Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
Are you playing to play, or playing to win? (commoncog.com)
128 points by impostervt on Sept 21, 2021 | hide | past | favorite | 73 comments

> make sure you’re playing the real game, not some more complicated game you’ve made up for yourself

Life is full of games, an infinite number really. They're all made up. Most of them have some kind of value. There is no single "real" game in my mind.

People just get that idea because they ran into a game called Money or a game called Status or whatever it may be that seems all encompassing.

Playing for the sake of play is often how you mine games for strategies that are useful for winning later. These strategies are hard to find if you don't have a commitment to goofing around.

I'm learning how to play the piano and I think I've experienced both sides of this philosophy:

Side A) I took a piece of music that I really liked and I wrote out every single note on the sheet music, made countless notes about what to do and where, all to reduce the problem down to practice and memorization. And within 2 weeks of owning a piano I'm almost in tears at how beautiful I can make the instrument sound every night. This is the "remember why you're playing" part.

Side B) Almost everything about how I approached Side A did NOT help me with learning the next piece. I still didn't have any practice with reading music. So I had to go back to the start and "do it properly". This is the "mine the game for useful strategies to win later".

The conclusion I came to is that BOTH are important. A showed me that it's not magic, and I can do it. B equipped me with the tools to get good. And I think you need to balance doing both: you want to get better at a good rate, but you don't want to become miserable because you're "losing" all the time.

I think I could apply this to lots of things: Just make your website or application even if the code is a nightmare. Build that garage cabinet even if you waste lumber and screw up the joinery. Get yourself excited. Teach yourself that you can do it. Give yourself the motivation and fuel to go back to Side B and learn all the secrets of your craft.

P.S. I'm sure you didn't mean it this way, but for the overwhelming majority of people on this planet, money is NOT a game because eating and housing is not a game.

This maps to how I've learned a lot of things. The first time I learned how to make a webapp I did it with cgi-bin and bash or something even though even at that time there were much better ways of doing it. Being able to see the whole thing working end to end was really valuable for my mental models even if I had to sub out most parts of the model as I learned more.

As an aside, I doubt this has any direct practical application to piano but one of my favorite posts on the internet is about learning piano in an unusual way (applies to learning generally):


Ha! Are you me? I'm also learning to play the piano for the last 2 years. I play almost the easiest pieces of J.S.B like minuets or simpler arias and sarabande. Just like you, I printed the sheets out and annotate the heck out of it: notes, fingering. And just like you, every new piece is a relearn from scratch!. I think I can live with it. I am happy with what I could do now. It's better than the Synthesis (Guitar Hero of pianos) where I didn't know the notes at all.

I'm forcing myself to read sheet now and it could be taking longer since I am not practicing hours a day. I find myself often phrase (F-A-C-E or All-Good-Boys-Deserved-Fudge).

Overall, learning this new hobby is a changing my life. I just discovered the entire new universe of language that has been used for hundreds of years. The down side now is that it is pretty depressing to listen to any of the current pop culture music again.

One thing that’s helping me a lot is spending five minutes many times a day with a $2 app called Piano Tutor.

It’s a game simply presents a note on a staff and you need to press the right key.

About an hour of it so far and I’m way way faster at reading music.

> There is no single "real" game in my mind.

This article is about different, individual games, and characterizes styles of play that are reflected across them. It isn't claiming that there is only one game.

I think it's implicit in the article that "winning" the game of Business means making as much money as possible. The author briefly contemplates whether having empathy for your customers would make them a scrub, but then veers off into a tangent about maestros.

GP is saying that there's not really a game of Business with a singular agreed-upon win condition. John Malone's strategy was maximizing his company's dominance, but it doesn't mean that anyone who doesn't is a scrub. They're just playing a different game.

According to the article, Martine Rothblatt built a highly successful business in United Therapeutics and saved her daughter's life. Consider alternate realities in which only one of those events happened. Which do you think she would choose?

A game or competition like judo has a clear set of rules and outcome.

With regards to business there is so much more than short term benefit. For example, these cable companies monopolies had low customer satisfaction, and I believe firmly it damages their reputation on the long term. But short term thinking doesn't care for that. So it becomes a kind of game like who's the best functioning psychopath. Good luck playing that game if you're not a psychopath (there's a reason these are highly represented in e.g. Wall Street).

