A really helpful tip I hear from great competitive players, is to make sure to “play to the mission.” Indeed, this is one of those foundational pieces of advice. Self-reflecting on my own experiences playing competitive games, I notice that sometimes, for whatever reason, I actually find it difficult to play to the mission, despite knowing the importance of this tactic. The purpose of this post is to explore a hypothetical reason as to why one may find playing to the mission difficult. In my exploration of this, I draw from the work Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist who received a Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences. In particular, I am drawing from his work on cognitive biases, that he summarizes in his book Thinking Fast and Slow. To be sure, some of us may not find playing to the mission difficult at all! Also, for those of us who sometimes struggle to play to the mission, there are likely many reasons, that vary across individuals, as to why this difficulty arises. The purpose here in this reflection is to have some fun thinking about one possible such reason.
When I self-reflect on moments when I lapsed from playing to the mission, I notice this is not a conscious decision that I make. That is, I do not say to myself, now I will not play to the mission. Rather, my cognitive shift to failing to play to the mission happens quickly, and quite automatically. On the other hand, when I decide to actually play to the mission, it is an effortful decision, for which I tell myself, now you need to play to the mission.
I feel that Kahneman gives us some helpful research to make sense of one possible angle as to why it is sometimes difficult to focus on playing to the mission. Kahneman discusses how there is data to suggest that when performing complex problems, humans sometimes perform what he calls a substitution. A substitution is a cognitive step for which one substitutes a complex problem for an easier one. Here are a couple examples Kahneman gives in his book:
Target question: how happy are you with your life these days?
Substitution: how happy am I right now?
Target question: how much would you contribute to save an endangered species?
Substitution: how much emotion do I feel when I think of extinct dolphins?
The idea here, is that we sometimes make substitutions to make the problem solving easier. Kahneman discusses how sometimes this tactic is a good one, though sometimes it can cause trouble. I think this is a cool insight, and helps me understand a pitfall that I sometimes fall into when playing competitive games. I sometimes perform the following substitution while playing a competitive game:
Target question: how well is this game going for me?
Substitution: how much is left of my opponents models?
Now, I know this is not the best way to evaluate how I am doing in a game! A better assessment would be to estimate the mission points potential of both me, and my opponent, based on where we are in the game. Still though, I feel that sometimes I make the substitution error above. Now, if this is so obvious to me, then why do I sometimes automatically make this error when playing a competitive game? Kahneman helps us here to, by introducing research suggesting that substitutions are computed by a cognitive system that is fast, automatic, and difficult to override. This does not mean to say that one cannot override it. Indeed, this can be done with practice! This is just to say that cognitions arising from this system tend to happen in a fast, effortless, automatic way.
This research is neat to me, because it helps me make sense of why I sometimes slip into equating an opponent’s current unit count, with my current success in the game, when in reality, there are far better measures of success, such as the degree to which I am actually winning the mission!
So in the context of playing competitive games, as Kahneman asks in his book, “Do we still remember the question we are trying to answer? Or have we substituted an easier one?”