Life is its own Game

This post was written to offer my thoughts on the points made by Tor Bair in his reading titled “Your Life Is Tetris. Stop Playing It Like Chess.”

1. In life, your only opponent is yourself.
I grew up looking for opponents — people to fight, people to blame, people to prove wrong. I imagined enemies when there were none because fighting was easy. I treated everything like it was zero-sum when there was so much else to gain.
That’s the chess mindset. And it holds you back.

It is here that I want to interject Dr. Richard Bartle’s 4 Player Types, focusing specifically on the Killer and Achiever types. An Achiever is a player who enjoys winning by overcoming challenges (the harder the better) without direct competition with others players. In comparison, a Killer is a player who enjoys competition against other players and actively seeks not only to “win” but to make another player “lose”.

It is true that one should not look for opponents, however to say that chess promotes such a mindset is a little narrow in my opinion as it takes the perspective of a “killer” rather than an “achiever”. Instead I choose to take chess’ opponent based design as a representation of challenge (not against people to defeat but against a state of affairs that could be better). By doing so, I end up not look for people to fight but for problems to solve in the companies I work at. With this interpretation, chess’ opponent based design does not become a mindset for confrontation but for constructive initiative.

2. In life, things don’t get harder — they just get faster.
Some games get harder the longer you play, including chess. Positions get more complicated, opponents become more challenging, the stakes increase. You have a public rating, and thus more to lose when you play the same opponents.
Not Tetris. The game remains the same from Piece One until you run out of space on the screen. The only thing that changes is the speed.
If you played Tetris at the slowest possible speed for the rest of your life, you could possibly never lose. The only enemy would be fatigue. But the algorithm for beating Tetris is not complicated, and you have plenty of time to move the pieces to their optimal locations.
In Tetris, more often than not, we challenge ourselves. We are not content with simply making one row at a time. We push ourselves to get a Tetris — four rows simultaneously. It’s the name of the game. Why bother playing if you don’t go for it?
I treated life like chess for a long time — a series of ever-increasing challenges. I would invent problems where none were required and take on a victim mindset. But life doesn’t actually get harder the longer you play. As we get older, we have more money and more wisdom. Our independence increases. We don’t have to take on new challenges if we don’t wish to. But we seek fulfillment, so we often do.

Unless a person lives there entire life in the same unchanging conditions, a person will encounter greater challenges in life. Each time something changes, adjusting to it is a challenge. This is not only true with external circumstances but with internal circumstances.

Inevitable changes in internal circumstances are exemplified by Erik Erikson’s 8 Stages of Psychological Development which depicts the different internal challenges people encounter throughout their life. As an example, generally between the ages of 13 and 21 (differs by demographic) an individual is likely to be struggling with issues of identity and discovering who they are. However, between the ages of 40 and 65, people generally become more concerned with active engagement in society and generating something that will outlast them (i.e. family, product, process).

With regard to changing external circumstances, increasing challenges often scale with increasing independence. 3 examples are described below.

  1. When a person gets a car have access to more locations (+1 Independence), but the person is responsible for gas and keeping the car in working order (+1 Challenge).
  2. When a person owns and moves into a new residence, that person may put what food they like in it and customize it to their tastes (+1 Independence), but the person is responsible for paying bills on it (+1 Challenge)
  3. When a person has earns income they may spend it to their liking (+1 Independence) but the person is also responsible for paying bills as well as budgeting income with expenses (+1 Challenge)

Life is filled with change and with change comes different/harder/more complicated challenges. Technically it is true that solving these challenges is optional, however choosing not to do so will in many cases lead to a poor, unhappy and unfulfilled life experience. Regardless I believe I have adequately proven that the author’s statement of “…life doesn’t actually get harder the longer you play.” is false.

Even Tetris gets more challenging the longer a person plays because players have less time to act. The problem is that being fast doesn’t help solve every problem. Sometimes it is better to take the time needed to better analyze a situation before acting.

In other words, life gets harder and faster as we get older and a people need to wisely judge whether lessons from Tetris, Chess, or even other experiences are more applicable to current circumstances.

