We all use metaphors in our methods of describing and evaluating life. Life is such an abstract and all-encompassing concept that people use analogies to similar systems in order to draw relationships and comparisons. Metaphors and analogies are our ways of breaking down abstract concepts. Anecdotes and metaphors are humans primary method of understanding.
Consider understanding complex systems in physics. Einstein proposed that space and time form an intricate four dimensional platform he called spacetime. Unfortunately picturing four dimensional surfaces is beyond our ability, so in order to picture this concept scientists used a metaphor of a fabric. Viewing space as being a two dimensional fabric it was easier to picture how objects could stretch or depress this fabric in three dimensions. The metaphor of fabric to represent space allows us to understand it.
We all use metaphors in a similar way when describing systems in life. One of my major motivations for creating an interactive goal-setting program was to have the program serve as a metaphor for the goal setting process. By making abstract concepts like goals and deadlines tangible, it is easier to draw relationships to them. Using a metaphor makes it easier to understand the system you are discussing.
Of all the systems we use metaphors for, our metaphors for life itself are probably the most critical. How you view life is crucial to your ability to function within it. Everybody has metaphors for how they view life, and these metaphors determine how they behave and feel. Some people view life as a war, a constant battle where you have to fight to survive. Other people view life as a mission with a specific purpose of which your experience is only a vessel. Some people view life as a gift, a precious resource never to be squandered.
I have used various metaphors for describing life, but there is one metaphor that I find particularly useful. This metaphor is in viewing life as a game. Although a metaphor can never be a perfect representation of the concept, for example viewing spacetime as a fabric may lead one to believe it is made up of a substance or matter. Similarly, viewing life as a game has some pitfalls, which I will discuss, but I use it often because it has really helped me operate successfully.
How often do you here someone gripe about how they could only be happy if they didn’t have all these problems. These are the same people that complain and excuse about how they can’t succeed or feel any satisfaction because of a whole host of external circumstances. Other people take a slightly more positive view and see challenges and obstacles as simply being deterrents to an otherwise happy life.
When you view life as a game, however, challenges and problems take a whole new context. The only reason you play a game is to feel some sense of challenge, some sense of struggle. The only reason a game is fun is because it causes you to engage yourself in it. Whether this be poker, Scrabble or a video game, games are only fun when they challenge you. Remove all the challenges in a game and it becomes a pointless activity.
Adopt a new attitude. Challenges and problems aren’t deterrents to living a happy and fulfilled life, they are the cause of them. Don’t complain about how difficult or impossible your challenges are. Bask in the realization that these challenges are the entire reason you are playing the game of life. Without these challenges life would be a dull, pointless activity. Zig Ziglar put it best, “Happiness is not pleasure. Happiness is victory.”
With this metaphor in hand does this mean I never get stressed or frustrated and irritated with the problems I have? Of course, because that is just the kind of person I am… Hardly. Just as in a very difficult game, some problems will make you frustrated, stressed and bothered. But at these times you can come back to your metaphor of challenges and problems as being the reason life is fulfilling and joyful. By coming back to viewing life as a game, it is easier to not let temporary frustrations become depressing and overwhelming problems.
By adopting this view of life you will also take a completely different approach to how you handle problems and challenges. Instead of trying to avoid them entirely, you will push yourself to encounter them. This doesn’t mean you have to unnecessarily create problems, but that you will not avoid opportunities simply because they might possess them. If you are afraid of public speaking, that isn’t a limitation, it is an incredible opportunity. If you are overweight and unhealthy this also represents an amazing opportunity to overcome challenges. Taking on your own business and leaving a job you hate may have problems but those problems will ultimately give you a great sense of victory and accomplishment.
What I am really trying to say is that growth is what you are really after. By viewing the game of life as a wonderful and challenging experience you will understand that fun, happiness and fulfillment only come when you are growing, improving and expanding. Don’t run away from challenges, absorb your challenges and make them a part of you. Be grateful that life has given you these experiences to make life worth living.
Another simile that can be used when drawing analogies to a game is that all games are based on rules. Life is also based on rules. Do most people act as if life is based off a series of logical and common sense rules? No, most people act as if life guided by fate and a capricious storyteller who has set artificial barriers to their success. Worse many people act as if these rules could not be discovered or made evident in their life. They act as if life were completely out of their control, guided by forces they could neither comprehend, nor deal with.
