How to Tap the Power of Games to Live a Better Life | Kelly Clancy

Kelly Clancy

Have you ever wondered what our lives would be like if we approached them more like games? If we saw challenges as opportunities for playful exploration instead of stressful obstacles? If we embraced our childlike sense of curiosity and engaged with the world through a lens of creativity and joy?

My guest today is Kelly Clancy, and she’s about to take us on a mind-expanding journey that will reshape how we view reality itself. Kelly is a neuroscientist and physicist who has held research positions at MIT, Berkeley, University College London and the AI company DeepMind. Her work focuses on uncovering the core principles of intelligence by developing cutting-edge brain-computer interfaces that investigate the biological roots of human agency and identity.

In her groundbreaking book, Playing with Reality: How Games Have Shaped Our World, Kelly explores how games, from ancient rituals to modern video games, have the power to reveal deep truths about human nature while also providing a safe space for us to experiment with different identities, moral frameworks, and ways of being.

Through her research on agency and brain-computer interfaces, Kelly has gained fascinating insights into how games engage our minds and shape our behavior in powerful ways. But as she’ll share in our conversation, many of the prevailing models in game theory and economics are based on flawed assumptions about human nature that prioritize competition over collaboration. By embracing a more holistic and cooperative approach to game design, Kelly believes we can create a world where everyone can thrive and flourish in a sustainable way.

So join me for a mind-expanding exploration of the surprising ways games can help us transcend our limitations, cultivate greater wisdom and compassion, and create a more harmonious and equitable world for all. 

You can find Kelly at: Website | Episode Transcript

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Episode Transcript:

Kelly Clancy: [00:00:00] The games that we played as children really profoundly influenced our filters. The way we solve problems, the way we think. There’s actually a lot of previously gamed-out things from our past that are dictating a lot of the way we see the world and the way we’re interacting with people. Part of the beauty of games is that you can pretend to be whoever the character you’re playing is. You can be completely outside of yourself and hopefully, like, explore new aspects of your personality or act in ways that you wouldn’t normally act and experience what it would be like to be someone else. I think the most successful people are people who are constantly remaking themselves and playing with what works and what doesn’t work, and exploring these different ideas in playful ways.


Jonathan Fields: [00:00:39] So have you ever wondered what our lives might be like if we approach them more like games? If we saw challenges as opportunities for playful exploration instead of these stressful obstacles, if we embraced our childlike sense of curiosity and engage with the world through a lens of creativity and joy. Well, my guest today is Kelly Clancy, and she is about to take us on a mind-expanding journey that will reshape how we view reality itself. Kelly is a neuroscientist and physicist who’s held positions in research at MIT, Berkley University College of London and the AI company DeepMind. Her work focuses on really uncovering the core principles of intelligence by developing these cutting-edge brain-computer interfaces that investigate the biological roots of human agency and identity. This is deep, powerful, really groundbreaking work. And in her new book, playing with Reality How Games Have Shaped Our World, Kelly explores how games, from ancient rituals to modern video games, have the power to reveal deep truths about human nature, while also providing just a safe space for us to experiment with different identities and moral frameworks and ways of being. And through her research on agency and brain-based computer interfaces, Kelly has gained really fascinating insights into how games engage our minds and shape our behavior in powerful ways. Ways that might really surprise you, actually. But as she’ll share in our conversation, many of the prevailing models in game theory and economics, they’re also based on flawed assumptions about human nature that prioritize competition over collaboration and really reinforce bringing the worst of ourselves to our relationships and the world. And by embracing a more holistic and cooperative approach to game design, Kelly believes that we can create a world where everyone can thrive and flourish in a sustainable way. So join me for this mind-expanding exploration of the surprising ways that games can really help us transcend our limitations, cultivate greater wisdom and compassion, and create a more harmonious and equitable world for all. So excited to share this conversation with you! I’m Jonathan Fields and this is Good Life Project.


Jonathan Fields: [00:02:51] The recent book is got a lot of really interesting stuff. And also just you and your work in general. I was actually recently reading, I think it was a 2019 piece in wired that you had written about a couple, a woman whose mom was diagnosed with fatal familial insomnia and kind of following her journey along as you know, her mom passed, I guess, in her 50s, from really rapidly from this genetic disease. And she found that she had the gene for it. And, you know, you’re sort of following along in the journey of how her and her husband completely remake their lives, to devote themselves to trying to find a cure. One of the things I found so interesting about that entire piece was actually your choice to dive into it and write it in the middle of their story. You know, so often we want to wait until, like, how does it end? Like what’s happening here? And you’re like, there’s something happening here right now. We have no idea where this is going to go. But I want to immerse myself in this story right now. And I was curious about that. Just from your standpoint as a, you know, as a scientist, as a storyteller.


Kelly Clancy: [00:03:50] Yeah. That’s such a great question. I think it’s I mean, it’s such a beautiful story and it’s so resonant for so many of us. We’re like, faced with some major crisis in our lives and the call to either change our lives or pretend it’s not happening and continue the status quo comes up. And I think of them as this incredible total heroes who took up the call to change and are changing the world on the basis of that. And I think that’s actually true of a lot of science. A lot of scientists are driven not just by kind of idle curiosity, but like my parents had Alzheimer or, you know, something really intimate happened to them. And they are interested in pursuing some kind of cure or, or otherwise. And so I think that’s a story that isn’t told a ton about scientists. And so that was one thing that was really compelling to me. And yeah, just the bravery of a lot of people don’t even want to get tested for a disease they might have because they they would just prefer to. And that’s totally fine. That’s like nothing wrong with that. But not only did she seek that knowledge, but she’s trying to figure out how to combat it not just for herself, but for her, you know, fellow sufferers. And I think it’s just an amazing she’s an amazing human. And I was really pleased to share that story with people.