3. In life, you can’t control the board.
As I mentioned earlier, chess is causal. There is a “best move” for any given position. You can force your opponent into a corner. You can see twenty moves into the future, if you’re a supercomputer.
Chess comes with a set of prescriptions and best practices. 1. e4 is considered a strong opening move for white. 1. h3 is not. That’s because chess is a closed system. There’s no random constraints, no dumb luck. The pieces always move the same, and the starting position is always identical.
Tetris? You only know what the next piece is. You play for the present moment, trying to construct the best possible configuration of pieces, knowing that it is impossible to predict the situation even two pieces from now. You don’t get fooled into thinking you can control the future.
I spent much of my life in that chess mindset, trying to find the best possible play or force my way toward a predetermined conclusion. I was hard-wired to see causality all around me and to seek control.
But real life isn’t causal. There is always a distribution of possible events. Things happen that are one in a billion. There is no direct, predictable response to our actions. Our lives are open systems, where any number of unobservable events can change our outlooks and perspectives in moments. Even life’s biggest decisions are hardly calculable — that’s why lots of marriages end in divorce.
Don’t try to guess what pieces are coming when you try to improve your situation. Like Tetris, you can simply put yourself in the best possible position without seeking to completely control the system you play in.

This point examines 2 extreme ends of the predictability spectrum. In Tetris there is no way to predict the next piece you are given. In Chess, one can predict movements and an outcome perfectly. The point of the section above is because Life is not 100% predictable like Chess, it is more like Tetris which has no predictability.

It is true that life is not 100% predictable. However, though it is impossible to know the future, it is possible to anticipate a range of scenarios based on logical reasoning and prepare for them as best you can. This is a key principle of Chess which is demonstrated by flexible positioning and is even used in Tetris when the player keeps a certain column empty in preparation for a 1x4 piece. In short, life is not causal but it is sometimes correlational and I have never known Tetris to be correlational.

4. In life, no one tells you when you’ve won.
In chess, you’ll get to see your opponent tip over his king in resignation. You’ll see the final tournament scores posted. You’ll feel the satisfaction of victory — unless, one day, you don’t.
I remember the day I quit chess. I didn’t get beaten and give up in frustration. In fact, I won a tournament. And afterwards, I felt nothing.
According to the millennia-old rules of chess, there’s only two ways to lose — get checkmated, or resign. The day I quit chess, I came up with another. If I wasn’t learning, if I wasn’t enjoying the struggles or victories, I had already lost.
The decision to quit was liberating, terrifying, and confusing. Why did I feel so free when I had given up one of my first loves? But quitting felt good for the reason that starting to play chess felt right in the first place — it was entirely my choice to do so. And with that decision, my competitive, causal chess mindset began to weaken, and my perspective finally cleared.
Meanwhile, Tetris began to fill my gaming void. I play Tetris every day, and every day I pick up the game knowing that I will lose. How long will I play before I lose? How fast will the pieces go? How much will I score? Those are the metrics the game tracks. But I added a way to win — if I play Tetris every day.

My thoughts on this point have less to do with Tetris vs. Chess and more to do with what it means to win. Therefore, I would first like to explain what I think it means to win. Simply stated I believe that to win is to achieve one’s goal and that whether or not a person’s goal falls in line with the current context can vary based on a number of different reasons.
As an example, say a person’s goal is to have fun. This person plays a game and loses by the game’s rules. If this person still had fun in the game then I would argue that this person still won.

The author appears to agree with me on this point as he states firstly “If I wasn’t learning, if I wasn’t enjoying the struggles or victories, I had already lost.”, and secondly “I added a way to win — if I play Tetris every day”. In other words, there is someone who tells us whether we’ve won or lost in life… ourselves.

One of the things I enjoy most about the game of life is that people can choose for themselves what constitutes a win. Some people choose love while others choose money and the list can go on and on. And if, when you are much older and less active, you are able to look back on your life and honestly say to yourself that you had a good life, then congratulations, you have won the game of life.

In conclusion, people should never be restricted only to goals set by outside entities such as playing a game and believing the only way to win is by doing what the game defines as a win, be it Chess or Tetris.