You’re not metamodern before you understand this. Part 1: Game Change

This is a follow up on my previous post on ‘5 things that make you metamodern’. The purpose is to present the two major objectives of the metamodern project, politically and philosophically: Game Change and Proto-Synthesis. This post, part one, introduces the underlying political thinking behind metamodernism. We call it Game Change. Failing to understand this principle leads to very serious mistakes; such failure transmutes glowing idealism into murder most foul.

“The good news is that we can change the rules of the game, making it fairer and more forgiving for everyone.”

The Political Goal of Metamodernism: Game Change

The major objective of the metamodern political project is to change the rules of the game. Our simple message is that life as we know it can and must evolve. The Game Change position is:

      • Life is a plus-sum game with possible win-wins.
      • Life is also often a zero-sum game with lose-win.
      • Life is often even a tragic dilemma of lose-lose.
      • But the rules of the game can change, evolving into more win-win, less lose-win and less lose-lose.
      • Nobody actually ever “deserves” to lose games and suffer defeat or humiliation. Seriously – would you tell a kid that she “deserves” to be crappy at school? To be ugly and smelly and lonely or poor? To starve? To have low self-esteem? To have a fragmented, anxious mind? To be part of the losing side of globalization? That baby turkeys in factories got what they deserved?
      • All injustices in the world are caused by the playing of games.
      • People and other beings have no choice but to partake in games.
      • No injustice or suffering is ever excusable or tolerable.
      • It is our ethical imperative, without compromise, to change the rules of the game.
      • Successful changing of the game is that which produces more winners in life, and fewer losers. It is also that which softens the fall of the losers, increases the rewards of the winners, and makes people act more kindly and fairly while playing the game.

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What do we mean by “the game”? The game is the fundamental, interactive process by which human beings and other living creatures either become happy or suffer. Going to work is a game, because you can win or lose. Asking for a date is a game. Hey, even texting a friend is a game. Or having lunch. You eat the salmon. If the salmon would have won, things would have been different. It is not in the optimal interest of the salmon to be part of your sandwich.

Games produce dynamics of interaction. They dub losers and winners. Just like you and me. We all know both sides, in different contexts, to different extent. The bad news is that any interaction produces relative losers, that suffering and loss are here to stay for eternity. That goes for all your hopes and dreams, all your life time, in all ages, and everyone you will ever love and care about – and everyone they will ever love and care about: your kids, your mama, your favorite gold fish. If you become an idealist NGO-hero or Nobel prize medalist, it means somebody else didn’t get that same satisfaction, attention and appreciation. Some win, some lose.

The good news is that we can change the rules of the game, making it fairer and more forgiving for everyone.

Game Change is the most deeply idealistic political strife conceivable. It is the love impulse of politics and progress. It is the measure of real positive development. Communism, socialism, Marxism, feminism, critical thinking, genders studies, animal rights and ecologism – these are all utterly and unforgivably primitive and oppressive crap compared to Game Change. Or rather, without being subdued to the clear, analytic power of Game Change, these concepts lose their meaning and become oppressors. As they have all been, and will very likely continue to be.

Game Change is what gives a political, social or intellectual movement its meaning. If the movement happens, and the subtle and not-so-subtle rules of the game of people’s interactions stay the same – then it will have achieved nothing. If partaking in everyday life has not become kinder, less manipulative, less harsh, the movement has failed. Game Change is the essence of real solidarity. Failure to understand Game Change is the essence of human evil in this world.

Most movements fail. You fail because you deny the existence of the very game you are trying to change. Or because, like with fascism, capitalism or conservatism, you actually accept the game and reinforce its injustice.

“You need to know the rules of the game, even if you think they’re wrong, and to some extent play along – in order to change them. If you don’t, you will lose and thus fail at changing the game.”

Game Denial

Game Denial is the inability to perceive, or a complete negligence of, the rules that regulate all human relations. It is when you ignore or “wish away” certain uncomfortable truths regarding human relations and how reality works. The simplest form of this is make-believe and wishful thinking.