Jonathan Fields: [00:05:07] Yeah. It was such a powerful story. Yeah. It’s funny, as we were recording this, literally a piece came out, I think it was The New York Times today or over the weekend about ApoE4, sort of like a genetic snip where if you have this allele or I guess, like the homozygous version of it, it’s your likelihood of Alzheimer’s. Dementia just goes up dramatically, and they’re now trying to designate it as a cause, not just as a sign of this. And there was a line in that article that really resonated with something you wrote in the 2019 piece, which is there was a doctor who said, if you’re not symptomatic, do not get tested because there’s kind of his mind, there’s nothing you can do. So the only thing that happens from that moment forward, if you know, is suffering and you sort of like made a similar point in this one article about this one condition. And yet that’s such a controversial statement, I think, and notion, and not just about those like there are other like markers for different things. And I wonder if you’ve thought about that sort of like more generalized across different things.


Kelly Clancy: [00:06:10] Yeah, I think it’s really a personal choice. I think some people are desperate to have knowledge about their bodies, and even if it it’s not really actionable, they still want to know. One of the problems with that is that there’s a lot of kind of predatory marketing out there. They’re like, well, you might have this thing and we can probably fix it with this supplement or something. So I think maybe that’s one downside is like you have all this information that you can’t really act on. And then, you know, maybe you’re hoping that you can do something about it. And then some people. Yeah, I mean, it makes sense if, if it’s just going to cause you suffering. I think for some people, like for Sonia, she said, like it would cause me much more suffering not to know. I think it’s. Yeah, it’s just person dependent.


Jonathan Fields: [00:06:50] Yeah. Just the question hanging over you.


Kelly Clancy: [00:06:52] Exactly.


Jonathan Fields: [00:06:53] So as you described so often people are going to science and I feel like it’s not just science, but anyone who goes into a field creates a professional devotion where it’s driven in large part by one or a series of burning questions. Very often it starts in a very personal way for them. I’m curious whether they’re like, your career path has a more personal origin story as well?


Kelly Clancy: [00:07:14] Yeah, definitely. I’m a neuroscientist, and my my father was a pediatric neurologist, so I spent my childhood hanging out at the hospital a lot and seeing other kids. And the sort of spectrum of neurological illness is, is huge. You have kids that look just like me, but they happen to have seizures. And you had, like, profoundly disabled kids. And there’s a lot of suffering. There’s like, there’s not much you can do for a lot of these neurological conditions. And I remember talking to, you know, other doctors on the floor and wondering what to do with my life, and maybe I could help become a doctor or something. And they said, don’t become a doctor. All that’s going to do is you’re going to if you’re a neurologist, you see a kid, you diagnose a disease they have, and then you say, we don’t have medicine for it. So they said, you know, if you’re if you’re going to want to help these neurological patients go into neuroscience and learn about, come up with new techniques and new treatments. So I went to grad school for neuroscience and my second year in grad school, my one of my best friends from childhood lost both legs and an arm to an IED in Afghanistan. That kind of set me on a path to studying agency and brain-machine interfaces.


Kelly Clancy: [00:08:24] So kind of popularized by things like Neuralink. But basically, you train a person or an animal to control a computer with their brain, and this is a really kind of understudied area agency. So when my friend was in that explosion, basically he told me, you know, he had he had spent years training for this deployment, and he told me that the moment the explosion happened, he had this profound know, bubbling up like he was at the peak of his physical and mental abilities. He was, you know, young. And this thing happened and it was just like this. No ripping out from the center of his being. So losing our agency is really, really devastating. And you can think about even if you’re like, using a mouse and it’s kind of glitchy and buggy, like even that’s pretty infuriating. So losing your sort of ability to move, whether through injury or illness or otherwise, just is a psychologically devastating for people. And so being able to restore it in some way, whether through technology or or otherwise, is, I think, really important holy grail for a lot of neural technologists. That’s kind of what’s driven my work. Yeah.


Jonathan Fields: [00:09:35] I mean, that makes a lot of sense. The whole idea of, um, sort of like brain machine interfaces. I feel like we’re we’re in this moment now where I’m sure for years there’s been a ton of research going on behind the scenes. And now with the popularization of AI, now all these conversations are coming out into the public. And I wonder what that’s like for you, having worked on these things and researched and been doing this for years, and now all of a sudden it’s like, wow, this is part of the zeitgeist. And you’re like, I’ve been doing this for for a really long time now.


Kelly Clancy: [00:10:03] That’s a funny question. Yeah. I think probably the first real brain machine interface was published in like 2002 or so. So it’s been around for quite a while. But I think seeing the state of technology, it’s definitely improved a lot. And I’m a lot more optimistic about it than, you know, five, ten years ago. We just have much more exciting electronics and other ways of reading brain activity. It actually worries me somewhat that there’s so many businesses getting into it, because there’s obviously like a lot of business interest in getting some little handle on what’s going on in people’s mind. And it’s not like these things can read anyone’s mind, but there’s certainly issues. And I think one of the actually most tragic things is that businesses fail. And so there’s a couple stories of businesses that had chips in patients. And now those patients are stuck with these like and then the business failed. And now these patients are stuck with these chips in their heads, and they’re not doing anything. And they’re probably just like infection risk. Right. It’s kind of the Wild West. And so there’s a lot of amazing development. And I think there’s a lot of ethical dilemmas as well.


Jonathan Fields: [00:11:12] Yeah. No, that makes so much sense. And I get the sense that a lot of this is not going to be resolved tomorrow. You know, this is like that. We’re still in the really early days of all of this, but with so much more popular focus on it, I would imagine there’s more there’s probably a lot more business interest in it. There’s probably a lot more potential investment flowing into the space, which, like you described, can be good and bad. You know, it’s like it brings different motivations into the field, which can accelerate certain things, but also, you know, bring different pressures to bear. Exactly. Curious with your friend also who you were talking about, you know, one of the different areas that you’ve sort of looked at is chronic pain and the notion of unlearning. As recently talking to Sean Mackey, who’s a head of, um, a lot of the pain research at Stanford. And we were talking about this, this notion of chronic pain and how oftentimes, you know, the stimulus that led to pain originally gets resolved or healed or like it’s no longer putting it in, but our brain doesn’t get that signal, and our brains sort of like the circuitry is turned on and it just stays on, even though the original insult or stimulus is long gone. So I’m curious, sort of like on in the work that you’ve done or the insights or the take that you have on the notion of, quote, unlearning this circuitry or rewiring it differently.


