Every player a referee

Changing rules to affect the game, how marketing actually works, and the sublime mystery of Scatman John

Hello, friendly human. Every week, this dispatch helps you make better creative and strategic choices through the exploration of decision-making frameworks. It’s good to see you.

When you change how it feels to play a game, you change how that game is played.

This is just as true for playing traditional sports, as it is for stock trading, or rug knitting, or flying an airplane. 

Consider this recent headline in Bloomberg News: FAA Warns of Tail Strikes, Off-Course Flying by Near-Empty Jets.

Well isn’t that mildly terrifying.

Intra-COVID, there’s less travel. There are fewer passengers. The planes are lighter, or hold different cargo, or sit idling on runways and parked in bays. These factors affect how airplanes handle. Some planes climb so fast they exceed assigned altitudes. Some planes have trouble maintaining cabin air pressure. Some pilots say the boarding process goes so fast they've forgotten to finish safety paperwork.

That’s not good. That’s not good at all. But the point is not that commuter jets will soon be falling from the sky (they won’t). The point is that the *context* surrounding the piloting of jets has changed, which has affected the piloting of jets.

It’s not that the safety checklist changed. It’s that, for a few pilots at least, the events that trigger them to complete the safety checklist have changed. It’s not that Bernoulli’s principle has changed. Air still pushes against wings to keep wings aloft. What’s changed is how it feels to have air push against wings, which changes how pilots fly.

In other words: How a game feels affects how you play.

Consider an example from a more traditional type of game: the White Sox vs Orioles “crowdless game” of 2015, the first-ever MLB game played in an empty stadium. In this case, Camden Yards.

The field was the same. The rules were the same. The players were the same. There was no change in how to play the game. There was only a change to how it felt to play the game—which changed everything.

The glare from empty seats caught the second baseman in the eyes.

Players spoke quietly in the dugout, realizing the umpires could hear them.

The Orioles' manager, standing in the dugout, could hear the phone ring in the bullpen across the field.

A Sox outfielder blamed their loss on the lack of a crowd—and the players’ awareness of it.

Which is to say: When the feeling of a game changes, you lose your sense of balance, your sense of proprioception. Who’s on first, sure, but where’s the fucking crowd?

For pilots, how flying feels has changed. For the Orioles in 2015, the feeling of baseball changed. Surely for European soccer players today, playing in empty stadiums, soccer feels different, too (at the very least, home advantage disappears).

And I imagine for a lot of us how it feels to live day to day is quite different than how it felt three months ago, or even three weeks. Working from home. Protests in the streets. Canceled plans, changed routines, all that.

It’s inconvenient, yes. But perhaps now is a good time to mention there’s an important reason that baseball game was played in an empty stadium. 

His name was Freddie Gray.

Baltimore protests: Who was Freddie Gray? - CNN

If changes in the way a game feels has such an impact on how the players perform, imagine what happens when you actually change the rules.

Rules, after all, are literally what make a game. It is not a game if there are no rules.

Football wouldn’t be football if it were played on a 200-yard field, and tennis wouldn’t be tennis without a net (that would make it, per Robert Frost, free verse).

This is why so much spew and spittle happens over rule changes in sport. One seemingly innocuous rule change can affect an entire strategy stack.

See, for example, how the introduction of the shot clock in 1954 prevented winning basketball teams from slowing play, which increased point totals. 

A rule change can affect the business of a game, too. Adding extra wild card teams to the MLB in 2012 changed the possibility of more teams continuing into the post-season, which changed how long fans stayed engaged with their teams, which affected attendance at stadiums.

Some sports even use rule changes as an ever-present feature. See, for example, Formula 1 racing, in which the governing body changes what engine and shape a race car may use (I.e., the formula) as different teams gain advantages by exploiting technology.

And isn’t that interesting. In a sport worth billions of dollars, where teams must spend tens of millions to even participate, the goal of changing the rules is to make teams more competitive.

Imagine if that were the ethos in all things.

But in America where, when Black Americans gain advantages, the formula gets changed. The framework gets changed. The way to win gets changed.

Which brings me to Kimberly Latrice Jones and the impassioned video she published last week, in which she compared Black disadvantages to a childhood board game:

If I right now decided that I wanted to play Monopoly with you, and for 400 rounds of playing Monopoly, I didn’t allow you to have any money, I didn’t allow you to have anything on the board, I didn’t allow for you to have anything, and then we played another 50 rounds of Monopoly and everything that you gained and you earned while you were playing that round of Monopoly was taken from you, that was Tulsa. That was Rosewood. Those are places where we built black economic wealth, where we were self-sufficient, where we owned our stores, where we owned our property, and they burned them to the ground.

So that’s 450 years. So for 400 rounds of Monopoly, you don’t get to play at all. Not only do you not get to play, you have to play on the behalf of the person that you’re playing against. You have to play and make money and earn wealth for them, and then you have to turn it over to them. So then for 50 years you finally get a little bit and you’re allowed to play. And every time that they don’t like the way that you’re playing, or that you’re catching up, or that you’re doing something to be self-sufficient, they burn your game. They burn your cards. They burn your Monopoly money. And then finally at the release and the onset of that, they allow you to play, and they say, “Okay, now you catch up.”

I love this video. I love this video so hard. I love this video because she’s right.

She’s absolutely right.

If you keep changing the rules, don’t be surprised when nobody wants to play your game anymore.

It feels like a lot of rules are changing these days.

As those rules change it becomes every player’s responsibility to pay attention to them. To see that they’re being created equitably. To protect other players from exploitation.

It’s not enough to just play the game you’ve been given. Not anymore.

On behalf of each other we all need to be referees.

gif by Oleg Frolov

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Last week’s most clicked links:

  1. A Class Divided (full film): One of PBS Frontline’s most requested programs — third-grade teacher Jane Elliott's lesson in discrimination.

  2. When They See Us: Five teens from Harlem become trapped in a nightmare when they're falsely accused of a brutal attack in Central Park. Based on the true story.

  3. Join Campaign Zero: Ending police violence in America


  • How to do marketing
    As some of you may know, I’m a foam-fingered fan of How Brands Grow, Byron Sharp’s book about how and why marketing works. This post, by the former General Assembly CMO, is an excellent recap of the book’s lessons (and those of its sequel). I consistently return to the lessons that you must put all of your efforts into customer acquisition, rather than retention, and that you acquire customers by always being mentally and physically available to them. This is not only why Starbucks wants to be on every corner, but also why a Starbucks opening next to a mom & pop coffee shop actually helps the mom & pop shop’s business!

  • Black Lives Matter Brand Responses
    An illuminating deck of brand responses to BLM as collected by Lexie Perez and friends. Includes each brand’s message + action taken. The ones where action says “none” really stand out.

  • The Charisma Razor
    "If a high-achieving person is charismatic, start with a level of skepticism for each idea they present. If a high-achieving person isn't charismatic, start with a level of openness for each idea they present. This goes against human nature (which is why it works).”

  • Mysteries of the Scatman
    The artist Scatman John had one hit. That hit was "Scatman (Ski-Ba-Bop-Ba-Dop-Bop)”, and for a brief moment in the 90s in Europe it was everywhere. Scatman passed away in 1999 at the age of 57 after an illness, but he’s quoted on Wikipedia saying: "Whatever God wants is fine by me ... I've had the very best life. I have tasted beauty." That quote has itself been quoted everywhere from Rolling Stone to Macklemore’s twitter. But is the quote real? Follow this newsletter down an amazing rabbit hole of absurd recursivity.

  • fuck it, black-owned candle companies, a thread


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