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Life As A Game: The Manual

When a crisis, a very stressful or painful event, a trauma occurs in our lives, it can often feel like we’ve stepped out during the first act of a play, or game, or football match, gone to the lavatory or to get a drink, and upon returning for the second half of this thing, the plot or “rules” of the game, seem no longer applicable.

This is often what anxiety and depression signal in our lives, as well as all the other stressors of human existence. We are suddenly reminded at a very deep level that we have lost some or maybe a great deal of sense of our purpose, our “mojo” on this stage of life; lost the plot as it were. The old rules no longer apply, but we don’t seem to have any new ones to replace them with.

Many of us will have experienced this feeling of being caught between an existential, even Sisyphean rock and a hard place like this because life itself holds this narrative arc in its unfolding. In the First Act, and maybe in the Second, we play our roles according to societal norms and expectations unless we are out-and-out rebels. But often, some sort of turning point arrives, marking the transition to Act II or III, and this transition often involves suffering.

Crisis might be a more appropriate word. Any life crisis is painful because it reveals to us that the “rules” or reason for playing the game has shifted. The goals that were propelling us forwards—achievement, status, material gains—now have a different salience to them; they may even feel untrue, or out of reach. Our motivations for doing what we once did, or have always done, no longer hold, even though we are probably still continuing to strive for all that socially conditioned stuff, because: the Matrix.

And so we are thrust into disturbing and unknown territory, in Act II. The second half of the game, if we’re still on a football pitch, might still offer guidelines, but no guideline fully makes sense, and usually this happens with little warning and a great deal of emotional turbulence.

The key question now has to be: how do we find our balance, find direction and fulfilment when the “game” of life has changed for us in some fundamental way? How do we come up with a new set of rules or guidelines, a new set of “life hacks” to guide us forward in whatever realm of intelligence we currently are most lost in: head (cognitive), heart (emotional), or body (instinctual)?


This second act often commences with the loss of something—of youth, of health, of a person we love, or maybe of a previously held dream or fantasy. Loss or traumatic stress is followed by pain, be it an emotional, physical, or just purely circumstantial level. Is there some way to make use of this pain, to crack our minds and hearts open in some new way, to offer wisdom through some kind of expansion of perspective or tolerance?

If life is a play, and your life crisis is the end of one act, the beginning of another, how do we even start to craft Act II, or Act III? What personal, self-fashioned guidelines might help us navigate all this new ambiguity and suffering?

Life As A Game

The reason I’m framing this eternal existential question in this not entirely novel, but perhaps still useful way is because I’m reading a book at the moment by a philosopher of games called C. Thi Nguyen called Games: Agency As Art.

I have learnt so much about life and games, and the intersection of the two, from C. Thi Nguyen’s book. Crucial LAAG concepts like games as “voluntary obstacles”, striving play (especially aesthetic striving) vs. achievement play, and the idea of games, as well as certain life activities inviting us into a “magic circle”.

I also really love watching him on YouTube because he’s incredibly smart but also hilarious.

Perhaps some of the “work” the culture expects us to do in therapy (for are we not supposed to be “working” as opposed to enjoying ourselves?) might be to give some time to talking about, or maybe even writing for ourselves a kind of Life As A Game Manual?

Not one we have to adhere to forever, or even a year, but certainly one that will help us deal with where the game life has thrust us right now. Perhaps envisaging new rules or roles we might want to play, updating our suppositions or attitudes, our various learnt “scripts” with regard to rules and narratives that we once played, pay-offs we once hoped to get in Act 1, but now are needing something else.

Would not such a manual hold a very precious compass for us in terms of charting our second act? The questions it poses might also strip away some of the masks we have to wear in Act I, revealing what matters most to us now, and what will make our Second Act, our ongoing lives, more enjoyable, peaceful, or meaningful.

With this idea in mind, I thought I might pitch my idea to CHAT GPT as a pre or post-crisis “Life As A Game Manual”.

What would constitute the chapters of this manual, I asked the LLM Oracle? Could these chapters be further broken down into sub-chapters, each accompanied by a series of questions, thereby rendering the workbook version of the manual ready for utilisation by me or patients?

Five seconds later it beautifully obliged. Just the bare bones of a Life As A Game Manual outline though, so I nudged it towards crafting for us three key reflection questions for each of its suggested chapter headings.