Kelly Clancy: [00:12:28] Yeah, that’s exactly right. So I think I kind of realized this where my my dad has chronic back pain, pain, and he had all kinds of surgeries on his spinal cord to kind of ablate all the neurons that carry pain signals up to his brain. And so he’s got no pain bearing neurons in his, in his parts of his spinal cord. And yet he still experiences. Pain. And so that indicates that. Yeah. Exactly. Like you say, it’s got to be somehow just in his like represented somehow in, in his brain itself and not in the, not in the injury or not in the, the spinal cord. So basically your brain has just kind of like memorized that your body is in pain. And the one great optimistic thing about all of neuroscience research is that brains learn. I think that’s like the most profound and wonderful thing, because what can be learned can be unlearned. And so there’s this, um, adage in neuroscience that neurons that fire together wire together. And the converse of that is that if neurons fire asynchronously, then they tend to kind of unwire from each other. And so there’s all these new tools for stimulating activity in neurons these days. So you can like flash lights or pass current through the brain through the skull and cause neurons to activate. And so the hope would be that maybe there’s ways of activating sets of neurons that causes them to kind of decouple from each other and unlearn those pain associations that they’ve learned from years of injury.


Jonathan Fields: [00:14:00] Yeah, I mean, that would be pretty amazing. It almost feels like part of the challenge there also is trying to figure out, like for any given pain experience, where does that reside in the brain? Like where should we be looking as we’re testing ideas to try and like rewire or unwire this and I, I have to imagine that that’s just wildly complex.


Kelly Clancy: [00:14:20] Yes and no. I think the nice thing about the brain is that there are, you know, it is kind of chaotic and everything connects to everything. But there are also specific areas, like in the cortex, that map to different body parts and others that kind of process limbic experience of pain. So there are ways of isolating those areas. And but it is very complicated. Yes.


Jonathan Fields: [00:14:42] Yeah. Which kind of brings us, you know, like these different ideas and topics and just the work that you’re doing to the new book playing with reality, you know, because which is really it’s a fascinating look at the role of games, different types of games, different like notions and philosophies embedded in games, in the way that we understand ourselves and the world around us and to a certain extent, create the world around us. And part of what you’re talking about, like I wonder if in no small part you’re doing the work that you’re doing and so many scientists, you know, people who live in the question are doing the work that they’re doing because in some way, they’ve told the story of this work as being some sort of game to themselves that keeps them invested in it.


Kelly Clancy: [00:15:22] Yeah, I think that’s a beautiful way of putting it. I think in many ways research has become gamified, especially in, I would say, especially in AI right now, where a lot of companies are creating AI programs that can literally play games, and then they’re racing against each other, or there’s like a protein folding competition where they benchmark how well they can computationally predict protein folding in order to accelerate biomedical research. But I think there’s been a lot of acceleration of scientific research. Exactly. For the reason you’re saying that people kind of see it as a game, and we’re finding ways of kind of gamifying the fields that we’re studying in order to make it easier to make, like benchmark progress and measure our results against each other and compare results. Because I think one big issue in science is that it’s, you know, done by these independent teams and their data is proprietary and people aren’t sharing things. So if everyone’s you know, if you think about chess, like the beauty of chess is that nobody really has an advantage over anyone else. Like it’s just the board and you’re both playing on the same board. So if everyone’s kind of got the same goal, like let’s say protein folding, solving protein folding, then people can make progress towards those goals. And then I think the kind of more philosophical question is like whether we are taking a kind of game like approach in our research, like, is the individual scientist seeing their work as though it were a game? And I think that’s some of the most powerful science is when people are sort of playful and they try out different things and, you know, it’s a real thing of beauty to see something so creative where you’re like, where did that come from? And to some people I think are very, uh, just kind of creative and playful with it.


Jonathan Fields: [00:17:11] Yeah. No, that makes so much sense. I mean, you open the book really talking about the notion of like, how really how certain types of games or how like certain ideas of games, especially historically, are used to teach divine truths. Our understanding of the world, of the universe around us. Concept of is it Lila or Lila?


Kelly Clancy: [00:17:28] Yeah.


Jonathan Fields: [00:17:29] And like the cosmic play of creation to really just help us un like live in a game world or play in this state, but then have that transfer to our understanding of whatever we would consider reality.


Kelly Clancy: [00:17:42] Yeah. There’s this beautiful quote from the anthropologist David Graeber, which is that the ultimate hidden truth of the world is that. It is something we make and could just as easily make differently. And I just love that because it really underscores and he’s talking about it in the context of like how unbelievably varied a lot of human societies were. Like, we think of it as like, oh, things are the way they are and they can’t be different. And for a lot of human history, people were constantly remaking their societies. And I think the most successful scientists or the most successful business people or the most successful people are people who are constantly remaking themselves and playing with what works and what doesn’t work, and exploring these different ideas in in playful ways.


Jonathan Fields: [00:18:25] And we’ll be right back after a word from our sponsors.


Jonathan Fields: [00:18:31] When we use the word play here or games, are there sort of a universal set of defining characteristics of what makes for a game?


Kelly Clancy: [00:18:42] I think one nice definition of a game is that it is a system furnished with a goal, where you have to follow certain rules to achieve that goal. So, for example, golf, the goal would be to put a ball in the hole. But you can’t just like pick the ball up and walk it over and put it in the hole. You have to hit it with this metal stick and until you get it into the hole, and then something like, you know, dice would be similar, where if you’re trying to get a certain number, I don’t know, seven with your dice, you can’t just like plop them on the the table with your hands. You have to roll them randomized. So this goes for gambling for video games. And yeah, it can extend to all kinds of metaphorical games as well.


