November 10, 2014

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A few days ago, I was at a local coffee-shop, catching up with a friend, when someone from my very-extended acquaintance circle came up to the table. Completely ignoring my friend, she said “Hi. I didn’t know you were back in town…”

I failed to connect the dots in time as to whom this woman was, and so I instead bumbled through the niceties for a few minutes until she left. The worst part is that I knew her identity, but wasn’t confident enough about it to go with my gut instinct. Kind of ironic, really, given the topic of this essay.

It was only after she had gone that I realized who she was, and why she might be saying hi. Of all the social interactions, in all the towns, in all the world, this had to be one of the lousy ones.


Instead of being productive, lately I’ve been playing a lot of The Wolf Among Us (TWAU henceforth). It’s a video game where you play as sheriff Bigby Wolf, working your way through a psychological murder case. It’s set in 1980s Manhattan, except there’s a twist: most of the people you meet are actually gritty versions of traditional fairy-tale characters.

TWAU isn’t so much a game as an interactive movie, where the story changes depending on how you proceed through your investigations, and, perhaps more importantly, your conversations with other characters.

I’m not entirely sure how much the story changes – I’ve still on my first play-through – but as you charm (or, more inevitably, piss off) others, a little indicator comes up saying things to the nature of “Snow White will remember that”. This really serves to drive in the point, even if nothing is actually changing behind the scenes. In particular, you get the feeling that if you mess up a particular conversation, you might irrevocably alter the game so as to make it unwinnable.

For the first few scenes, I found myself trying to emulate the hard-boiled film-noir detective, but soon came to the distinct impression that this was not actually working very well. In a testament to the game’s writing, it managed to pull on my emotions enough that I decided to change the way I played. I started caring, and trying to make things turn out in a way that I (Sandy) would want them to in real life.


You might laugh at me, but I had a deep insight while playing TWAU: it’s a pretty good analogy for life. Of course it is. That’s kind of the whole point, really. And I had known that, but it hadn’t really sunk in. I knew it, but I didn’t know what it meant.

There’s this really neat phenomenon called the Tetris effect which is where spending enough time doing an activity can shape your thoughts to pattern-match with the activity. The trope namer of this is where if you play Tetris for a long time you’ll start seeing the world scrolling towards to, or start playing Tetris with the skyline.

This happened to me. After a few hours of playing, I started seeing life in terms of the four little options for dialogue at the bottom of my metaphorical screen. Furthermore, I found myself cognitively exhausted – much more so than if I had actually spent that time engaged in intellectual conversation. Clearly something strange was up.

And then it struck me. I had actually been spending significantly more cognitive effort trying to figure out what to say in TWAU than I did in real life. The point was really driven home when I recalled my interaction at the coffee shop. If that had been a scene in the game, I would have failed it and missed out on vital plot information.

This was a problem, and all of a sudden, I found my entire life being recast in this new light. My narrative found itself chunked into scenes, and I began evaluating them in retrospect. It is perhaps a point in my favor that I couldn’t think of very many scenes I had explicitly failed (though this was one of the more salient ones). That being said, it was certainly not a point in my favor to realize that most of the time, I didn’t notice failing a scene.

To be fair, I hadn’t really noticed the successes either, though this seems of less significance.

I’m really really hoping that my failure to notice was a product of “not yet having the mental technology to think my thoughts1”. The good news is, there’s a way of seeing if this is so: namely, empiricism. Now that I do have the technology, I hereby commit to write a follow-up post to this essay by July 1, 2015. To this end, I will also precommit to give $200 to the first person who calls me out on it, should I not . Update: I failed to write a follow-up, and Malcolm called me on it.

I am firmly of the opinion that making mistakes is inevitable and necessary, but making the same mistake over and over is inexcusable. This is my first step.

  1. This is something I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about lately. Expect it to be a big upcoming topic on We Can Solve This.↩︎