All games are markets

Setting the price for ideas, how to read less, and the delightful contributions of editors

Hello, fellow traveler. Every week (or so!), this dispatch helps you make better creative and strategic decisions. Sometimes that means essays. Sometimes that means resources. Last time it was a framework on basic competitive strategy for agencies (the most shared and viewed issue so far). This time it’s a brief meditation on games and markets. Anyway, hello, it’s good to see you. I’d love to know what you think so please don’t hesitate to reply to this letter. -Steve

Gif by Julien Douvier


All games are markets

Exchange enough words for points in Scrabble, or bids for tricks in Bridge, or suited connectors for pots in Hold’em, or spend enough time lying about your lycanthropic tendencies to eat a clan of villagers in Werewolf, and you may eventually come to the conclusion that all games are markets.

This is not an argument that online games have virtual economies or that players operate as economic agents within games (though there is that). Rather, this is an argument that any type of game—board game, parlor game, video game, sport—is simply a market where the goal is to establish, within the boundaries of the game, the value of certain decisions.

Every game, in other words, is a marketplace of ideas.

Games and markets

A game is structured play. The goal of a game is to reach the winning condition. Get the most points, score the most baskets, like that.

A market is a system of exchange. The goal of a market is to establish the price of goods and services. Three bucks for milk, one thousand dollars for one ten millionth of Tesla, like that.

Markets continue for as long as players continue to agree on the price of goods or services. The price may go up or down, but as long as players can agree on that price the market continues.

Games, too, are about establishing price. Price, in a game, is not points or goals or runs. Price is the effort that is required to score points or goals or runs.

The price of a point within the game may go up (the level of effort required increases due to competition). Or, the price of a point within the game may go down (the level of effort required decreases due to competition). The value of the point stays the same, but the price of making that point—the effort required—changes.

And so within any one game, the goal is to set a price for points that the other players can no longer afford. 

Games are markets that end.

Consider Scrabble

The game of Scrabble establishes a market of letters, words, and points. Each letter is worth a specific number of points, each letter can be used in a word, and each word can be played for points. Whoever earns the most points wins. 

In the simplest sense, Scrabble is a market where players exchange letters for words for points.

However, the price it costs to play a word, in terms of effort, changes depending on the available spaces on the board and the play of your opponents. The in-game value of the Z that you drew is, nominally, worth 10pts. But the price for scoring those ten points (i.e., the level of effort required from you by your opponents) changes depending on whether and how you can play that Z.

So in a more complete sense, the system of exchange is letters for points, through the mechanism of words, which require effort (tactics, strategies) to create. Each player’s efforts adjust the real value of the letters and the effort required to score points. 

Basketball: same same

The game of basketball establishes the market of baskets and points. Whichever team scores the most points in the allotted time is the winner.

Like in Scrabble, the value of a point in a game of basketball is set by the rules. Three points beyond the three-point line, one point for a foul shot, etc. But the price of getting those points is determined by the teams and players themselves. Whether and how easy it is to make a basket is determined by efforts, available time on the clock, and various other contextual factors. These efforts and those factors create a dynamic price for making a basket. The value of that basket stays the same (as set by the rules), but the price of effort required to acquire those points does not.

So the system of exchange is baskets for points, through the mechanism of making a basket, which requires effort. Each team’s efforts set the price of making a basket—I.e., the team playing at maximum effort sets the price of more baskets per minute, which sets the price (or level of the game) for the opponent

The winning state of basketball is to set a level of effort (the price of points per time period) that your opponent can not achieve (pay). 

So what?

The choice to play a game is the choice to establish a temporary market and compete on setting a price. Which is to say that playing a game is a form of haggling. 

What you’re haggling over is a fiction. Setting aside the markets that exist around these games—the World Scrabble Championship, the National Basketball Association—there is no intrinsic value to “a game of Scrabble” or “a game of basketball”. To win the game is simply to win the idea of winning the game.

This would point towards a different method of valuing the game—i.e., the value of the haggle itself. Games are markets where we set the price, however temporary, of what it means to have fun.

It’s not whether you win or lose, but the ideas you bring to the game.


Sources and Further Reading

Last week’s most clicked links:

  1. Bundles, one of the futures of newsletters

  2. The Best Magazine Articles Ever (a collection by former WIRED EIC Kevin Kelly)

  3. New book available from Allie Brosh of Hyperbole and a Half!

Many thanks to Fern Diaz, longtime friend and subscriber, who recommended this newsletter in WITI’s Monday Media Diet (Fern is very insightful, have a read—and hello, all y’all who’re reading this at Fern’s recommendation). Also, fyi and fwiw, I redesigned the Steve Bryant Experience online—now with more illustrations by Edith Zimmerman, who is for hire.


Shut up and play the links

How to Read Less
"The modern world firmly equates the intelligent person with the well-read person,” begins this lovely and uplifting article from The School of Life. If we’ve any intellectual ambition, or any sensitivity to keeping up with the Joneses, we feel compelled at almost every turn to read more books. But this value for reading everything wasn’t always thus! The pre-modern world “never put people under any pressure to read very much at all”. For example, consider the supreme intellect of Christendom, St. Jerome:

“Despite all his scholarly efforts, when it came to showing where and how St Jerome worked, a detail stands out: there are almost no books in his famous study. Strikingly, the most intelligent and thoughtful intellectual of the early church seems to have read fewer things than an average modern eight year old. To follow the depiction by Antonello da Messina, St Jerome appears to be the proud owner of about ten books in all!”