Jonathan Fields: [00:19:27] So you’ve got certain qualities, certain rules of the game. Um, and I guess and then there are certain types of games. It’s interesting relating back to what you were describing earlier, like in the context of scientists researching a question. On the one hand, it’s amazing because now you’ll have like a whole team sometimes, like multiple teams, hundreds of people in organization, all resource and all driving towards the same question, like tackling different pieces of it, different parts of it. But then you’ve got other organizations and other labs and as you were describing very often, like in in the world of research, there’s an incredible amount of siloing going on. Even within the same university, people could be walking, working on like parts of the same problems. But everyone’s kind of on the one hand, they’re trying to keep all the information that would help them, quote, win the game available to everyone on their team that matters, but at the same time protect it from everyone outside of that, because there’s a certain not just bragging rights, but literally career defining asset like resource allocations and notoriety and all these things that happened when you’re the one who quote wins. And it brings up the notion, you write about this of the zero sum game, take me into this and sort of like what your take is on this the good, the bad, the ugly, the.


Kelly Clancy: [00:20:38] Yeah, that’s a really profound point. That information is power in games. And if you’re playing poker, you’re trying to protect your cards and protect your emotions, not let anyone see what you’re thinking. And the whole point of the game is to deceive one another. Really. And this is true of a fair amount of games where the point is to hide what information you have, and you can even look at something like an eBay auction as a game where you don’t want to let on how much you want the thing. So you try to bid at the last minute or, you know, you play all these little.


Jonathan Fields: [00:21:10] It’s like the last 30 minutes. All of a sudden the price just skyrockets.


Kelly Clancy: [00:21:13] Exactly. Yeah. So you’re trying to, like, hide how much you want the thing. So you’re protecting again your information. So game theory is a branch of mathematics that came out of John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern wanting to kind of axiomatize human behavior. They wanted to, like, understand why humans make the choices they do. And so they wrote a book where they define all of these characteristics of games. We now hear about, like zero sum game where like a game like chess, where you’re only one person can win. And then there’s like positive sum games where multiple people can win and it makes sense to cooperate with with one another. And then there’s negative sum games where everybody loses in some way. So game theory focuses a lot on zero sum games. Or in the early days it did. These can have kind of kind of tragic consequences in that um, it can inspire competitiveness and so on. So there’s this newer branch of game theory called reverse game theory or mechanism design, where people look at how do we design a game to get the behavior we want players to exhibit? So if we want players to be truthful, rather than hide their information or lie to each other, what mechanics of the game can we invent to do that? This has been a really powerful way of designing new markets and designing new voting systems, where you get better behaviors from players.


Kelly Clancy: [00:22:36] There’s a famous board designer named Reiner Knizia who says when he designs a game, the first thing he thinks about is what is a scoring system? Because a scoring system is going to dictate how the players behave. So yeah, you basically go backwards from how do people get points, how do people win to figure out how to design the game to get the behaviors you want? And so I think this has a lot of promise for games in our society, because it turns out that games and game design has been incredibly influential in the design of a lot of our technologies. So the way ads are served to us, the way we’re matched on dating apps, yeah, new markets are designed, they’re all being informed by game theory. And so they’re all being designed by businesses. Well, they’re not all but most of them being designed by a business interests. So we’re kind of being subtly and not so subtly having our. Behaviors manipulated by these games. We’re moving in. And this is something I talk about a fair amount in the book. So to kind of bring awareness to it because so a game like monopoly, right, you play even if you are a socialist at heart, you have to play it like a greedy capitalist.


Jonathan Fields: [00:23:49] It’s the rules of the game like you were talking about earlier.


Kelly Clancy: [00:23:51] Yeah. So you, you are pretty much out of alignment with your actual principles in order to win the game. And it’s important that we know what games were really moving in to see where our principles are, maybe being subtly and not subtly compromised.


Jonathan Fields: [00:24:05] Yeah. I mean, it’s so interesting, right? Because I feel like so much of life has been set up as that zero sum game where like, like somebody wins and somebody loses. It’s not a game where it’s like, hey, ten of us start and it’s a lot of fun, and at the end we all feel good about it or we all win or we all were part of, like solving the big problem or creating the big thing. And yet then you look at, you know, other things like, you know, just popped into my mind randomly. Habitat for humanity, where like a ton of people volunteer and you show up and like, one person is swinging a hammer and one person is using a drill and everyone is working towards like the ultimate thing here is, hey, let’s build a home for somebody in need. So it’s like, you know, that feels like a game where it’s not a zero sum game, and yet you get people lining up to want to participate in that, which is fascinating to me. Yeah.


Kelly Clancy: [00:24:55] Philosopher C. Thi Nguyen says he writes about games a lot, and he says that games are in a way you’re cooperating to compete. So like you’re playing chess, you’re competing with your friend, but you’re also both there voluntarily. You both want to be there. You’re it’s really a cooperative technology, even though it feels like you’re competing in the moment. And neuroscience has basically validated this in that like being social in any way is a reward, like interacting with each other, helping each other out. So yeah, there’s this unfortunate, I think the sort of zero sum metaphor has really percolated into a ton of, well, it’s like kind of in a lot of the field of economics, and it’s in a lot of our mental models of how the world works. And it’s like a lot of business interests kind of operate in that way. And the truth is that it’s like humans don’t work like that. We take a lot of reward from playing on its own. We don’t really care about winning that much. It’s an unfortunate bias. I think Heather McGhee has that beautiful book, The Sum of Us, where she talks about how white Americans believing that the world kind of is a zero sum race, have like, voted against their self-interest and, you know, tried to block black Americans from getting the things that they have, the things that white Americans have, and sort of cutting off their own nose to spite their face.