In my opinion the CEO of Qwest won. He stood for a principle, he decided with his heart. That's a winning move in a tough, heartless world. A noble sacrifice, like Obi Wan.

Life is a self-graded test.

Until you get married.

This article made me remember some Sumo shenanigans.

Basically Sumo everyone is very heavy because there is no weight class system, when a guy became Yokozuna while NOT being fat, others complained, and the organization had to point out to the bothers that there are no rules saying you must be heavy... so if you can win while being light, that is not an issue.

Other one is a Yokozuna that got infamous for winning a lot by doing cheap moves, he looked more like he was fighting Muay Thai than sumo, often winning by elboing opponents or dodging and letting them fall on their own. Since Yokozuna not only is a title but a job with specific requeriments (Yokozuna are people with the job of showing off sumo in public appearances when the Emperor of Japan is present), the guy got a warning that if he kept winning his fights with this boring style (because his fights often would last 3 seconds or so...) he would get punished.

Do you have names for these folks?

I’m guessing Chiyonofuji (popularized sumo in the 80s) and Hakuho (current Yokozuna and most yusho of all time)… two of the greatest Yokozuna of all time.

If so, calling these “shenanigans” is overstating the issue. That said, it’s an interesting comparison.

Not all games are competitive. Sometimes you just achieve what you really are wanting by just playing, having fun, learning something, filling time, reaching a goal that is not maximizing anything, etc.

Even in some competitive ones, you may not want to do what implies winning over all other rivals, they may have a big advantage over you because genetics, money, time, culture or so on, but over yourself. Faster, Stronger and Highest over what you previously did is a mindful way to play some games.

This article isn't about those games, it's about how people make a living. Don't get hung up on the word "game;" wars are games.

I used to play video games with a friend of mine, particularly Red Alert (2?). He played every time with some BS rush or mass unit tactic while I would construct an elaborate base and have balanced fighting forces that looked cool. He won just about every match, and would delight in my rage quitting after a hoard of attack dogs or flying saucers would destroy my beautiful base. I remember being so frustrated that ‘he wasn’t playing fair’ or ‘correctly.’ I pursued varied interests in life, have bounced around careers and academia looking for meaning or virtue or something while he graduated with a C average and worked in an ‘easy’ field (according to my misplaced sense of superiority, that is). He climbed the ladder at some consulting firm (again, ladder climbing being something I express disdain for, rightly or wrongly) and is now quite well off, definitely makes more money than I do and has a much larger house and fancy cars, etc. He had and has a knack for winning over aesthetics or side-games, while I seem to only see the latter. Self-imposed morality or ethics especially. I like who I am, and I’m comfortable with my life choices, but there are definitely times I wish I was more like him.

I ran into this with Red Alert as well- I mostly played single-player, and I didn't play the "optimal" way. I would design a nice-looking base, and try to design a mix of units that seemed fun. The few times I played against other players, I would get destroyed. There are other games that I've played more competitively, and it can be fun too, but realising what my goal is (fun single-player experience v. competition v. enjoying time with friends, etc.) helps me play that game better.

This style of RTS play is often called "Sim Base".

I play to play in a sense for a different reason: I didn't get to choose to be here (as far as I can tell) and what is winning anyway?

Winning is achieving your goals. Maybe your goal isn't money, or to dominate a market or whatever. So to me, winning is setting your own goal and then trying to achieve that. In a game with no clear rules, as most games in life are, letting everyone else set your goals for you is deciding to lose from the outset, no matter how much better you are at their game, you're losing your game.

This is basically the Sirlin article (https://www.sirlin.net/articles/playing-to-win) applied to sports and business.

It applies to product development too. Obsessing over "doing the things the right way", "using the right tools", "100% test coverage" is not enough to create a winning product. It is very easy for engineering teams to get caught up in those intermediate goals rather than the actual goal. I'd say it's one of the most common reasons technical founders fail.

Then you have hackers like Pieter Levels making millions/year with a single gigantic PHP file on a single server.

I wrote a bit about this and my startup journey here: https://medium.com/@scott.stevenson/how-to-finally-make-some...

