sure there are some nice, juicy textbook defintions out there, but (surprise!) googling “gaming systems” doesn’t exactly lead us anywhere close to where we want to go. Enter the personal definitions.

It’s cheating. Two different things.

I’ve worked with kids for many years. If they find a system they feel is unfair, they’ll try to game it, not change it. Adults are more likely to try to change it – especially those with a high level of agency in their lives. Even more so if they feel they have a chance. Reading about some of the differences between the Soviet Union in the 70's and Denmark in the 70's reveals that a lot of Danes wanted to change the system – and felt they had a shot at it. The Soviets probably wanted change even more, but they felt unable too – instead they did their best to game it.

You can master chess. You can’t game it. Everybody sees all moves being made, and there is very little to discuss. Either you win, you lose or there’s a stalemate. Rules discussions in chess are exceedingly rare, even among beginners. Something like the miniature wargame Warhammer Fantasy Battle? The complete opposite, especially in the old days. But trying to game the system was common.

If you had a friend, who invited you to a party with free alcohol and said “Tell me how many friends you’re bringing”, you don’t bring 50, just because no max was stated. If it’s an online store, where an employee made a mistake and 50" Plasma TVs now cost 12.99 instead of 1299, we’ll just buy that sucker and laugh. A lot of people will even get mad if they’re told “Sorry, sir, it was an error. You can’t buy a TV at 1% of the price, much less the 18 you were trying to.”, even though they full well know it was a human error. If we can exploit it, most of us will do it.

Again, chess. Nobody has seriously tried to change the rules in forever. The aforementioned Warhammer? Tweaking and changes happen all the time. Yes, I know there are other reasons. But people who game the system also show off its flaws. Excellent beta testers, those people.

There are tons of books and videos that will tell you how to game the (incredibly complex) system that is human behavour. We don’t like it when people do that. We don’t like it when you use tactics from Neil Strauss’ The Game, or when you pretend to change your mind on something to make us like you better. It’s not cool.

The exact same behaviours that we don’t like when they feel forced or calculated? We love them when they feel organic and honest. Compliment someone in an unusual way because that’s your style? Great. Do it because you learned it from a book? Bad. Of course, this leaves a huge grey area called “self-development”. Internalize and make you system gaming part of your personality and you’ll do well. Do it without it feeling authentic, and people will dislike you. It’s not just the what. It’s also the how, the why and the who.

A die that has rolled five 6's in a row is neither more nor less likely to roll another 6. Yet there are gamers (the normal kind) that still convince themselves this isn’t true. False causality is lovely. My favorite example is “Bringing a bomb on a plane to feel safe. It’s an old joke my stepfather tells. “The odds of a bomb on a plane are low, right? But the odds of TWO bombs on a plane are much, much lower. So if you want to be safe, bring a bomb on a plane.” Of course statistics don’t work that way, but it’s easy to be fooled into thinking that they do. And misunderstood statistics is a classic reason for trying to game a system.

Now the question remains – will this attempt at gaming the medium system get my back my Top Writer in Gaming badge? ;-)

If you like my writing, and want to free up my time, so write more, you can do exactly that, by supporting me via Patreon.


Director at The College of Extraordinary Experiences, Coach at McKinsey & Founding Partner at The Global Institute For Thought Leadership. Author of 31 books.

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