Jonathan Fields: [00:26:17] I’m so curious. Also, you know, how much of the zero sum mentality is, is, um, is learned because it doesn’t seem it seems like in our most natural state, like, you know, if you look at toddlers playing, I wonder if you know, and like, they’re playing a game together, the building blocks, whatever they may be doing. If you see more of this, you know, like Coopetition collaboration type of thing where like, let’s just play, you know, like, and then we’re going to knock the thing down at the end so nobody really wins. Yeah. Whereas like at some point something gets sort of like learned into us that says no, no, no, no, no, that’s not how you quote win at life, at society, at like business, at whatever it may be. And, you know, similar to like we were talking about unlearning pain. Like there’s this ethos that says, like, if life is a game, somebody wins, somebody loses. And at some point that gets drilled into many of us. And that part of our job is to unlearn that.


Kelly Clancy: [00:27:07] Yeah, I completely agree with that. There’s a economist, Ariel Rubinstein, who talks about exactly this, where he’s a brilliant mathematician and he brilliant game theorist, and he worries that teaching students about game theory will kind of corrupt their minds. He calls them the victims of game theory, because if you teach people the kind of maximally selfish, perfect solution to a game theoretic scenario, it’s often like actually globally, the worse the worst possible outcome. So, for example, in the prisoner’s dilemma, two prisoners who have done a crime together and collaborated on this crime, and you take them separately into rooms and you say if you both confess, you both get one year of jail. If you deny and the other person confesses, they get three years of jail and you get off scot free. If you both deny, then you both get two two years of jail. So it’s globally optimal for both of them to confess, because then they both each get one year. But they both will deny because if they know that if and then they’ll get they’ll both get two years each. This is needlessly, needlessly involved, I think. But basically the idea is the global optimal solution to this would for them to both confess and but they both deny the crime. So they both get two years because they’re trying to get. Personally optimal solution, which is that they would get zero years and the other person would get three years. So out of selfishness, they do much worse than they should.


Kelly Clancy: [00:28:39] And so if you test like a naive person on this, like almost everybody cooperates because they’re like, yeah, we both like in a kind of laboratory scenario of this, if you test people, they cooperate. If you teach them game theory and you tell them the optimal solution is to defect, to deny the the crime, then they start to deny the crime. So they actually change their behaviors based on what they think is the game theoretic optimum. This is actually really tragic because often the game theoretic optimum is like super selfish and pretty pretty terrible. So there’s this idea that, like, you know, a bad model of an atom can’t hurt the atom. Like, it doesn’t matter if you have a wrong model of subatomic particle, a bad model of a human is really problematic because people learn. And so if they think that they’re supposed to behave a certain way, they will and they can behave in in pretty bad ways. And game theory is it’s a model of a, it’s a mathematical equation. It’s like a selfish, perfectly optimizing mathematical equation. It’s not actually a model of people. And so we’re kind of setting up these economic systems where we’re incentivizing these selfish behaviors that aren’t actually aligned with how humans behave, because we’re actually naturally very cooperative and want to be honest in all kinds of things. So it’s really quite tragic that it’s being co-opted as like the like basis for so many of our economic and technological systems.


Jonathan Fields: [00:30:01] Yeah. I mean, and you write about this also, you know, there’s a physiological like, you know, like and neurochemical loop that happens in the body that just keeps reinforcing this over and over. Like, you know, once you gamify things, then dopamine enters the equation in a very different way. Take me into that circuitry a little bit so you can understand like how that reward circuitry really just ingrains this mentality.


Kelly Clancy: [00:30:24] So dopamine it’s kind of misunderstood. A lot of people think it’s it’s a pleasure molecule. And really it’s kind of a wanting molecule. So it increases. For example, when we we know that we’re about to get a reward. So in the 90s, Wolfram Schultz, this, uh, German neurophysiologist, did these experiments in monkeys where they would train monkeys to, like, push a lever to get some juice after a light was flashed. And so in the beginning of these experiments, in the early days, the monkey would kind of didn’t know what he was doing, didn’t know that he needed to press a lever, and would occasionally accidentally press a lever and get some surprise juice, and the dopamine neurons would light up. So this was like, oh, I got this thing I wanted. And then as the animal learned that they had control and that the light cue meant that they were about to get reward, if they pushed the lever, their dopamine neurons started to light up to the light reward itself or to the light cue itself. So suddenly the the light was setting off this cascade of of dopamine like motivation for the reward. So dopamine codes for basically anything we want. So like food, water, uh, money, socialization, whatever people want. Dopamine encodes drugs. And a lot of drugs are very potent dopamine activators. And actually another thing is games like solving puzzles and and learning things.


Kelly Clancy: [00:31:55] So all of these things drive the same circuitry. And it’s also how we learn games. We learn this prediction of oh, we’re going to win if we do this. And so it learning games will drive this wanting circuitry. So yeah, games can be just as addictive as any other substance. And even people have known this for like thousands of years. I think there was like ancient Hindu texts that likened dice to drugs. So if you think about it, there are basically this system of ideas that the brain invented to serve itself free pleasure. You know, you’re learning in this little like system and you’re getting things right. And so you’re getting rewarded for getting things right. So it’s the brain tickling itself. Basically, there’s a great story from Herodotus, the Greek historian, uh, about the the Lydians, the people who lived around his time. And he claimed that they had an 18 year famine. And to survive the famine, they would alternate between eating one day and playing games the next, because playing games was kind of like would take the edge off the hunger, basically. And you know, who knows if that’s true, but you can kind of see that that, you know, you would want to distract yourself if, if you were starving. And games are really, really absorbing.