Interesting that in video gaming, there's a derogatory term for people who eschew the "cheap" moves, whereas in tennis, the derogatory term ("pusher") refers to the players who embrace the "cheap" moves. Pushers are players who run down every ball and hit moonballs and lobs until their opponent gets frustrated and makes an error. There are two reasons, I think, that many tennis players look down on pushers: firstly, because they're no fun to play, and secondly, because they seem to value winning at any cost over refining mastery of the fundamentals. We (non-pushers) tend to think that we have a higher "ceiling" than pushers, even if they are beating us. So maybe it's just a culture difference between tennis players and video game players on what they choose to value. (Of course, there are plenty of tennis players who will acknowledge the tactical soundness and game smarts of pushers too).

I think Sirlin's definition of a "scrub" is interesting, and certainly useful (in that it describes a type of player that exists), but I wouldn't read too much culturally into that definition.

It might have something resembling that meaning in the Street Fighter community (though, as far as I know, it's still way more general than described in this article), but, for video games in general, it is mostly used to mean "just a bad player."

I guess it could also refer to hanging out the passenger side of your best friends ride

Cheesers are not looked on well in gaming either. Just doing cheap moves over and over will net you a few easy wins but quickly get you to a level where everyone knows how to counter cheese.

Scrubs aren't people who don't do cheap moves, scrubs are those who refuse to learn how to beat cheap moves and try to get others to stop doing them. In fact scrubs often do cheap moves and will get angry at you if you perform the counter to his cheap move, calling your counter cheap and instead wanting you to fall for his cheap move. That isn't fun for anyone.

Sounds like cheeser is a pretty good equivalent to pusher, although it does actually take a pretty high skill level to beat a good pusher in tennis. In that sense they're a good test of your level.

Sounds like scrubs are just complainers. A friend of mine who played soccer told me that the least fun teams to play against were those who would just immediately start complaining to the ref about everything.

There are a lot of gaming terms. I play a lot of fighting games like street fighter and I think the comparable term to "pusher" would be "masher", as in you're mashing the buttons.

Typically used as an insult by someone that just lost to another player that didn't play the way "they should have played".

It seems a "pusher" would only get so far with that approach, and their approach isn't compatible with getting to higher tiers of the game. The pusher uses a greedy algorithm to get to a local maximum.

That's true, that's why I say pushers have a lower ceiling. But it takes an awful lot of time, practice, skill and conditioning to get to higher tiers of the game, so even modestly skilled pushers can beat up on a lot of people.

The “pusher” is reminiscent of hungrybox’s jigglypuff in the melee scene and the widespread distaste in the playstyle among other players

> Preferably, you wanted to win with strategies that were technically sophisticated and elegant and difficult to do.

You see this a lot in competitive fencing once people start getting ratings, but aren't really yet top end. They do technically difficult stuff, and it works at that level.

Then when you get past that, it goes back to being nearly 100% just footwork. The fancy bladework mostly disappears (except for the occasional kerfuffle in a point once in awhile). No elaborate parries. Disengages almost entirely disappear too. Just footwork.

We're going to ignore the brief period of insanity a couple decades back in foil during the dark times of The Flick

if you ever wake up and find yourself idolizing a sleazy cable company executive in the service of justifying some of your own aggressive and quasi-ethical behaviors in business to yourself, then there's no point in playing anything anymore, you've already lost the most important game you will ever play.

I think we need to stop blaming the failures of systems on lone psychopaths. There is a neverending supply of psychopaths. The problem is building and retaining systems that reward destructive behavior.

"Admiration" might go too far, but there's got to be a word for admiring ability aside from its consequence.

edit: I'm constantly annoyed by the way that we somehow blamed the Theranos debacle, something in which a thousand people were involved with and profited from, on one strange woman who was a teenager at its inception. There's an endless supply of strange teenagers. You can either destroy all of them as a prophylactic or figure out what's wrong with the system that enables one to assemble a multi-billion dollar fraud if you want to prevent the same from happening in the future.

Or you can pretend that something is solved after you punish the teenager, and remain surrounded in fraud.

"don't hate the playa, hate the game"? nah. playing dirty is a form of cheating.

how about "don't idolize or admire people who play dirty or aspire to and try to drag everything into the muck in order to justify or cover up their own dirty play"?

