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The Game

by Bill Meacham on November 21st, 2018

I recently learned of a game called The Game, the rules of which pose interesting philosophical questions. Here are the rules:(1)

  1. Everybody in the world who knows about The Game is playing The Game. A person cannot decline to play The Game; it does not require consent to play and you can never stop playing.
  2. Whenever you think about The Game, you lose.
  3. Losses must be announced. This can be verbally, with a phrase such as “I just lost The Game”, or in some other way, for example on social media or by holding up a sign.

OK, now you know about The Game and you are thinking about it. You lose. Sorry about that.

How do you feel about the assertion that you lose? Some typical reactions are curiosity, amusement, befuddlement, indifference and annoyance. I find The Game intellectually engaging and choose to address some of its philosophical and psychological issues. As you read this essay you will continually lose The Game, but don’t worry. There’s no penalty for doing so.

Is It a Game?

First, is The Game really a game? Some have called it a “mind virus.”(2) It is certainly a meme in Richard Dawkins’ original sense of a unit of cultural transmission.(3) But what does it have in common with other games, such as chess or football or ring-around-the-rosie? Here are some definitions of the term “game”:

A game is a structured form of play …. Key components of games are goals, rules, challenge, and interaction.”(4)

The Game has rules and interaction, but what is its goal? In many games the goal is to win, but it seems impossible to win The Game by deliberately trying to win.

A game is commonly defined as one or more players trying to achieve an objective ….”(5)

Again, what is the objective? It can’t be to win, as there is no way to do so. We have to look beyond the rules to the context in which The Game is played. Some people take the objective to be to infect as many people as possible with the mind virus. For others the objective seems to be simply to have fun with friends or potential friends and affirm a sense of community with them. At a comic book convention, for instance, or a science fiction convention or the like, someone may exclaim “Oh rats, I just lost The Game,” thereby provoking others to groan and admit that they lost it as well.

Ludwig Wittgenstein pondered the nature of games and asserted that there is no essence of game, nothing that uniquely identifies games. Instead, games bear a “family resemblance,” as he called it, to each other. They have a series of overlapping similarities, but no one feature is common to them all. Each game resembles at least one other, but no feature is common to all games and only games.(6) Given this approach, it is safe to say that The Game is indeed a game.


A crucial feature of The Game is that it is self-referential. Playing it requires some degree of second-order thinking, also called self-awareness or metacognition. You have to notice that you are thinking of The Game in order to announce that you have lost. Not only that, you do so ironically. You announce your loss as if dismayed, but you are not really dismayed. You actually kind of enjoy announcing it. Not only do you know that you have thought of The Game and thus lost, you also know that you don’t really mind losing, but you pretend you do. This capacity for self-awareness is the uniquely human virtue, what human beings do that other beings don’t or don’t do nearly so well.(7) Socrates said that you must know yourself in order to have a life worth living. The Game is one way humans have fun being human.

Ironic Process

The Game is a variant of what is called “ironic process,” whereby deliberate attempts to suppress certain thoughts make them more likely to surface.(8) The process is ironic because it produces an effect contrary to what is desired. You can try to win by not thinking about The Game, but that’s difficult. Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote “Try and set yourself the problem of not thinking about a polar bear and you will see that the damned animal will be constantly in your thoughts.”(9) Researchers have found that when we try not to think of something, one part of our mind does avoid the forbidden thought, but another part “checks in” every so often to make sure the thought is not coming up, therefore, ironically, bringing it to mind.(10)

Now, in fact there is a way to avoid thinking about a polar bear, and that is to think very hard of something else instead. Imagine a black bear or an elephant or some other animal. Imagine this animal dancing around. With sufficient focus, you can avoid thinking of the polar bear. No doubt it is a bit difficult and not something most of us do much, but we are not helpless before our thoughts. I once did it by repeating to myself over and over “There is something of which I must not think. There is something of which I must not think.” After a while I stopped and could not remember what it was! It came to me later, and now I have forgotten it altogether, but for a time I was successful.

The ability to focus your thoughts, to exert some control over them, is of profound importance. A Sufi mystic says,

He who does not direct his own mind lacks mastery. … If he does not control his mind, he is not a master but a slave. … Mastery lies not merely in stilling the mind, but in directing it towards whatever point we desire, in allowing it to be active as far as we wish, in using it to fulfill our purpose, in causing it to be still when we want to still it. He who has come to this has created his heaven within himself; he has no need to wait for a heaven in the hereafter, for he has produced it within his own mind now.(11)

Are You Playing?