These questions, I suggested, should be designed to provoke “deep, authentic, and potentially uncomfortable reflections from head, heart, and body intelligence systems, drawing inspiration from some of the thinking around these human “Operating Systems” from neuroscientists, psychiatrists, and anyone else they could find to illuminate us.

I also asked it to envision these questions as having been further formulated trialled, and no doubt improved upon by the clinical or lived experience of psychologists, psychotherapists, and spiritual practitioners, shamans, and whoever else they wanted to bring in for guidance, especially with regard to experts in quarter-life crisis, or mid-life crisis. Heck, why not just include ALL trauma, ALL crises, change, transitions, beginning with that of being born as Otto Rank initially reminded us, and everything else that follows.

“Please consult a diverse array of races and genders in terms of your research,” I further prompted so as to make it as inclusive as possible, before pressing SEND.

I know this all sounds like a bit of a faff, but getting the best out of AI I have discovered requires having to be incredibly, incredibly INCREDIBLY specific, often to a somewhat frustrating and laborious degree.

It is like (I imagine, for I have never had the pleasure/pain of doing this myself) having to micro-manage a very amenable and somewhat able intern who is also painfully inept and non-proactive, someone who just hangs around the office waiting to be spoon-fed highly specific instructions (prompt after carefully engineered prompt) returning with work that is a little like what we asked for, but showing no initiative whatsoever for getting the work to a standard that you actually require, which winds you up unitl the point in which you begin to wonder whether the job might have been done more quickly by you just using our own organic but often quite slothful intelligence.

I still didn’t like the stuff GPT was coming up with at this point, but third time lucky I got what I’d been casting around for and out popped the following.


Chapter 1: Voluntary Obstacles – Embracing Life’s Challenges

Explanation: In games, players willingly take on challenges and obstacles to make the activity satisfying and meaningful. Similarly, viewing life’s difficulties as voluntary obstacles can shape our approach to whatever form of suffering we are currently experiencing and letting go.

1. Can you think of a challenge in your life that, if approached like a game, might feel more manageable or even satisfying to tackle?

2. Have you ever chosen to face a difficult situation and found unexpected rewards in doing so?

3. How might seeing life’s changes as challenges to be overcome, rather than burdens, change your perspective on those classic “markers” of existence: ageing (also change/loss), sickness or degradation (including mental ill health unease, anxiety, depression, confusion), and finally good old death?

Chapter 2: The Magic Circle – Nurturing Relationships

Explanation: The “magic circle” represents a safe space in games where different rules apply, and actions don’t have real-world consequences. This concept can be applied to create nurturing spaces in relationships.

1. Can you think of a way to create a “magic circle” in any/all of your relationships, a safe space where openness and understanding are prioritised? Start by thinking about the relationship you have with yourself and your One True Friend.

2. Have you ever experienced a situation where a game or playful activity helped resolve a conflict or deepen a bond?

3. How might creating such safe spaces help you form and maintain meaningful relationships within and without?

Chapter 3: Stupid Games & Recalcitrance – Self-Care and Creativity

Explanation: “Stupid games” bring joy through playful failure, while “recalcitrance” represents the creative struggle against limitations. Combining these concepts can lead to innovative self-care practices.

1. Can you recall a time when embracing failure or limitations led to joy, relief, or a creative solution?

2. How might incorporating playful and creative elements into your routine contribute to your well-being?

3. Can you think of a way to turn a limitation or challenge into an opportunity for creativity and self-care?

Chapter 4: Emergent vs Fixed Narrative – Crafting Meaning and Purpose

Explanation: Games can have fixed stories or allow players to create their own narratives. Balancing these approaches can help craft a meaningful life story.

1. How do you balance following a set path and creating your own story in your life?

2. Can you share a time when you felt like the author of your own story, and how it contributed to your sense of purpose?

3. How might embracing both structure and freedom help you lead a richer and more fulfilling life? What would the first steps here look like?

Chapter 5: The Paradox of Tragedy – Facing Mortality with Insight

Explanation: The paradox of tragedy explores why we find enjoyment in art that induces sadness or fear. Engaging with such themes can provide insights into mortality and the value of life.

1. Have you ever found comfort or insight in a story, film, or game with dark or tragic themes?

2. How might exploring such themes help you come to terms with life’s uncertainties and your own mortality?

3. Can you think of a way that engaging with challenging themes (such as in journalling, or a One True Friend practice, or perhaps more traditional prayer) could provide comfort or understanding regarding the end of life?

