Playing to Win

Becoming the Champion

by David Sirlin

Dedicated to winners and those who strive to win.

It cannot be found by seeking, but only seekers shall find it.
—Sufi Proverb


Imagine a majestic mountain nirvana of gaming. At its peak are fulfillment, “fun,” and even transcendence. Most people could care less about this mountain peak because they have other life issues that are more important to them, and other peaks to pursue. There are a few, though, who are not at this peak, but who would be very happy there. These are the people I’m talking to with this book. Some of them don’t need any help; they’re on the journey. Most, though, only believe they are on that journey but actually are not. They got stuck in a chasm at the mountain’s base, a land of scrubdom. Here they are imprisoned in their own mental constructs of made-up game rules. If they could only cross this chasm, they would discover either a very boring plateau (for a degenerate game) or the heavenly enchanted mountain peak (for a “deep” game). In the former case, crossing the chasm would teach them to find a different mountain with more fulfilling rewards. In the latter case, well, they’d just be happier. “Playing to win” is largely the process of shedding the mental constructs that trap players in the chasm who would be happier at the mountain peak.

A lot of people get rubbed the wrong way by this stuff because they think I want to apply “playing to win” to everyone. I don’t. It’s not that I think everyone should be on this particular peak or that everyone would even want to be. There are other peaks in life, probably better ones. But those who are stuck in the chasm really should know their positions and how to reach a happier place.

Then, there is the age-old question of how much, if any of this, applies to real life. I start out by defining the big differences between real life and games: games are sharply defined by rules; life is not. Exploring extreme “corner cases” of a game is what high-level play is about. Exploring extreme situations in life can easily be socially unacceptable, morally wrong, and illegal. Competitive games require military virtues: immediacy, emergency tactics, and the end (winning) justifies the means (as long as it’s through moves the game defines as legal). Real life requires civic virtues like kindness, understanding, justice, and mercy.

And yet Playing to Win has valuable life lessons to teach that go beyond the scope of games. Before we’re ready to talk about that, though, it’s time to start winning.