The change from “read a little like St. Jerome” to “read everything!” provokes a question: why do we read? Why do we feel pressure to read everything—especially everything that everybody else is reading? Does it make us happy?

In order to ease and simplify our lives, we might dare to ask a very old-fashioned question: what am I reading for? And this time, rather than answering ‘in order to know everything,’ we might parcel off a much more limited, focused and useful goal. We might – for example – decide that while society as a whole may be on a search for total knowledge, all that we really need and want to do is gather knowledge that is going to be useful to us as we lead our own lives. We might decide on a new mantra to guide our reading henceforth: we want to read in order to learn to be content. Nothing less – and nothing more.

With this new, far more targeted ambition in mind, much of the pressure to read constantly, copiously and randomly starts to fade. We suddenly have the same option that was once open to St Jerome; we might have only a dozen books on our shelves – and yet feel in no way intellectually undernourished or deprived.

As someone who reads voraciously, but only in fits and starts, I am very much on board with this point of view. I’m also 100% down with not finishing books. And I’m a further 100% down with not reading what everybody else is reading. Like Nagasawa says in Murakami’s Norwegian Wood:

If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking. That’s the world of hicks and slobs. Real people would be ashamed of themselves doing that. 

I haven’t read that book, tho. Maybe I should. Or not.

How to Write Less
A few months ago back when everything was different, Ocean Vuong sat for an interview at the NYU creative writing center. He was asked about his process for beginning poems, and his answer, delivered in that calm and just-so voice, is meditative and worth quoting at length:

“I admit that I write very seldomly, it almost feels blasphemous to say so, but a very small part of my life as a writer is spent writing. I spend a lot of time thinking. We live in a culture…of weaponizing productivity. I think just because we’re not on Wall Street…does not mean we have eluded those pressures or those laws. We all have that friend, ‘I’m on my 4th novel how about you?’ One friend says ‘I’ve been writing a poem a day since Obama’s inauguration!’ These are the things that are very real and what happens is there is an inherent shame in not producing. And I think we have a very deprived and deficient way of looking at work in this culture. Our only framework is capitalism because it’s so dominant and central to our culture. Even the workshop is a manufacturing center. Even the words around it...cleanup, tighten, polish…it’s the work of producing objects. And our metaophors are tied to capitalism. But I think that for me it really opened me up when is atrted to look for alternative methods of creativity and I started to study Eastern philosophy, particularly from Vietnam and ancient China in the work of Lao-Tzu and Du-Fu, who were really obsessed with creativity itself…"

How to Have L̶e̶s̶s̶ Fewer Editors
This Axios article ☝️and a similar one in the NYTimes about journalists leaving publications to start their own newsletters inspired a discussion among friends in the WITI slack about the value of editors. To wit: If a well-known journalist (like e.g. Casey Newton or Emily Atkin) leaves a publication (where, presumably, they were edited) to start a single-operator newsletter (where, presumably, they are not edited), will the work product suffer (or benefit)? This question presumes all sorts of things about what role editors play (Line editing? Trafficking? Voice?) and the nature of the journalist-editor relationship, which is not constant from publication to publication or person to person—i.e., some journalists are better at self-editing, some editors are better at sparking ideas for coverage, some journalists don’t interact much with editors at all, etc. The question also touches on the value of a personal brand in a world increasingly organized around individuals—does it matter that Casey Newton (presumably) won’t be edited? Does anybody care?—and the role of creative collaboration in journalistic production (that’s really what an editor is: a creative collaborator, not unlike a music producer, who assists by varying degrees in the development of the work product). And finally, the question touches on the role of newsletters in the media ecosystem. Ultimately, I think we can arrive at least three maxims:

  1. Editors can be beneficial but they are not always necessary. The value of an editor depends upon a variety of factors including the skill of the writer, the type of publication, and the audience expectation.

  2. For single producers, editing is more likely to increase retention than audience growth. For example, I love Ben Thompson’s Stratechery but the dude’s (otherwise brilliant) posts are way too long. Because each article is insightful, Stratechery will continue to grow without employing an editor to cut his 3,000 word posts down to 1,200. However, if he tightened the product up, I might go back to paying $10 per month for it. (This argument, btw, is evocative of the old marketing argument about brand vs. performance marketing—it’s not either/or, you need both.)

  3. Editing is a substantial part of some publications’ strategic positioning. Some pubs, especially in the financial and political arenas—Axios, The Economist, The Financial Times, etc—make their concision and unified voice a cornerstone of their value proposition. I think it’s likely a mistake to try and compare the value of editors at those publications (multiple creators, singular voice) to the value of editors for individual producers.

I’ve no idea if this topic is interesting to you, but the conversation occupied an hour of my time on Friday afternoon so I thought I’d share the questionable benefits of my conversational labor. If you’ve an opinion please reply to this email, I’d love to hear from you.


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