Conclusion: Games as Voluntary or Aesthetic Obstacles and Striving Play – Moving Forward with Intention

Explanation: Games offer challenges and intrinsic joy through participation. Applying these principles can influence our outlook on life and future intentions.

1. Reflecting on the concepts discussed, how might viewing challenges as voluntary obstacles and finding joy in participation influence your life?

2. Can you envision applying the joy of participation to overcome challenges and foster hope in your future journey?

3. What specific steps inspired by these concepts will you take to live more intentionally and meaningfully?

Why Produce One of these LAAG Manuals for yourself?

My totally cheery but also somewhat Woody Allenesque philosophy on life is that at an existential level one is either emerging from a crisis, OR actually having a crisis, OR emerging from having been in some crisis. But of course always with the dream to be totally, blissfully and forever crisis-free.

Wherever you or I might fall on that crisis see-saw or merry-go-round, some ‘True Friend’ aspect of us might hopefully guide us, or be guided to guide us, towards focusing on the kind of self-help or therapy that we need.

This might include a very conscious writing up of our Act II intentions as a kind of “manual” of sorts, something which allows us to live aligned with our most satisfying values but also with all three intelligence centres we possess: “body”, “heart”, and “mind” aligned.

1. Body Centre (Instinctual Intelligence):
Surface Level (Psychological): The body centre might be associated with instinct, action, and groundedness. It seeks autonomy and strength, a knowing where we stand, having a “position” (emotionally, physically, conceptually) but this can also sometimes lead to impulsivity and a disconnection from the head and heart centres, being as it is the most foundational/animal/unconscious of the three centres.
Deeper Level (Psycho-Spiritual): Exploring further, the body centre might be viewed as a vessel of embodied wisdom, the alchemical crucible within which all the head and heart stuff happens, as well as our only connection to the natural world, to what is “real” rather than what is swirling around in the swirly parts of us. This might potentially offer us ways to be more present, trusting the intelligence of this silent but wise companion, and aligning us with its rhythms – the rhythms of life, and perhaps even the universe.

2.Heart Centre (Emotional Intelligence):
Surface Level (Psychological): The heart centre is potentially where emotions, empathy, and connection might be said to reside. It is in within this Operating System that we seek love, acceptance, and identity, which can also sometimes manifest as a kind dependency on external validation.
Deeper Level (Psycho-Spiritual): Moving inward, the heart centre could be seen as potentially offering us a space for greater love and interconnectedness, both within ourselves, but maybe also with others. This is where we also feel hope and seek some sense of unity with everything inside us, as well as all beings, transcending the limitations of our desires and attachments.

3. Head Centre (Intellectual Intelligence):
Surface Level (Psychological): The head centre might be seen as the domain of cognition, analysis, and planning. It seemingly seeks understanding, clarity, and security, which can sometimes lead to a tendency for overthinking and detachment from the present moment.
Deeper Level (Psycho-Spiritual): Delving deeper, one might consider the head centre not merely as a cognitive tool but as a potential portal to inner wisdom, guidance and deep understanding/knowing. At this level it becomes more about (perhaps?) quieting the mind to tune into more intuitive knowing, trying to see our reality beyond the illusions/bars/blocks of the ego.

The Life Manual: Integrated Gamification

To be fully ourselves, to be as “whole” as we can be as bifocal beings, integration is potentially not just about balance but a certain kind of transcendence, a unification of thought, emotion, and instinct into a coherent whole. Broadly speaking and often naffly expressed, this might involve a willingness to look beyond the “psychological”/ego-based understanding of each centre and open ourselves to delving into those psycho-spiritual seas, swimming for pearls deep down in the depths of ourselves.

The Life As A Game Manual is not a prescriptive piece of psychotherapeutic “homework” but rather an invitation to explore, reflect, and perhaps even “play” with your life and experience.

Whether you are in crisis, emerging from one, or simply seeking greater clarity and purpose, this manual (regardless of whether I prompt-engineered it out of GPT or not) offers potentially a framework for navigating the complexities of existence.

Fundamentally what I would like to think, and hold onto for myself (and for everyone else) is that life is like a game: full of challenges and opportunities, but also with the potential for this special kind of purposeful or “aesthetic striving” which makes the game, whatever game we’re playing meaningful and worthwhile to us in some way.

So, grab a pen, or create a Google Document on your computer, open your heart and mind, and let the game begin.