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Your Life Is Ruled by Games You Don’t Even Know You’re Playing

Our overreliance on the simplicity of game logic explains why capitalism got out of control

A board game with black and white balls.

Olena Ruban/Getty Images


Playing with Reality: How Games Have Shaped Our World
by Kelly Clancy.
Riverhead, 2024 ($30)

When was the last time you played a game? Maybe you beat a friend at chess, or played Sushi Go! with your kids, or recently lost hours of your life to Baldur’s Gate 3 (raises hand). But even if you can’t remember, the fact is, you probably played a game today. Have you felt the languorous tug of swiping or scrolling through videos or dating profiles? Counted your steps? Been subject to the forces of the economy or the government? Applied for a loan? Used the Internet? Worked for a company? Experienced desire, motivation, pleasure?

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Games have developed a contemporary, ahistorical reputation for triviality—a way people lose themselves instead of understanding themselves. But as Kelly Clancy explains in Playing with Reality, games are not only not unserious but also an essential tool for growth, learning and survival, as well as a way of understanding our own bodies, history and future. She argues that games—with their mix of play, choices, tactics, goals and rewards—touch on every single natural and artificial aspect of our lives. They can reflect biological impulses, evolutionary strategies, social structures, military operations, and the way we have historically conceptualized morality, fairness and God. The game is not something you can choose to play or not; it’s a shadow in the Plato’s cave you didn’t even realize you were living in.

Clancy weaves a clear-eyed account of games from ancient history—they predate written language, she tells us—to the modern world of computers and the Internet. She explores the role of dopamine in learning, the essential value of randomness and chance, and the addictive qualities of maybes and surprises. She covers multiple tangles between humans and computers on the battlefields of Go, checkers and chess; unpacks the long and disturbing history of war games; and dispatches the thorny question of artificial intelligence—especially large language models such as ChatGPT—with ruthless efficiency. (It is dangerous, she concludes, to “[treat] language like a game without meaning.”)

Clancy carefully puts these historical moments and developments in context. This approach is particularly pleasurable when it takes the form of deep dives into specific games. There’s Kriegsspiel, a war game beloved by 19th- and 20th-­century leaders (including Adolf Hitler), whose influence lives on in Dungeons and Dragons, Settlers of Catan and Risk; SimCity, whose sandbox structure became the darling of radical libertarians seeking to strip resources from the government; and Snakes and Ladders, which is based on a 13th-century Indian game, Moksha Patam, meant to elucidate ideas about karma and fate.

But no sooner does Clancy establish games’ ubiquitous power than she demon­­strates how overreliance on the simplicity of game logic has destroyed empires, expedited war crimes, undermined education, aided unfettered capitalism and—at least once—brought the world to the brink of nuclear disaster. Capitalism is perhaps the best example of this simplifying logic gone awry. Technology and gamified work promised to free us from labor but instead generate more, with rewards not for workers but for shareholders. And yet this unrestrained, amoral growth possesses a kind of logic familiar to anyone who has played Monopoly—even if that same person, in their real life, struggles to support themselves.

Our knack for adapting to a game’s rules—even when they deviate significantly from our values or experience—illustrates one of games’ most simultaneously charming and sinister qualities: the ease with which we can use games as a proxy to divorce ourselves from the things they stand in for. Clancy is, rightfully, pessimistic about this faculty and how what­ever strengths it lends us seem to be outweighed by its potential for disaster. “Game theorists sought universal solutions in abstract mathematics, and the world is worse off for our leaders’ faith in their technocratic solutions,” she argues. And those who seek to win at any cost—so-called maximizers who view life as a zero-sum game—are already among us.

This discussion may make the reader feel slightly cornered. Is there any way to escape the most damaging philosophies that have emerged from games’ omnipresence? Is anything in our lives untouched by the push and pull of these models?

Clancy is not trying to fix these problems. Hers is a descriptive, not prescriptive, project. But it’s one that contextualizes and clarifies the upshot of losing perspective. “Games have always been about discovering who we are,” she writes. At the end of the book, the question remains: In the many kinds of games we join in, what kind of player will you choose to be?

Cover of the book Playing With Reality

Carmen Maria Machado is author of In the Dream House (Graywolf Press, 2019) and Her Body and Other Parties (Graywolf Press, 2017), which was a finalist for the National Book Award.

More by Carmen Maria Machado
Scientific American Magazine Vol 330 Issue 6This article was originally published with the title “Everything Is a Game” in Scientific American Magazine Vol. 330 No. 6 (), p. 84