Jonathan Fields: [00:33:11] Yeah. I mean, and I think probably everybody has experienced that. You know, you say yes to a game and probably I would imagine this is even more present, sort of like, you know, in like massive online games these days where either I’m sure people listening to this or you have a kid or a relative or someone like that where like, you know, they go into their room and it’s 6:00 at night. And if you knock on the. Door at 10:00 the next morning. They may still be playing. Yeah. You know, and have absolutely no sense of time. It’s so immersive and absorbing that it really draws you in. And I imagine part of what is happening there is what you’re describing is like if there’s a if the game has been designed so that there’s almost like an endless amount of seeming novelty and endless amount of rewards, like every time you like you or your team members like achieve something within the game, you get that little dopamine hit. And as you’re describing, it’s not even that you have to like, knock off the thing or achieve the thing. It’s like the anticipation of it being about to happen. That alone releases dopamine, it gives you pleasure, and then that motivates you to keep doing it and to keep going more and to keep pulling you deeper into it. I could imagine, you know, on the one hand, could be fantastic, you know, if, depending on what the the overall intention of the game was, but also kind of brutal by pulling people out of the world around them and almost like addicting them to this alternate reality, to the, you know, to the detriment of their own lives and the people around them.


Kelly Clancy: [00:34:39] Yeah, I think that’s absolutely true. I think the for a long time there’s been sort of moral outrage, outrage about video games and their violence. But I think the real danger is the games are quite addicting and increasingly so. I mean, this is like companies are really perfecting the technology of like digital addiction and gamification. Yeah, I think it’s on one hand really promising and really exciting. And I think it’s something, you know, maybe like ten years ago, everyone was talking about gamification and that it was going to revolutionize work and everyone was going to have fun at work, and you could learn things and it would be totally joyful and you wouldn’t like nothing would be unfun ever again. And I think that really hasn’t come to pass. Like, I think what’s happened is companies have pasted these sort of shallow, addicting surfaces on their products. I mean, like Reddit is very gamified, where you get upvoted and you get points and you get badges and things. Twitter, all these social media platforms are very gamified, and you can feel like you have a score based on how many followers you have. So companies have definitely embraced this, I think to in many ways our detriment. And I don’t mean this to say that gamification is never going to work, because I think it’s going to be brilliant for education. I think it’s going to be revolutionary for a lot of things. But what we have right now isn’t really gamification. It’s like addictivation.


Jonathan Fields: [00:36:05] Mm. No, that makes sense. I mean, I wonder if part of part of what makes it. I hate to use the word good or bad, but like positive, healthy constructive outcome versus negative like destructive dysfunctional outcome is whether the the ultimate the thing that you’re striving for is status versus knowledge. You know, I think so many games are built around status. And I look at those and I get it like we all have a human impulse towards status. Like we’re kind of wired that way. Yeah. But at the end of the day, like to what end? Nobody really cares. It doesn’t go on your tombstone. And if it does, who did it says nothing about, like the way that you lived your life and whether it was a good life or not. Whereas like, you know, if the if the goal of a game, if you’re using all this game theory and the end goal is like, let’s get smarter, let’s get collectively more compassionate, let’s get, you know, it seems like it’s what’s being gamified. Like what behaviors are we gamifying and to what end plays a huge role in whether all of these theories and ideas and tools and structures are actually like, positive or negative. Does that make sense?


Kelly Clancy: [00:37:11] Yeah, I love that idea, and I, I absolutely agree in the book, I, I suggest that we’ve used game theory as this foundation for a lot of economics. And it’s it doesn’t make sense as a model of humans for a lot of reasons. And one of them is that it has like very static end goals. A game theoretic agent wants in the model. It’s going to want like the thing it wants in all different conditions. So for example, like it’s going to want to wear flip flops whether it’s winter or summer, it’s hard wired to want the one thing it wants. And humans don’t work like that at all. We are like, we learn what we want. Sometimes we get what we want, and then we learn that that’s not actually what we want, and we change what we want. Or we want flip flops in the summer and boots in the winter. We also don’t want things at the cost of certain principles. So like we don’t want to wear flip flops, even if it means that, like, we have to throw a bag of puppies off a train, like we have limits on the things we want. And so yeah, I suggest that a better model of humans is is one of kind of as learners, we’re groping through our systems and trying to figure out what it is we want and how to get it in ways that we accord with our values. Yeah.


Jonathan Fields: [00:38:30] That makes. So much sense, and we’ll be right back after a word from our sponsors. Part of what you’re describing also. And you talk about this and it’s like the rational fools like element in the book is this notion that we’re like, somewhat predictable and we always kind of want the same, but also that we largely will always choose self-interest. And like you were describing earlier, you know, if we really look at it like in our most natural states, we tend not to and society really flourishes when we’re, like, interdependent, not, you know, completely independent and self-interest driven. And there’s all this research now also that shows, you know, like one of the best, one of the most powerful ways to actually, like, feel like you’re living a good, meaningful, purposeful, like alive life is to be generous. Mhm. A lot of traditional economic theory would be like like but that’s not rational. Like in a world where there are, you know, like there’s a limitation on resources, like human beings won’t operate that way. And in fact, oftentimes without external influence, we will. And we feel so much better when we do. And it’s like, what if we gamify that?


Kelly Clancy: [00:39:36] That’s great. Yeah. Yeah, I think that’s absolutely right. I think there’s a great juxtaposition of these two sort of philosophies in the work of Garrett Hardin versus Elinor Ostrom. So Garrett Hardin in 1968 wrote this famous article called The Tragedy of the Commons, where he uses game theory to kind of imagine what would happen if you had a bunch of like, herds, people sharing a common and if they were all rational, they would all want to keep as much of their cattle on the commons as possible. So they would all just like, collect tons and tons of cattle and then ruin the the common grazing land because they were being like rationally selfish. And then he goes on to argue from that point, which is completely theoretical and like completely mathematical and not in any way like grounded in real human data. He goes on to argue, he turns out he’s like a huge racist, and he’s like arguing for immigration control and sterilization, like forced sterilization, all kinds of really shady stuff. And it was an incredibly influential piece, but it had no bearing in reality.


