Meta-Gaming for Regular Joes

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Social reformers will tell you that a good deal of income inequality results from the rich and powerful rewriting the rules of the game for their own benefit. But don’t despair: nearly everyone can find ways to change the game in their favor.

Fat Cat Stampede

One of the most disheartening elements of the most recent economic downturn is that, despite being global, it did not hit everyone equally. In fact some of the banks that engineered the toxic debt that touched off the housing crisis racked up record profits. In retrospect, one reason the crisis was possible was that banks had influence over the politicians who were supposed to regulate them, as well as the credit rating agencies that evaluated the risk of their holdings. In many ways, the banks were able to steer the writing of the rules that defined their business. Not surprisingly, they wrote the rules to benefit themselves above all others.

Banking is merely the latest and loudest example of people rewriting the rules in their favor. CEOs are notorious for negotiating contracts that reward them for even the most abject failure. Politicians use the power to redefine voting districts to ensure their own reelection and effectively bar opposition from gaining a foothold. Besides outrage and social action, what can be done?

Decide to Play Competitively

While it may be easier to rewrite the rules as a fat cat, many of their tactics are available, in one way or another, to most of us. But many will not even begin to consider such options, on moral grounds. Given the anger at those who manipulated systems for their own gain, it’s easy to understand why many people would conclude that being a party to rule-making is unethical on the face of it. I’d like to argue otherwise.

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To be clear, rewriting rules is not the same as breaking rules. Finding a more personally-advantageous way to follow the rules is not breaking the rules. While it’s true that some rules are written in a patently unfair way, and directly harm some to help others, that’s not an absolute requirement.

Furthermore, if you exempt yourself from the rulemaking process, realize that others will not do the same. In a competition between those who only play by existing rules and those who make it their job to change the rules, rule changers will win out in the end. Refusing to enter the arena of rulemaking puts us at a disadvantage. And that would be unfair!

Infield Fly Rule

The only thing less effective that merely playing by the rules is playing by the subset of commonly-known rules. Nearly every game in life has a few oddball rules. Baseball has the infield fly rule. Chess has en passant. Merely knowing rules that others don’t know gives one an edge.

In 1999, David Phillips, a civil engineer, noticed that he could get 1000 frequent flyer miles for every ten UPC barcodes he collected from a particular manufacturer. This was a good deal on the face of it, but he went further by finding the cheapest items that yielded UPC barcodes and bought them in massive quantities until he had garnered 1.2 million frequent flyer miles (the equivalent of 50 trips anywhere in the US) for $3150 retail spending. And before you think of Mr. Phillips as a skinflint, he donated the food to charity. Did he get a tax deduction for the donation? You better believe it. David Phillips is a man who knows how to use the rules to get what he wants and at the same time make a contribution to the community.

But you don’t need to be an extreme couponer like David Phillips to get ahead. Some of the best tactics just require a bit of observation and creativity. If you’ve ever been stuck at a long line in one of the ‘big box’ stores, you may have walked by the electronics counter at the back of the store and seen a bored attendant. It turns out that you can pay for anything at the electronics checkout, electronic or not. And because you know this, you get to walk out of the store past all the folks stuck at the main checkout lines in the front of the store.

Is That Really a Rule?

That previous example of checking out at the electronics counter is a great example of our ability to assume rules that aren’t even there. When thwarted, it never hurts to check if the boundaries you are respecting are actual rules, or merely assumption, habit, or old and defunct customs. Sometimes you can test this directly by trying the new action and seeing what happens. If there is more risk involved, watch others and see if they ever do it differently and if so, what are the consequences. Finally, you may just ask explicitly if what you are considering is acceptable.

Written Rules, Unspoken Exceptions

Recently, Yahoo! got a lot of press for revoking their work-at-home policy. Working from home is an incredible boon as it allows workers to avoid punishing commutes and distracting offices. I can’t prove it, but I strongly suspect that there will be quite a number of Yahoo! employees continuing to work from home despite the new ruling. The most obvious candidates will be essential employees who have structured their lives around working from home. Others will simply be tougher negotiators who demand the old arrangement or pack their bags. Still others may reclassify their work-from-home under some new banner such as off-site meetings. No matter the means, the moral of the story is that every rule has its exceptions and those with the desire, the creativity, and the fortitude to find or make such exceptions will prosper.

Change Games

Unlike formal games, real-life games change odds as time goes by. Being an auto worker in Detroit was a great arrangement for workers with union benefits in the 60s and 70s. These days factory work is some of the hardest to find and least profitable around. A generation ago it was possible to pick a profession and stick with it for life. Now, that is a lot harder outside of fields like law and medicine.

Sometimes the best way to win is to pick a better game. When I was working as a stressed and frustrated software developer, I started noticing that not everyone around me was equally stressed and frustrated. Managers were often more stressed and frustrated. Administrators were occasionally upset, but mostly phlegmatic. Meanwhile, I discovered a small minority of people who never seemed to be stressed: the Technical Writers. It took me several years to find out why they weren’t stressed and how I could join their ranks. Even in the same office, there are all different sets of rules that apply differently to different groups and individuals. Getting better rules is often simply a matter of observation, willingness to change hats, and determination to see it through.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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