>playing dirty is a form of cheating. this is the scrub mentality that the article talks about

cheaters only cheat because they know they're too mediocre to ever succeed legitimately.

it's kinda like "i thought i was so bad at everything that the only way i thought i could succeed was to repackage nicotine with candy flavors and sell it to children"

I maintain that doing some things the weird way that makes no sense is often a lot more fun and rewarding than doing it the "correct" way to get the popular result.

For example, there is one player of Lord of the Rings Online who baked pies to reach level cap. That's it. No combat. No quests. Just pies. Many, many pies. They had a blast in the process.

Some people see building an innovative, ground-breaking product, making a billion dollars, and selling at the perfect time as winning. Meanwhile, I'm over here doing work that's been done before a million times, solving problems that are pretty mundane by comparison, and I'm enjoying myself.

I don't need or want to "win." The game I'm playing has rules that I wrote - and continue to change.


The most beautiful games are where in the top skill echelon, people who play to play can beat the players who would stop at nothing to win.

This is an important idea in game design, even for games that aren't explicitly competitive.

What players enjoy doing (i.e. playing to play) should (mostly) converge with what players do to optimize for some goal (i.e. playing to win).

For DotA 2, Wings Gaming at the 2016 International is often highlighted as a favorite team, because they not only won, they did it in their own way, with style and flair.

I especially liked one of the qualifiers where one of the pro team did a pacifist strategy where they actively avoided killing any enemy heroes and pushed to win the game in 20 min

And then there's Tim Ferris - Chinese National Kickboxing Champion: https://www.martialdevelopment.com/how-to-win-kickboxing-wro...

The Ferris Strategy:

1. Dehydrate yourself severely just before weigh-in to determine weight class so you weigh in a class below where you should be.

2. Rehydrate before the match and just push your opponent out of the ring.

In some circles, this is known as "cheating."

That's every competitor I've ever heard of in every event with weightclasses (where more weight is an advantage. Jockies try to rapidly lose weight.)

I’d rather play the game I enjoy than win. I’m not that interested in winning, people don’t really like it if you’re beating them all the time. It’s more important to have friends than dominate at a hobby, having better relationships will lead to greater happiness, is that not the real game? I’m more interested in the aesthetics and flow of movements in games and the satisfaction that brings, I’ll never be the best, and I think endeavouring to always be better would just leave me with a sense of inadequacy. A focus on beauty and the ethics of a game will bring more joy to the world. Aligning with things where you enjoy the process will output success as a by-product as you’ll be practicing more than others as it won’t feel like work. I’m not really sure what the point of being the best is, to satisfy feelings of insecurity maybe.

I am amazed that this got downvoted.

this article reminds me of the soccer players who fake injuries just so the clock runs out while ahead (although extra time is added, usually not enough). This is very apparent when looking at Spain or Italy, not so much (in) other countries. And, it's worth it. Yes, they are hated much more, but they win more, too. And that's what counts (for them).

Still happy that my teams don't do this (as much). Wish the rules would be changed (only count time when the ball is in play, that's the only rule change needed. Very simple.).

And that is why I rarely watch FIFA games these days. Punishment for this behavior should be way more strict, it's ruining the sport.

Neymar certainly didn't invent it, nor is he the only one, but he's infamous for these shenanigans. Can't wait for him to retire.

Curiously, women's soccer has less of this behavior, making for a better show of sportsmanship.

Reminds me of "Remember, the enemy's gate is down" from Ender's Game.

It's interesting when it's applicable... but I think it's rare. Yes, you can sometimes find hidden opportunities to compete on a different axis than the establishment, but more often time and competition have hardened whatever problem you're looking at against these kinds of side vectors.

The problem is that this article is true.

I see people make ethical companies, and they fail and other exploiting every single thing laws, workers, customers, to the extreme and succeed.

There has to be more than just playing to win. And it's not a scrub thing to look at the slackers and say that while they won, is that a good thing? So many dead, so much destruction of lives, all so one family can reel in the cash.

The best values companies seem to be those that throw out some morality in favor of market advantages. So I guess I see why they are winning, I just don't like it.

