Game Theory: Life vs Death

Game On!

Care to place a wager?

Care to place a wager?

This is a great game we have; we didn’t even ask to play.  In fact, I don’t remember ever being asked if I even wanted to play.  OK, so we got in for free and now it’s time to play.  The object of the game is to Maximize What We Want and Minimize What We Don’t Want.  Sounds quite “Monopoly” simple, or “The Game of Life ” simple.  I know these are very old games but I’m old.  Maybe it’s more like a game of cards:  “Old Maid” or “You Gotta’ Know When To Hold ‘Em and Know When To Fold ‘Em”.  Still old but I kind of like the latter metaphor.  Who am I kidding?  ALL metaphors are always inadequate and sometimes helpful.  Simply put, Life is Life, and it’s the only game in town, it’s our game and there’s nothing simple about it.

Autonomy and Limits to Autonomy

We all like to think of ourselves as autonomous:  self-governing, functioning independently.  Our American culture prides itself as a country built on fierce independence. Even the newest players of the game find ways to maximize what they want; they make noise until they learn other strategies.  But too soon we’re being dealt the hand that we have to play.  It can be tempting to just fold but there’s no where else to go.  So we keep playing, sometimes going into debt and sometimes winning a jackpot.  And some players leave the table with mounds of chips of winnings.  Life is like this, a little.  Poker players might have more autonomy.  In the Game of Life we have rules that govern much of what we do and don’t do, and we are definitely dependent on others for … pretty much everything.  “Wait!”, you say. “I make my own decisions”.  Tell that to the 14-week pregnant woman who was declared brain dead, and put on a ventilator to keep the gestating baby alive, contrary to the instructions of her husband and family (Liz Szabo USA Today 1/10/14).  We do not function in vacuums, our independence is limited, and we do depend on others.  Back to the Game Theory.  With all these rules, and being dealt new cards all the time,  what’s a good strategy for maximizing what we want and minimizing what we don’t want?  I’ve heard it said that to be an expert, in just about anything,  one has to practice like ga-zillion times.  Applied to the Game of Life that sounds like an origin of the concept of Reincarnation – keep coming back to practice the game.

The Default Option

Within the sub-game of Navigating Through Living and Dying Decisions we find on any  number of poorly marked paths that the Default Option is to Preserve Life.  A noble sounding option.  For all the progress of end-of-life care, we don’t make it easy to die in this country, which is not necessarily a bad thing.  However, instead of seeing this as a dynamic tension between preserving life and letting it go, we have become polarized, somewhat frigidly stuck with the default option.  Sudden deaths aside, how do we bring more balance to the tension between preserving life and letting it go, how do we Navigate?  We practice.  We learn how to navigate through difficult times and still maximize what we want and minimize what we don’t want, and then we practice it.   When we wanted to walk and no longer wanted to be stuck where someone put us, we watched, learned the gist of it, and practiced.  Same thing for talking and learning how to communicate and learning how to get along with people, and whatever it is we want to maximize and minimize in our lives.  When asked, most people say that Happiness in life is most important; they want to maximize happiness.  Yet, we continue to do things that hinder us.  The ‘Masters’ tell us that if we can skillfully look at ourselves objectively, then we’ve done 50% of the work of living a good life.   This is the most important.  We do it when we’re trying to learn anything. We look back, and reflect on our last performance, or move, and we see how we did.

When Chess Was My Game

I still have the Chess set.  There were a few years when we played a LOT of chess.  There were about 8 or 10 of us and we would have chess games going on for days. Not that any ONE game lasted that long, but many games.  Vern and I even played in our shared Lab Instructor office which is where Ernie asked us to teach him how to play. We benevolently acquiesced and Ernie went on to win the State Amateur Championship the next year.  I, on the other hand, had a few good Opening moves and was always surprised when my opponent took my Queen.  My progress was hap-hazard but I would always do my best.  And, I never learned how to play a good End Game because chess isn’t that important to me.  But I am in the Game of Life and I want to be ready for THIS End Game.

Game Over


I came in with nothing, and I’m going out with nothing.  Is that all there is?  Did someone win?  How did I do?

Strategy For A Game Well Played

  1. 1.   Live a good life. Be generous. Maintain integrity. Be patient with resilience, acceptance and fortitude. Put effort into it with courage and joyous perseverance. Be mindful and introspective. Learn how to see yourself objectively: how did I handle this or that situation? Be compassionate, we’re all trying our best and some have tougher cards to play than others.
  2. 2.   Practice Letting Go – of everything.  We came with nothing and we’re leaving with nothing. Lighten your heart and let it all go.

Play The Game Of Life with this strategy and when the time comes for our partner in Life, Benevolent Death, to walk us through the portal we’ll be looking forward to the Adventure instead of looking backward with sorrow and regret.



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