Now here is a conundrum: If you know about The Game, and you think of it but don’t announce that you have lost, are you playing the game? Arguments can be made for both alternatives, that you are and that you aren’t.

Abstractly, if you think of The Game as a set of rules, the first of which is that you can’t refuse to play once you know about The Game, then you are indeed playing The Game when you know that you have thought of it, whether or not you announce your loss. There are different concrete scenarios in which this situation can play out.

Firstly, you might just forget. You might think of The Game—that is, it might idly occur to you, or you might hear someone mention it or you might think about it abstractly as I am doing in this essay—but forget that you thereby lose. In that case you are playing the game but not correctly.

Secondly, you might cheat. You cheat if you think of The Game and remember that you are supposed to announce your loss but don’t. You lie by omission. You might try to lie overtly and say that you have won The Game, but then everyone would know that you are grossly mistaken about the rules. To lie and not get caught, you have to remain silent. By remaining silent, you signal to others that you don’t know about The Game. (And if they aren’t thinking about The Game, they don’t even recognize your signal.) On this interpretation of when The Game is being played, remaining silent when you are supposed to announce your loss is playing The Game, but cheating at it. Do we say of someone who cheats that they aren’t playing the game? No, we say that they are playing, but not correctly. You participate in The Game by cheating. If you weren’t participating at all, you would have no thought of not participating and would not be cheating. By choosing to cheat, you participate in The Game.

On the other hand, you might refuse to announce your loss because you have decided not to play The Game. Perhaps you find it silly, or it once seemed like too much bother so you didn’t speak and now silence has become a habit, or you are just ornery and don’t want to play. One presenter at a convention got so angry at people interrupting the proceedings with their announcements that they had lost The Game that he made something of a crusade of opposing it.(12) Are you playing The Game if you deliberately decide not to? A case can be made that in that case you are not playing.

The first rule of The Game is that you can’t avoid playing, so even if you decide you don’t want to, you can’t help it. But who is to say that you have to obey the first rule? What if we say that to play The Game you have to obey all the rules? In that case by not obeying the first rule, you avoid playing The Game! How could we justify the rule that you must obey all the rules? Is that one a rule of The Game? You can’t justify it by appealing to a further rule, as doing so would get you into an infinite regress: you could only justify the further rule by a yet further one, and so on ad infinitum.(13)

Wittgenstein would say that the only way to justify having to play by the rules is by appeal to the practices of the players, their customs and their uses of the game.(14)

The Game is a social construct, played with others. By not interacting in the prescribed manner, you don’t participate in it. By your silence you avoid playing. If others announce that they have lost The Game and you don’t, and they have reason to believe that you know about The Game, then they know that you are refusing to play. They know (or are convinced or strongly suspect) that the idea of The Game has come to your mind, and they can see that you have not announced your loss, so they are justified in believing that you are deliberately not playing. (But of course in that case, they might just decide that they don’t want to play with you either and go off without you. Maybe you should play in order to avoid missing out on further fun.)

It seems clear on this view that you are not playing the game. But the other players might say that you are too playing the game, and you are just deluded into thinking you are not. So maybe it is not so clear after all.

Now, which argument is stronger, the one that says you are playing The Game when you don’t announce your loss or the one that says you aren’t? There seems to be no clear answer. The argument is about the meaning of concepts and how to apply them, a favorite topic among philosophers. Let’s apply the pragmatic method of William James, who in common with Wittgenstein aimed at cutting through conceptual confusion. James says, “The pragmatic method … is to try to interpret each notion by tracing its respective practical consequences. What difference would it practically make to any one if this notion rather than that notion were true?”(15) The practical consequence of saying that you are playing the game is to affirm the solidarity of the community of players. The practical consequence of saying that you are not is to affirm the freedom of the individual. The answer depends on your point of view and your desired outcome. Beyond that, dispute is idle. But idle dispute is not useless. The advantage of such an undecidable question is that it enables those who enjoy discussion to keep talking. They get to keep playing the philosophy game.


Well, who would have thought there was so much to say? Is there a point to all this? No, it’s just a game.



(1) Wikipedia, “The Game (mind game).” Another formulation of the first rule is that everyone in the world is playing The Game, but I don’t see how you can play a game you never heard of.

(2) Haywood, “Lose The Game.”

(3) Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, p. 192.

(4) Wikipedia, “Game.”

(5) Haywood, “Lose The Game.”

(6) Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, §65-71.

(7) Meacham, How To Be An Excellent Human, chapter 20.