Game Denial is to expect everyone to become vegan tomorrow, that people would accept lower wages and increased work hours to mend the poverty of the world, or to think that you can drastically increase corporate taxes without losing business to markets abroad. It’s Game Denial to expect that all social hierarchies would disappear, just by pretending that they are not there and we’re all equal; to believe that we can remove all power games between humans and ensure that everyone always gets what they want. We live in a world with limited resources and people will always strive towards things that others have. We can’t all get married to the same person, or get the same job; few can become rock stars, there’ll always be someone who wins and someone who loses. Everyone can’t get everything; everyone doesn’t even want be friends with everybody.

The most striking and tragic example of Game Denial was communism. An economic system based on the assumption that everyone was solidary and equal, and pretended that human relations weren’t characterized by competition and power games. Evidently it was very difficult to plan economize and enforce a political correctness upon society about everyone being solidary, and then believe they actually were. For all their apparent analysis of human relations and cruel economic power, the communists attempted to deny and repress real, existing power games instead of actively and consciously evolving them. The result, as we know, was catastrophic – people that didn’t fit the idealized mold were deemed an enemy or monstrosity, somebody that had to be removed. Killed. Murdered.

Game Denial is a fully and thoroughly unconscious process. That’s why it’s important to check yourself if your analysis is based on a realistic, sober observation on how the world really is, or if it’s characterized by one’s wishes about how it ought to be. You need to know the rules of the game, even if you think they’re wrong, and to some extent play along – in order to change them. If you don’t, you will lose and thus fail at changing the game.

“You must change the game of life. That is the only result that counts. That is the only victory worth keeping, because it includes everybody.”

What if I Win?

But then again, you can accept the game and learn to play it. Be successful and happy. Ah, the American dream! How beautiful. I mean, what if I win? What if I become this awesome movie star, this saintly good-guy, this cool musician, this loving mother of children, this clever pundit…?

To do that I will have to play by the rules handed to me by the environment. Want to be a doctor saving poor children in Africa? If you work hard and play the game by its rules, you know the rules and optimize your game, you can become this or that person. Every president and CEO and famous professor and artist and movie star in the world knows this. They all want to tell you that they just did their thing and by spontaneity and the goodness of their heart ended up where they are. They truth is they played the game. They maneuvered. They learned good and bad stances and strategies. They went after power. They let go of that which couldn’t help them. This includes Mother Teresa. She didn’t become a saint without playing the saint game. This goes especially for idealistic left wing writers who must maneuver to become that symbol of critical thinking and idealism.

Sure, we can knock ourselves out and play to our heart’s content. But the point is, winning in life is never enough. What if you become that successful? What if you get those chicks? What if you save that many lives? What if you really save the world from climate crisis?

Then you’ll still have a kid, or somebody else you care about, who is crushed and humiliated by the same game you played and happened to win. The game is still there. Still grinding. For every winner, there is a loser. You were that awesome idealistic writer who pointed out injustice? You were a hero? The very fact of your moral victory means that you just trashed, humiliated and out-competed somebody else. That somebody else could have been you. It could have been your own kid.

And more fundamentally – it is you. Winning in life is fun. But it is just not enough. Liberalism, conservatism and capitalism and fascism, are all based on accepting the game and “may the best player win”. They are all defenders and upholders of an injustice and cruelty and suffering that just cannot be ethically justified.

So what if I win? In deeper sense, you have still lost. You must change the game of life. That is the only result that counts. That is the only victory worth keeping, because it includes everybody.

“The game cannot dissolve, disappear. But it can evolve. It can change.”

Game Change and Human Freedom

To accept that life is unjust and merely play along, leads to Game Acceptance which is just as bad as Game Denial. Realism and idealism should go hand in hand – the greater the level of realism, the greater the potential for idealism. To include realism is to have a good analysis. At the very core of Metamodernism lies an ambition to change the rules of the game. This is what we call Game Change.

The rules of the social game can be changed so as to be fairer and have less harsh consequences when people lose. But there will always be a game and rules that manage it. Game Denial, to ignore the rules and repress the game, will always have negative consequences.