This reminds me of "cheesing" in online games, where someone figures out some minor game imbalance that's cheap and easy to do and exploits it. No hacking or cheating, just playing the game as-it-is rather than as-it's-intended. Examples are camping in FPS shooter games, spamming hard-to-block moves in fighting games and Zergrush-like strategies in RTS games. People will say it's cheesy and a dishonorable way to win, but then again, you're winning--all completely within the rules and parameters set out by the game. The people crying "cheese" are playing a different, constrained and harder game, self-imposed out of some sense of purity or honor, and are upset that they're not winning.

Maybe they are not upset about not winning, but that a fun to play game is now no fun at all? If there is an imbalance/glitch which renders most of the game depth obsolete I'm not leaving because I'm salty, I'm going to have actual fun elsewhere instead.

The people playing to win are constraining themselves much more. It's especially apparent in video games. Games like Warframe have hundreds of weapons and then the devs release something like Kuva Bramma that kills everything in around you without even looking at what you shoot vs the melee players running at enemies to stab them. Everyone then carries that weapon and it gets boring really quickly. Doing elite sanctuary with a Saryn in your group means that everyone else gets to be afk while you level up weapons that you never intend to use.

> and it gets boring really quickly

Those who use that particular weapon might "need" a win more than those who don't.

Maybe they had a really bad day at work etc.

The will to have balanced games is only there when the players love the flavor of winning by the skin of their teeth and want to experience that feeling again and again

I suppose it's the correct term but "playing Judo" sounds so weird to me.

I have always heard "judo practitioner" and not "judo player" but I suppose "practicing judo" makes it sound like it's not competitive.

Yes, Judo is a game and it is played.

I love the Lesley koan at the start of this, but then the rest completely loses me.

As a player of Ultimate myself, I take this somewhat personally. I know people who love spending a lot of time trying to force strategies and learn codes for communication, but in the end it really just depends on what your goals as a group are. Are you practicing or are you playing. Practice only really pays off later, while playing is that juicy instant gratification. Same concepts holds for learning an instrument, or any skill really.

I'll just leave another quote here on the subject: "Work hard, Play hard".

Man this hit close to home. I'm sorta-kinda trying to get good at StarCraft (aiming for like 20-30 games a week). I strongly prefer macro/econ strategies and it makes me really upset when people cheese me. I was aware for a long time that this made me a sweaty tryhard and that I would win more if I played 'dirtier', but I just can't change it.

Most of these low level cheese accounts are people just running the same cheap strategy on an alt. They do the same thing every game and just quit out the second it shows signs of failing. I don't understand how winning in a video game can be so important to you that you spend dozens of hours doing exactly the same basic strategy over and over again, especially in a beautifully complex game like SC. That wouldn't be fun for me. But, losing to them every so often when I miss the probe or forget to scout or something is embarrassingly infuriating.

I am trying to practice some slightly less highbrow timing attacks / proxy builds. But man, the true cheesers are fucking annoying.

If you play to win it can stop being a game really fast. And if you let life become serious it can stop really fast too.

Makes me happy to see the classic Sirlin article applied to business.

The Sirlin article, for the curious: https://www.sirlin.net/articles/playing-to-win

The question I'd have is, what are tools you can use to catch yourself scrub thinking? Coaching, certainly. If I'm angry or disappointed about a person, that's a useful tell of scrub thinking I'd suspect.

The question of where non-scrub thinking diverges from ethics seemed left unanswered. I think scrubs believe there exists a "just sociopathic enough," personality type who outperforms us, and we comfort ourselves in our mediocrity by moralizing against them, where non-scrubs recognize other non-scrubs and make the evaluation of whether they are more dangerous or not, and that's about it. The immoderate side of the non-scrub spectrum becomes the banal nihilism of perfidious frauds, yet, to even have words for that is itself, a scrub perspective. Wondering how to pop out of a scrubbist view.

The opposite of a "scrub" is a "try-hard", also a derogatory term. Winning at all costs in one thing leads to losing in others.

Not everything in life has to be about maximizing growth, 'wins' or profit.

If I enjoy playing a video game a certain way, instead of 'cheesing' it, I'll do so. If I wish to run a 'lifestyle' business, I'll do so. I'm not sacrificing my enjoyment of something on the altar of capitalism.