(8) Wikipedia, “Ironic process theory.”

(9) Dostoevsky, Winter Notes on Summer Impressions, p. 62.

(10) Winerman, Lea, “Suppressing the ‘white bears’.”

(11) Khan, “Stilling The Mind,” pp. 126-127. The author wrote before there were efforts to remove gender discrimination from common usage. Out of respect for historical sources, I have left the language as it was originally given and offer sincere apologies to any who feel alienated or offended by the choice of words. Certainly the author intended to include everyone.

(12) Dorn, “Finding Five Dollars.”

(13) Carroll, Lewis, “What the Tortoise Said to Achilles.”

(14) Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, §197-202.

(15) James, William, “What Pragmatism Means,” p. 142.



Top: as of 16 November 2018. San Diego Comic-Con 2008 day 1. The person pictured is Raven Myle Aurora. Photo by Jason Mouratides from Portland, Oregon, USA. CC BY 2.0.

Middle: as of 16 November 2018.

Bottom: as of 16 November 2018. Text: “I’m as surprised as you! I didn’t think it was possible.”



Carroll, Lewis. “What the Tortoise Said to Achilles.” Mind 4, No. 14 (April 1895): 278-280. Online publication as of 12 November 2018.

Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.

Dorn, Trae. “Finding Five Dollars (Why ‘The Game’ is Dumb).” Online publication as of 16 November 2018.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Winter Notes on Summer Impressions. Tr. Kyril FitzLyon. London: Quartet Books, 1985.

Haywood, Jonty, et. al. “Lose The Game – The World’s Most Infamous Mind Virus.” Online publication as of 16 November 2018.

James, William. “What Pragmatism Means.” In Essays In Pragmatism. Ed. Aubrey Castell. New York: Hafner Publishing Co., 1948 (1961). Online publication as of 16 November 2018.

Khan, Inayat. “Stilling The Mind.” In The Sufi Message of Hazrat Inayat Khan, Volume VII, In An Eastern Rose Garden. London: Barrie and Jenkins, 1973. Online publication as of 16 November 2018.

Know Your Meme. “The Game.” Online publication as of 6 November 2018.

Meacham, Bill. How To Be An Excellent Human: Mysticism, Evolutionary Psychology and the Good Life. Austin, Texas: Earth Harmony, 2013. Available at

Wikipedia. “Game.” Online publication as of 16 November 2018.

Wikipedia. “Ironic process theory.” Online publication as of 16 November 2018.

Wikipedia. “The Game (mind game).” Online publication as of 15 November 2018.

Winerman, Lea. “Suppressing the ‘white bears’.” American Psychological Association Monitor on Psychology. October 2011, Vol 42, No. 9, page 44. Online publication as of 17 November 2018.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations, 3rd Edition. Tr. G.E.M. Anscombe. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1968 (1986). Online publication as of 25 October 2018.

From → Philosophy

  1. roland gibson permalink

    Have you considered Hesse’s Magister Ludi?

    • Bill Meacham permalink

      No! Thanks for reminding me. It’s time I re-read it.

  2. I like this game! I win every time!

  3. Love it. I lost and now I’m free.

  4. Modestine permalink

    If this is the game of life, the New Age joke is that when kids say ,”I didn’t ask to be born” , their parents, (reincarnationists ), say to them ,” Oh yes you did !”

    Alan Watts’ postulate that we are a dream in the mind of God – not fully in control was God at the time it started dreaming ( lost control ) & hence freewill was born in those creations . Yet the conundrum is that time is one and the past ,present, & future exist all simultaneously , according to the new physics.

    I just watched an old tape for Halloween, Village of the Damned. People in whole towns fell unconscious around the world. When they awoke, many females were pregnant, some without benefit of a male. The babies were all born blonde & dispassionate & advanced mind readers. So any plan to do away with them would be known. So it took one of the ‘fathers’ to plan the alien slaughter keeping his mind focused on a ‘brick wall’.

    Also Colin Wilson wrote “The Mind Parasites” in which these top scientists keep their thoughts away from the recognition that they are aware of the parasites’ existence.

    I’ve seen lovelorn ads from men that say they are looking for women – but ‘no games’. There are the diehards!

    Thanks for keeping our interest piqued!

  5. SankaraDas permalink

    The only real way to play ‘The Game’ is to identify the mind or mental being as the self. Awareness or essence could care less, the game is an object/concept within another object (mind). So, yes, you must obviously ‘lose’ if you are unaware of awareness. It has veiled itself and is masquerading as the mind. Ha ha.

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