But there is something real here. Something worth striving for. We can develop the conditions for solidarity to blossom. Such Game Change is only possible, in practicality, if we admit the all-pervading existence of the game. To deny the game is to repress and deny the fundamental tragedy of the world. If you argue against me on this point, you are already proving my point. You are trying to win the argument, and making me and my point lose.

Again, the game cannot dissolve, disappear. But it can evolve. It can change.

Throughout history the rules of the game have been continuously changed for the better. Human freedom has developed through definite stages. During the days of the Roman Empire losing the game meant losing your head, thus “game over” at the slightest mistake. Christianity meant the near abolishment of slavery in Europe and changed the rules of conduct between people to be less severe. Democracy changed the rules so that the poorest in society also had a voice. Social democracy meant that losing your job or getting sick didn’t mean complete marginalization. Over and over the game has been changed to give people more chances. This can be developed further – with the help of behavioral science. By for instance nursing for poor mothers and cooperation games for children, and mindfulness in schools, and sexual education, and increased social security – we can change what life is felt and lived like for everyone.

What are the harsh realities of the game in late modernity? How can the rules be made more fair and just? How can we see to it that people will be given more chances when they lose? And how can we make the rules that conduct our relations to one another less brutal and more humane? These are the ultimate questions of the metamodern politician and activist. The principle of solidarity with all sentient beings is the ethical premise; game change is the way of conduct towards reaching that goal.

One thing is to determine that things are unfair and society is rotten to its core. This was the postmodern anti-thesis. It’s a completely different ball game to understand why it’s so and how it can be changed.

Don’t hate the player.
Don’t hate the game.
Know the game.
And play to change it.
Because you love the players.

Part 2 on proto-synthesis can be found here!

Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and the upcoming books ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of History’ and ‘Outcompeting Capitalism’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on his facebook profile here.


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22 thoughts on “You’re not metamodern before you understand this. Part 1: Game Change

  1. Thank you for this post Hanzi. Yoy make game change very convincing. Realism and idealism really ought to be best friends! One remark – I dont think its helpful to throw the truth of game denial in the face of communist, ecologist etc. You said it yourself, its an unconcscious mechanism, so lets not blame them for their unconscioussness. I like your humble word better than the sharp ones. And all sentient beings were even mentioned…. So happy to see that. Have a great day!

    1. Hi there.

      No actually Paolo Cohelo is a major Game Denier who wouldn’t pass the test for being a metamodern thinker. His message is always to follow one’s heart, and it is largely blind to social structures, limiting norms, competitions for resources and existential dilemmas.

  2. Wow! Gobsmackingly brilliant analysis. At the moment I’m trying to familiarise myself with the work of Roberto Unger, the Brazilian professor of philosophy at Harvard who was Obama’s tutor. Unger’s work is concerned with precisely these questions – how do we work together to create new better games, and to change the rules of existing ones. Thank you!

    1. Thank you doctor Johnny.

      I am familiar, at least somewhat, with Unger’s work. His idea with experimental zones is actually being brought forward by the Danish party “The Alternative” these days. I am not sure if it came from reading Under or if somebody invented it seperately.

  3. …what is this saying besides “philosophy has always interpreted the world, the point is to change it?”…and that when we seek to change it this time we should try to take a more nuanced view of human nature than 20th century Utopian projects (the standard liberal criticism)…You insult “critical thinking” on your list of primitive ideologies, but I’m sorry, how exactly do you propose we understand said “game” aside from identifying/deconstructing/thinking critically about ideology, class structure, human behavior….

    1. Hello there!

      You’re right. It’s quite basic. Unfortunately, the more postmodern vibe going on in our time doesn’t agree. People honestly think and feel that we should refrain from any attempt to tell a “big picture” or “full story”.

      About critical thinking, I mean that if all talk about structures does not amount to a fairer society – measured in game change – it is actually only that, “all talk”.

  4. This is definitely the most insightful article I have read in many years. Thank you for deepening my understanding of something I have thought about a lot, but never been able to put into words.

