Do you live in the “Meta-game”?

Several years ago I had a friend who was studying developmental psychology. During one of our conversations she introduced me to the concept of “metacognition” — which she then went on to explain is “thinking about thinking”, or in a sense “zooming out” and viewing our own thinking — cool!

And I, being the painful computer engineer I am, thought to probe her with a recursive question — and so went on to ask her about “metametacognition” (which logically would be required in order to come up with the concept of “metacognition” right?), and “metametametacognition” (which would be “thinking about thinking about thinking about thinking”), and as you can see this quickly dives into pointless infinity. But what my friend gave me was a seed of thought about a particular topic:

The “Meta-game”

What was planted in my mind from that encounter with my friend was a seed of thought about what I think we can call “the meta-game“, which could be defined as:

“Thinking or operating on a level above the normal level of thought and operation”

When I was a child I once went to soccer lessons. The teacher, after evaluating our overall proficiency, commented to us as a group and said “you are like bees swarming around the ball, and have no concept of keeping to your positions” — as you may be able to tell, our soccer team did not perform very well!

In hindsight the major reason was because our level of thought and activity was too low, all of us focused on “getting to the ball” as quickly as possible so we could kick it ourselves and score a goal. However, the opposing team was playing “the meta-game”, they resisted the temptation to unthinkingly rush towards the ball and instead understood the deeper level of playing soccer as a team. They stuck to their positions and coordinated, and ultimately gave our young team a good thrashing!

The “meta-game” is well applied to sports and competitive games. Let me give another example of it:

The deceptive question — a premise of “tricks”

Imagine for a second we had two large numbers on a computer screen, one was in the tens of thousands, 17 158  and the other in the tens of millions, 14 589 654.

Both of these numbers are falling in real time, the one in the tens of millions is falling considerably faster than the one in the tens of thousands. Now, imagine we presented this puzzle to people in general and asked them to predict to us which one would fall to zero first. We will discuss the various levels of “meta-game” thinking that one could put into solving such a puzzle.

Level 0: Very basic thought — “tens of millions”

One would expect “general” people to look at the one in the tens of millions that is falling much more rapidly — see the more rapid speed of falling and answer that it would reach zero first. A logical answer for a very basic audience to give.

Level 1: Aware of the deception — “tens of thousands”

People who are a bit sharper may be aware of the deception built into the problem. The one in the tens of millions may be falling much faster, but it has a lot further to go. Taking this variable into consideration, they may be confident in saying “the one in the tens of thousands” because they are compensating for what they perceive to be the basic deception.

Level 2: Aware of being aware of the deception — “tens of millions”

A smarter person may be aware of the tendency of the puzzle presenter to create a deception and use people’s natural tendency to counter the deception as a deception. In other words, they may perceive a “feint within a feint” and then lean back to the answer of “tens of millions”, this is analogous to the “metametacognition”

Level 3: Deception agnostic — “not sure”or 50/50 without further data

Finally what could be probably the most correct answer is one who sees the problem, perceives both the possibility of a deception or feint, and the possibility of a deception within a deception or feint within a feint. This person realises simply that they have insufficient data to make a conclusion. If our game forces an answer this person will likely give a random answer, try to quickly estimate the speed more accurately, or something else.

These levels should not be thought of as absolute, they are merely an illustration of what I mean by playing the “meta-game” — or “thinking or operating on a level above the normal level of thought and operation”

Examples of the adult “meta-game”

So after thinking about various “meta-games” in sports or tricks, what are some examples of adult meta-games?

Example #1: Adult Conversation and Listening

“Meta-game” thinkers are excellent listeners. They not only listen to what you say and how you say it, but they also analyse within their mind: nuances of speech, such as the pitches of your voice, tones, inflections, hidden and unhidden implications, potential questions to ask you, etc. They dig deeply into the goldmine that is your speech. They may be more likely to respond to your questions with further, insightful questions. They don’t just hear you, and don’t just listen to you, but they analyse you — digging deeper into the meaning of your words. They are excellent at observation

Example #2: Becoming Visionaries

I feel like meta-game thinkers in general are the visionaries and thought leaders of the world. These are people who are capable of a higher level of thought and operation. This has a natural result of others perceiving that and following. “Meta-game” players are visionaries who constantly ask the question “why” and dig deeper and deeper; questioning assumptions, not taking things for granted, literally “attacking” concepts or arguments in a mental sense, getting to the very heart of them. They also seek to understand the interactions between things and see immense details and possibilities at a distance.

Example #3: Thinking “long term” 

Many of the issues that arise in our world come from people thinking too short term. “Meta-game” thinkers are not only concerned with their own lives but the lives of everyone around them and for a long time. They are long term planners and thinkers, and have great capacity to “zoom out” and see the bigger picture.

The caution of assumption

Playing the “meta-game” involves making logical assumptions. But “meta-game” players also understand what an assumption is and the danger of and limits of assumption, and hence they factor those into their thinking and reasoning. Assumptions include, for example, assumptions about the circumstances and history of people with which you speak, the intention and motivation of people, and other assumptions; but those facts cannot be fully and accurately known by anyone.

The danger of over-analysis

I’d like to share a quote from a book which I am reading which has engendered much of the thoughts of this blog article. (Frank Herbert — Dune and Dune Messiah) The quote is:

“Truth suffers from too much analysis” — Ancient Fremen Saying

This rings true to me and must be included as a danger in the meta-game. There is only so much analysis that a particular event can undergo before various contradictory conclusions (mainly based on assumptions) may begin to appear. With over analysis, we tend to get our brains into a knot. Most events in our lives don’t justify terribly much analysis. Players of the “meta-game” understand the amount of analysis that a particular fact or event can appropriately justify and don’t go over that, hence they don’t waste intellectual resources where they are no longer necessary.

Herein lines one of the dangers of a “juvenile meta-game player” — one who has enough knowledge to play the meta-game, but not enough knowledge yet to understand its limits and provisos. Assumptions and over-analysis should also be factored in.

Let’s live in the “Meta-game”

I think this all sounds like a lot of fun! Let’s do it!

“…feint within a feint within a feint within a feint within a ….”

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