Kelly Clancy: [00:40:46] And so this economist, Elinor Ostrom, around the same time, was writing her grad dissertation and went on to do all of her her research on this question of like, what do real humans do when they have to share common pool resources, like they have to share a well, they have to share a garden of some kind. By and large, most humans do really well at finding sustainable ways of of sharing these common resources. And not always, but and obviously, we’re not always doing it perfectly because the world is in, you know, there’s some some climate issues and so on. But it was really amazing to see, like the huge diversity of ways people really, genuinely work together to make sustainable their common resources. And I think that’s a really great example of like of game theory kind of causing us to come to these, like repugnant conclusions when the reality of humans is that we’re not selfish and we like working together and we’re cooperative and we are socially oriented and all kinds of nice things. So yeah, I totally agree with that.


Jonathan Fields: [00:41:54] It begs the question, though, in my mind, and this is like, guaranteed, somebody’s going to be thinking this right now. You’re like that old quote, but it only takes one bad apple. So if you have a game where the rules are based on benevolence and sort of like collective elevation, that’s awesome for everybody who buys into it. But what about that one person who shows up? They see the way that they get the rules are written. They kind of see the way that they can manipulate this to their own extreme personal gain. How do we handle that?


Kelly Clancy: [00:42:22] Yeah, it’s a great question. I wish I had a better answer. I think one idea is, and this is kind of speculation and wishful thinking, but the hope would be that as you’ve kind of gestured towards, like, if we can find the right game rules where people are incentivized to collaborate and cooperate and deeply, maybe penalized for not, can we design better games where people win by cooperating? But this is a great question. And I think, you know, game theory was also used for a lot of the sort of nuclear diplomacy strategizing to current day. And it gave us policies like mutually assured destruction, which basically the idea is that if, you know, two countries have huge nuclear arsenals, they need to develop capabilities so that if one of the countries launched a nuclear strike on the other one, the one that was, um, attacked, would attack back and destroy so that both countries would basically be destroyed. So your the idea is that you’re like maintaining peace by threatening the other countries. And to be fair, like we haven’t had a nuclear war. So that’s that’s promising. But actually one of the interesting footnotes in history is that this is not necessarily a rational way for countries to behave because, you know, if one country attacked your country, is it really kind of morally okay to then just like completely destroy their country if like if that basically is going to end up ending life on Earth or something like that’s not the most rational thing to do.


Kelly Clancy: [00:44:00] So there was a in 1983, the the economist Thomas Schelling organized a simulation game about what would happen in a nuclear war. And he invited 200 top US politicians and military officers. And they played through, you know, what happens if Russia strikes us here? What happens if, you know, do we have the capabilities for this or that? And I think it was like a three week simulation of all kinds of different contingencies, and it ended up scaring the pants off everybody. Like the outcomes were horrifying in these game simulations. It was like either wiping life off the face of the Earth or, you know, the best case scenario was like it would kill 500,000 people if it was a very limited nuclear war. And then like another 500 million people would die of radiation poisoning. So this game simulation ended up scaring enough American politicians that the Reagan administration then was moved to open, like sweeping arms control negotiations with the Soviets. So I think this is an example of like a game experience, which is in many ways like a very intimate thing where you’re like seeing kind of firsthand like what we’re using this rhetoric, we’re using this like we’re gonna beat the Soviets rhetoric. What would that actually look like? Thinking through that in the form of a game was incredibly powerful for people. And so I think game theory can take us to these, again, like kind of morally reprehensible places, but then game design can maybe get us out of them. Yeah.


Jonathan Fields: [00:45:30] I mean, that’s fascinating. You know, it’s sort of like taking that phrase, well, let’s play this out to the extreme. In that scenario, it’s like, well, before we actually go too far down this road, like, what if we really, really, really played this out? And maybe on the one hand, like one outcome is like, oh, this is awesome. Let’s keep on keeping on. But it sounds like in that scenario, rather than having to actually live it and experience horrific, horrific outcomes, like you spend three weeks intensively with 200 minds in a room and being like, oh wow, like this is something that we can never let happen. We need to actually start making different decisions and figure out a different approach to this, largely because you did this simulation a compressed amount of time, and it gave you insights that changed your reality, changed the way that you behave. And like from that moment forward, I wonder how much we do that just on a really micro scale, like any given individual all day, every day.


Kelly Clancy: [00:46:22] So for starters, I think probably even for adults who like, aren’t playing games in their their lives now, the games that we played as children like really profoundly influence our filters. The way we solve problems, the way we think. And so I think there’s actually a lot of like, previously gamed out things from our past that are dictating a lot of the way we see the world and the way we’re interacting with people. And then there’s I mean, there’s also really very cute examples of like, you know, there’s been this resurgence of Dungeons and Dragons. So, so a lot more people are playing these kind of role playing games. People are discovering like new gender identities, new aspects of their personality. I started playing it with some friends and we played for a couple of weeks, and then we all realized, like we picked characters that were basically ourselves, but gnomes or whatever. So we kind of rejiggered our our characters to try to get out of our selves a bit. Because part of the beauty of games is that you can pretend to be whoever the character you’re playing is. You can be completely outside of yourself and hopefully, like, explore new aspects of your personality or act in ways that you wouldn’t normally act, I think, and this is like extremely powerful. Like, I think a lot of us feel very imprisoned in our identities. Like I am this, I am shy, I act like this, I am a scientist, I am whatever we are. We tend to kind of cling to those identities really strongly. And I think games encourage us in this really fun way to play with that and step outside that and experience what it would be like to be someone else.


Jonathan Fields: [00:47:57] Yeah. And, you know, like you talk about this also like, you know, sort of like under this notion of, you know, like exploring moral geometry, you know, sort of like we walk through the world in a very particular way with an assumed identity. And like, this is who we are. This is how we show up. This is what we say yes to. This is what we say no to. This is what we believe and what we don’t believe in. And what you’re describing is like, we have this amazing opportunity when we step into a game. And especially in it’s been amazing to see the resurgence of role playing games over the last decade or so. And like old school board games, like people sit around the table and play for hours, sometimes days and weeks. And I do wonder if a lot of that is what you’re saying. It’s like we’re so locked into these, this sense of like, this is how I show up in. The real world, but wouldn’t it be cool to have a place where I could experiment and the stakes weren’t like my career or like life and death health or like, you know, like my closest friends and partner and relationships where I don’t want to take a social risk or I don’t want to take a career risk. I don’t want to do this, but I really do want to kind of play with my sense of identity and see what’s possible. And it’s almost like a lower stakes way for us to step into, um, a different role and run experiments in a way that really, even though they’re unfolding in the in the game world, they’re really teaching us about ourselves.