  5. Where does the game metaphor belong in AQAL? I would suggest outgrowing games as a goal, that is if you mean everything is calculated (cosciously or unconciously) aiming at some kind of mesurable favor

    1. Ah good comment Anders.

      Maybe at much later stages of human or transhuman development the goal you suggest is conceivable. For now, I believe there have been no real life examples of communities or relations purely without interests and games. Thereby I believe such games should be exposed, studied, understood and developed.
      About AQAL, it depends on how you mean. I would say that Game Change is a form of ethics, but that it is based on lower right reasoning. In terms of cognitive stage it would fit typical systematic stage reasoning – it is not super difficult to understand. But ethics evolve much slower than e.g. technology, so our society is only beginning to be able to embrace this form of ethics now.

  6. Hi Hanzi

    I assume I understand your intention, in encouraging people to go beyond both game acceptance and game denial. Whether “game change” or “transformation”, let’s power utopian realism.

    Now the description could be finer, eg in terms of specifying the way you use the word “game”:

    a. Sometimes it seems you mean the **fact that there is a game – whatever its contents and form** Let’s call it the GAME (capital letters): the principle that human beings play games, as a fact of life. (At least as long as there is identification with a separate ego).

    b. Sometimes it seems you imply a **specific game** (let’s write it small : “game”), especially when you oppose “game acceptance” to “game change”. Both attitudes are actually accepting the GAME as a fact of life, but the first also accepts the “game” as it is being played, while the second wants to change it.

    It could also be useful to distinguish “game change +” as meaning “change for the better (according to an evolutionary view)” – which seems to be your point, and “game change -” when “regressive (within the same evolutionary vision)”. Of course, reactionary movements would utterly disagree with this position of + and -.

    Let’s apply it to some parts of the argument:
    1) I wouldn’t argue that “Liberalism, conservatism and capitalism and fascism, are all based on accepting the game”. Not always.
    => Yes, they are mostly accepting the GAME. (You could argue that some conservative/traditional movements want to eradicate the GAME under HIS (God’s) Law and order.).
    => In terms of the “game”, it depends on context: “game acceptance” if their game is dominant, “game change +” as a force of progress (Liberalism in the 18th century did change the traditional game), “game change -” (arguably fascism in the 1930s)

    2) Postmodern movements – you allude a lot to their values, besides communism – do engage sometimes in “GAME denial”, but actually this is about their ideal vision : “human beings can/should be without games, if we just changed the … system” (hem, sorry, I almost wanted to write game). 😉
    But that’s the point: postmodern movements – or communists – sometimes don’t engage in “game denial” at all, when looking at … say.. “liberalism, capitalism, conservatism and fascism” 😉 Here they can really work as “game changers” (ecology etc.), or go for “game rejection”.
    But your point is very true when they talk about themselves. Here is a lot of “game denial”: how many problems in postmodern (spiritual or not-spiritual) communities… (“Me, Power? Nooo. We’re all egoless here” 🙂 “We’re all in the Heart. Well, me a little bit more than you actually – you’re still quite much in the head” :-))

    To sum it up (eg in terms of Spiral Dynamics or any cultural development system):
    * “Game acceptance” and “game change” (+) can be found on any level. It’s about staying where we are or moving further.
    * I’m not sure if “game denial” is a monopoly of communism or the postmodern. Liberalism, capitalism can indulge in it as well, if we mean “ignore or “wish away” certain uncomfortable truths regarding human relations and how reality works.”
    (eg “no I’m not exploiting you” – the invisible hand does. That’s just free and fair competition)

    To conlude, let us give the floor to Mother Teresa, who can confirm what you wrote about her:
    “Life is a game, play it”

    1. Hello Niesendryn,

      Love you arguments. Very keen-eyed observations. I’ll consider using them in my book.

  7. Do I understand correctly? It seems playing a game means “No way I can get what I want by being who I actually think I am so I need to be someone I think I need to be” ?

    1. Hello Borut,

      Not quite. The game in this abstract sense means anything where you adjust your behaviors to suit your own values or interests over those of any other living creature.

    1. The point isn’t that there shouldn’t be winners and losers. It’s that we should improve the lot of the all parties, especially as we can imagine being in the shoes of the less fortunate.

      1. By doing that we will undermine the order of natural selection. If someone does not feel threatened by an awful lot, he will not try his best to escape it.