Life operates from a series of logical rules. By understanding these basic rules that guide our life we can utilize them to achieve anything we want. Some of these rules are pretty obvious, while others require more uncovering. By spending time studying and recognizing the rules of the game in life we can become excellent at it. Being rational in our study of life can allow us to fully understand the rules of life without injecting into it all of our negative or overly hopeful biases.
One of the key rules to life is the law of cause and effect. For every effect there is a determinable cause. By understanding this force that operates throughout the universe we can utilize it to our advantage. Instead of saying that luck and circumstance are guiding our life, we can take a look at what is causing our current experience of life and change it. Without understanding the rules of the game, it is impossible to be successful at it.
Many people when they find a law about the universe they don’t like they either pretend it is not there or curse the universe for containing it. Unfortunately, this methodology always comes back to get you. By ignoring the laws of the life and the universe you are unable to act effectively in it. Similarly, by understanding the underlying mechanics of the game you can master it.
Focus on the Journey
If there is one important lesson that describing life as a game can provide, it is to focus on the journey and not the destination. Why do we play games? So we can have entertainment, challenge ourselves or spend time with friends. In essence, it is the experience of playing we are after, never the product of playing the game. I believe very strongly in living in the current moment, of experiencing life now.
Some people take the view that the point of a game is to win. In this case I strongly disagree, and I use it to serve my point here. The point of a game is never to win, but only to gain the experiences you would have after winning. Although I feel this is an important experience, the best games I have ever played were when I was deeply absorbed in playing and winning or losing was merely a direction, never the purpose.
People take similar stances to life. You see people who work really hard and put their nose to the grindstone to become ‘successful’. All the while these people point out that they are working hard to become successful so they can be happy later. By investing all their thoughts into an imaginary future they are distancing themselves with reality. The past and the future only exist so much as you focus on them. The notion of past and future is completely alien to the physical universe. As physicists continually point out, there is no physical marker on the universe that shows time is flowing. Focusing on the future and past in excess deprives your ability to live fully.
Does this mean that we should quit our jobs, start participating in dangerous sex, take a bunch of hallucinogenic drugs and go skydiving without a parachute. I disagree with this philosophy either. Although we should live for the moment, we must establish a positive and supporting purpose that guides our actions to focus on growth, not just instant gratification.
Again this is where I feel viewing life as a game has benefits. Every game has an overarching purpose. For poker it is to win all the chips. For a crossword puzzle it is to fill in the answer to every clue. For chess it is to put the opponents king in checkmate. This purpose directs your actions so you don’t do foolish things simply for the experience. By having a stronger sense of purpose for your own life you can ensure that the actions you have will be beneficial and supportive, but still focus on the journey of life. This journey may involve pain and sacrifice, but so long as your remember that challenges make life worth living, and those challenges contribute to your purpose, the journey will be worthwhile.
Fallacies of a Game Metaphor
I’ve pointed out three strong benefits to viewing life as a game, but this certainly isn’t the only metaphor you could use and it does have limitations. By exposing the limitations in your metaphors you can ensure that you are flexible in their usage. A few limitations of a game metaphor are:
Life is Frivolous – Some people draw the connection that games are frivolous so they would view a life as a game metaphor as being disrespectful to the immense importance of life. I agree with this fallacy and I believe life is immensely important. I do, however, feel that this also can be used to point out that life should be about joy and fun as much as it is about purpose.
Life is Win or Lose – Because games generally have win or lose conditions, I also find this connection to be inaccurate. Life doesn’t win or lose. Some newer games are being based less on this black and white principle, so I believe that they could serve as better metaphors. In order to win or lose you must examine something outside of its context. Speculating on whether you will be able to weigh your life as a win or loss after you have died is a waste of your energies here on earth. Focus on doing your best, but understand that there are no black and white qualifiers for our experiences here.
The metaphors we use to describe life will decide how we behave and feel within it. Viewing life as a game can be incredibly freeing in seeing all our obstacles and problems as adding to the experience. By understanding that the game of life operates from a common sense set of rules we can understand these rules then utilize them to our effectiveness. Finally, by understanding that the game of life is about experiencing the journey with a purpose we can be successful and happy. Viewing life as a game isn’t without its fallacies, but you may want to try this perspective to see if it improves your own quality of experience.