Kelly Clancy: [00:49:14] I love that, like exactly. That’s exactly right. It’s you’re running experiments, different simulations on your life. And I think that’s what play evolved to be. It’s basically a space of safe exploration. Like, first of all, play is ancient. Like most animals play, almost all mammals play. So it’s this really old evolutionary tactic, and it’s almost impossible to like, get animals to not play. They just play. And so it’s actually kind of hard to study because you can’t, like, have a control group where you don’t have play animals. But as far as we can tell, it seems to be this the purpose of play in animals is that it’s this place for safe exploration where you’re like practicing hunting with, but you’re just doing it with like a ball of yarn for a kitten, or like you’re wrestling with your littermates as a wolf. And then, like in when you’re an adult, you’re going to need to hunt your own. You’re going to need to wrestle on your own. So at that point, what you learned in play will kind of come to bear. But the play is kind of exploring social relationships and, and your body. And then humans took this to a mental realm where exploring ideas, we’re exploring our identities. And what’s kind of beautiful is that even though for a lot of animals, they don’t play as much as adults, like humans are still super playful as adults. And it’s like this really deep kind of mammalian instinct. And I love to see that people are embracing it again or more these days.


Jonathan Fields: [00:50:36] Now, I love that too. And the notion of those sort of like the role playing games also brings up something else I want to ask you about, which is you. We talked about the idea of a zero sum game where there’s a winner, there’s a loser, and how that’s like so often drilled into so many aspects of life as we become adults. And and then you shared this concept of mechanism design as like an alternative approach. What if we could all just engage this thing in a way where we’re collaborating and we’re cooperating? And sure, there’s probably some friendly competition and all that, but at the end of the day, like, we can all actually participate in something amazing. I’ve also heard this phrase, um, infinite games, where the notion is like not to sort of like get to the end of the game and be a winner or not even to get to the end of the game. But like, how do we step into or create a game that’s just so awesome? Like, the goal is, I don’t ever want this to end. Yeah. Tell me a little bit more about this idea.


Kelly Clancy: [00:51:25] Yeah, it’s a beautiful idea. Winning is just to get to play more. And I mean evolution is that life is that. And actually, yeah, a lot of amazing biology has come out of of modeling life as like this iterated game between animals. And I don’t have like necessarily deep insights beyond the fact that that’s it’s a beautiful idea that some games are like just meant to be played forever. But I think it’s a really important kind of guiding principle for, you know, playing to win is this extremely shortsighted thing where we might burn bridges to win, we might act in ways we’re not proud of, to win like. So, for example, the Game Mafia, where you’re basically like lying to your friends and like hiding who’s the mafia in the in the game. I’ve like seen so many people get super offended playing that game. And you know, we wouldn’t normally lie to our friends like the game is encouraging us to to behave in ways that we don’t necessarily want to in our real lives. It’s kind of outside of who we are. We have to like, pretend to be something. But for an infinite game, you would have to, like, really inhabit yourself, like you would have to. Not your like game identity would have to not be separate from your real identity. And that’s a really interesting condition for a game. And I think, you know, in the more practical sense, like there might start to be like actual kind of like endless video games in a way. There already are these massive online universes. So we might get more like that. And it might be, you know, the content is automatically generated by AI and stuff like that. But I think of it as more of this, like this beautiful metaphor for like, how do we design systems where we’re not like razing the environment or raising our relationships with people in order to win, and rather are finding ways of engaging with each other in a sustainable way?


Jonathan Fields: [00:53:19] Um, no, I love that. And that actually sounds like a really good place for us to come full circle as well. So I always wrap with the same question this container of Good Life Project.. If I offer up the phrase to live a good life, what comes up?


Kelly Clancy: [00:53:32] We touched on this. That identity, I think is. Is a common thread in wisdom traditions that identity is, or misidentification is kind of the root of suffering, and I think play is a really powerful way of playing with that and breaking that. So when we are suffering or struggling, we can get to these kind of like contracted states where we’re really banging our head against the wall, trying to heal or trying to have things change. I think I you know, I recently, after the pandemic, started playing a lot more games and realizing that, like, there was just not enough joy in my life, there was not enough fun. And games were a really great way for me to reconnect with that kind of childlike sense of creativity. And for me, I think just kind of breaking out of that stricture of who I think I am and getting silly with it for once is has been pretty powerful for me.


Jonathan Fields: [00:54:33] Hmm. Thank you.


Jonathan Fields: [00:54:35] Hey, before you leave, if you love this episode safe bet, you’ll also love the conversation we had with Nir Eyal about becoming undistracted. You’ll find a link to Nir’s episode in the show notes. This episode of Good Life Project was produced by executive producers Lindsey Fox and me, Jonathan Fields. Editing help By Alejandro Ramirez. Kristoffer Carter crafted our theme music and special thanks to Shelley Adelle for her research on this episode. And of course, if you haven’t already done so, please go ahead and follow Good Life Project. in your favorite listening app. And if you found this conversation interesting or inspiring or valuable, and chances are you did. Since you’re still listening here, would you do me a personal favor, a seven second favor, and share it? Maybe on social or by text or by email? Even just with one person? Just copy the link from the app you’re using and tell those you know, those you love, those you want to help navigate this thing called life a little better so we can all do it better together with more ease and more joy. Tell them to listen, then even invite them to talk about what you’ve both discovered. Because when podcasts become conversations and conversations become action, that’s how we all come alive together. Until next time, I’m Jonathan Fields signing off for Good Life Project.

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