Scrubs may be playing to play, and competitors may be playing to win, but only griefers are setting their own terms.

I'm not even playing. I'm straight up losing and getting heckled by the drunks on the sidelines.

> Scrubs are likely to label a wide variety of moves and tactics as "cheap." For example, performing a throw in fighting games is often called cheap. A throw is a move that grabs an opponent and damages them even while they're defending against all other kinds of attacks. Throws exist specifically to allow you to damage opponents who block and don't attack.

>As far as the game is concerned, throwing is an integral part of the design—it's meant to be there—yet scrubs construct their own set of principles that state they should be totally impervious to all attacks while blocking. Scrubs think of blocking as a kind of magic shield which will protect them indefinitely. Throwing violates the rules in their heads even though it doesn't violate any actual game rule (emphasis added).

>(…) Complaining that you don't want to do X in a game because "it doesn't take skill" is a common scrub complaint. The concept of "skill" is yet another excuse to add fictional rules and avoid making the best moves. Curiously, scrubs often talk about how they have skill whereas other players—very much including the ones who beat them flat out—do not have skill. This might be some sort of ego defense mechanism where people define "skill" as whatever subset of the game they're good at and then elevate that above actually trying to win.

>For example, in Street Fighter scrubs often cling to combos as a measure of skill. A combo is sequence of moves that are unblockable if the first move hits. Combos can be very elaborate and very difficult to pull off. A scrub might be very good at performing difficult combos, but not good at actually winning. They lost to someone with "no skill."

Many HN critics of go are scrubs! The complaints aren’t grounded in reality (writing a useful program on a team) but in beauty (elegant complicated algorithms and programming design, category theory).

Can this be applied to programming and software engineering?

Are there scrubs who are putting self handicaps on themselves by optimising too early, refactoring too much, and reinventing methods that already exist?

The real solution is to change the rules of the games so that the cheap strategies don't pay. Both in games and business.

Although I agree that playing the meta game is important, I do still think that playing the meta game ~exclusively~ in certain contexts is just flat out corruption. Especially in business, politics.

With video games and sports, there is less at stake - but the example in the article with cable companies shows how, if all business played the meta game, every customer would have miserable service in that case.

In sports or video games, I can give examples of how it's annoying, and ruins the whole point of the game too:

1. Tennis: If a tennis player takes long bathroom breaks when they sense their opponent is ahead (so that their opponent cools down, looses momentum and also gets frustrated), and also texts their coach to get advice while in there - knowing that nobody can confirm this.

This has nothing to do with the skill of the game. It annoys the crowd, it reduces opponent's in-game advantage, and potentially increases their strategic advantage illegitimately.

They aren't breaking the rules, but is that tennis? I don't think so

2. Mortal Kombat: Back when I used to play against my brother, I would use a "cheap" move that when done in succession, it was almost impossible to defend against.

My brother would get upset, but I would keep using it until he stopped playing.

In this case, fine - the game is implemented this way so you can't argue against it. But in retrospect, this is just the game's poor design coming through, since the outcome is that the game is not entertaining to watch, doesn't require any skill (so it isn't fun for me), and is frustrating to the opponent, and hence not fun for anyone.

3. Diablo 2 I have a friend who, in university, was playing Diablo 2 in a lab. He found a cheat online that would allow him to farm XP (or gold or something - not familiar with the game). It was completely automated!

He was playing the meta game very well - he completely automated increasing the stats, but he wasn't playing at all. To this day, I have no idea why he did that :P

So I guess in conclusion - the rules of any cooperative game are designed to get some sort of outcome before receiving a reward. If the outcome can be circumvented, but you still get the reward, then the rules of the game are not well defined.

In terms of business and finance, playing the meta game too hard will corrupt the outcome.

However, since there will always be someone who exploits the lack of definition to the rules in specific cases, everyone needs to break the rules to compete. The only solution is perfectly defined rules - which don't seem to exist when the games are more complex.

So moot point lol

I'm pretty sure I'm not playing the actual game.

I already won + playing means winning

Try intraday stock/futures/forex trading... it will quickly break the "scrub" mentality the author talks about. You either play to win, or you run out of money and can't play anymore.

Guidelines | FAQ | Lists | API | Security | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact