Closed games vs Open Games

From The Grasshopper, by Bernard Suits:

When you play a board game, or a game of baseball, you’re playing a closed game. There is a defined end, and a defined set of means to reach it.

When you play pretend, or when you build a career in baseball, you’re playing an open game. The objective is to keep playing, to make it more interesting. While some means are proscribed (don’t deny what the other player added, no steroids), it helps to bring in new people or tools.

Software projects are run as closed games. The objective is to end on time and on budget, using business-approved resources.

Software products are open games. The objective is to keep being useful in a changing world. We can bring in new tools, and new people, and there is no “done.”

When we play open games, we play for the future. Outcomes. We care about the people who come after us. Closed games (such as annual performance goals) lead to crunch time, when all we care about is checking boxes whether it does any real good or not.

Closed games can be zero-sum. You win, I lose. In an open game, for me to win, you have to win too.

Every business is an open game. Life is an open game. Can we keep the closed games to the dining room table and sports, please?

Victory at life

In most (modern) board games, there’s a phase where you build an engine, and a phase where you use that engine to achieve victory. This is not explicit, it’s just that in the first part of the game you choose things that give you more power, while in the last few rounds you maximize victory points. And then you win!

For instance, in San Juan, you win with victory points. The core mechanic is: pay cards to build buildings. Some of the buildings give you lots of victory points, while others give you powers that help you get more cards.

At the start of the game, build only buildings that help you get more cards. Points don’t matter. Near the end of the game, build whatever gets you the most points. Cards are about to be useless. Only points matter.

In life, there are activities that build our engines, that grow ourselves or improve our circumstances. Some other activities are just winning.

Winning is looking at beautiful things, art or the faces of people. Winning is laughing while my children goof around together. It is playing music, dancing all-out, soaking up the sun.

Winning is also taking action to move the larger system, the country or the world, in a better direction. Donating money helps, but if we participate in a campaign, we get to experience the winning.

What gives you victory points at life? Those activities that give you the feeling, “Yeah. This is what we are here for.” For me, looking out a plane window during takeoff. Eating great food. Cuddling with my partner. Playing Beat Saber with great ardor.

We never know when our game will end. Cards will become useless. Victory is never useless, so collect some points every day.

A definition of play, and how to live

In games, we choose an objective that has no intrinsic value. Get points, run out of cards, reach the finish line. We take aim, and restricting our actions with rules, because this leads us to actions that we enjoy. Thinking, interacting with other players, running all-out. We play the game because it’s fun. We try to win because that makes it fun. (Some people get happy if they win. But if you don’t enjoy the play, you won’t keep coming back.)

This is play, because the ends don’t have particular value, but the means of getting there give us satisfaction.

We can take this strategy in life too:

Choose the ends that lead you to the means that get you what you need.

I call it a quest, an unreachable star, this aim that we choose not because we expect to get there (that would be a milestone) but because it leads us in useful directions.

The book Obliquity (amazon) explains it well: there are some things we can’t get by aiming for them, such as profit or happiness. So you choose an end (“build the best airplane”) that leads you to means (engineering, research, investment, production quality) that get you what you need in order to keep going (profit). Choose an end (“build up my community”) that leads you to means (forming relationships, organizing, helping people) that get you what you need (joy).

When the end has some intrinsic value of its own, like the airplane, or the community, or operating useful software — then we call it work.

People say “Do what you love.” This is how to do that: find an objective that matters to others, which also leads you to means that bring satisfaction. Some people find hard physical work satisfying, others mental exertion, others human interaction. It doesn’t need to be your favorite activity; fun does not equal joy.

When both the ends and the means are fulfilling, then work and play align.

Each milestone (produce an engine, get someone to like you, code up a feature) has many routes to reach it. If you aim for the quickest route, you might end up messing up your quest (the fastest code is harder to operate) or worse, missing out on what you need (long-term profit is down, the community is poisoned, the work is unsatisfying). How do we restrict our means to the ones that take us toward our quest, not just our milestone? and also give us what we need to keep going?

In games, we use rules. In life, we use values.