Whether chess, go, RTS, MOBAs or any of the tests we face in real life, there are eternal constants of strategy that optimize the likelihood of victory.
Any society, I think, should groom its bright and curious children for societal leadership from an early age through education in strategy. Strategy should be one of the core pillars of education in a post-Enlightenment era just as rhetoric was in ancient times. Games of strategy help teach the mindset required to make important, difficult decisions from a detached and rational perspective.
I will use chess and league of legends for examples. Chess is a turn based game individual game that requires one to think ahead in discrete steps. League of legends is a real time team game that requires making correct judgment calls within fractions of a second.
I will try to address some of these great constants.
Don’t Get Greedy
This is probably the first and greatest lesson every game of strategy teaches. When we’re children or just trying it out for the first time, we try what seems intuitive and simple and fall flat on our asses. You have an objective you have to achieve whether it’s checkmating the king or destroying the enemy base but if you try to take your objectives by trying to grab it all at once or simply lashing out emotionally, you lose. You lose every single time; it’s like fighting against a law of physics.
In chess your attacks are obvious and impotent without planning ahead. Lashing out impulsively merely exposes you to attack and quickly loses you the game.
In League of Legends harsh experience teaches you to know exactly what level of risk and what price is worth paying to achieve any objective in a given situation. It is very easy to get greedy in the moment and succumb to the temptation to try to get those last few hits on a turret when you know you will probably be surrounded by the enemy team and killed if you wait those extra 2-3 seconds and still fail to capture the objective in a pointless self-sacrifice. Anyone who’s played the game awhile will have had this kind of frustrating experience many times over towers and dragons. Knowing exactly how much closer you can move to your goal without getting greedy and overextending that extra inch is the difference between victory and defeat.
I can’t think of a single contest of strategy that doesn’t harshly punish greed. It’s a law of the universe and therefore one of the most useful lessons for dealing with real life challenges.
Sunken Cost Fallacy
Humans are really bad at dealing with sunken costs. Our first impulse when we have material or emotional investment is to keep investing. Then we find ourselves drained dry with nothing to show for it. That’s how you lose. Every game of strategy requires you to clear your head when you suffer a loss and keep going without panicking or throwing good after bad.
In chess you can quickly end a game by throwing a tantrum when your piece gets captured by retaliating recklessly until suddenly you realize you traded at a disadvantage and now your army’s gone. Soon you learn to think ahead and only make trades you think will improve your position.
In league of legends, everyone has tried to rescue that one teammate who always seems to be out of position only to get killed along with them and make the situation even worse. At a point you start to develop the snap judgment to know when to cut your losses and understand your teammate will get themselves killed no matter what you do. You learn exactly how much power you have to change a situation and when you must retreat.
Every game of strategy forces the player to deal with sunken costs. It teaches us to confront one of the universal weaknesses of the human mind and develop the discipline to deal with losses proportionately rather than emotionally.
Finding the Golden Mean
All strategy games require finding the right balance of aggression and defense. Not attacking at all leaves the opponent free to go for a fatal blow at the time and place of their choosing. Attacking recklessly opens one to instant defeat.
Every strategy game is about finding the right shades of gray while extremes of any kind are typically losing strategies.
In real life, inflexible idealists lose to pragmatists every time.
Strategy allows us to test a conflict scenario over and over in a controlled environment until we find where that sweet spot lies. All too often, that sweet spot is relevant to real life. We learn not only to moderate our strategy appropriately, but know exactly when to change our approach.
Choose The Battlefield
You have the advantage when you have the initiative and control the terms of engagement.
In chess, you are in control when the opponent is forced into merely reacting to your moves.
In league of legends, your team has a huge advantage when you are about to take an objective and you know the enemy team has to try to stop you.
When the opponent is forced to react, you know exactly what he will do next while he has no such knowledge of your intentions.
When you dictate when, where, and how an engagement takes place, you of course always occupy the most favorable ground.
Learn to Balance Multiple Needs
In the first few games of chess, it quickly becomes apparent that controlling more space on the board is advantageous, so you advance your pawns to tighten the noose…until you realize that stretching out too far exposes your entire army to attack if a mobile enemy gets behind your lines. Having the right structure to defend behind your lines is as important as moving forward. It is a good thing to control more space, but there are other considerations to take into account simultaneously and arrive at the move that best serves these multiple needs.
In league of legends, it is good to get lots of kills. It gets you tons of gold, disrupts the enemy’s ability to get gold, and reduces the ability of the enemy team to act. But it is ultimately a team game that’s decided on teamfights and control of objectives, not individual prowess. A one-sided strategy is a losing strategy.
There are often many choices we can make that will bring us closer to victory, but the ideal is to make the single best choice.
In chess, focusing too much on dislodging an enemy pawn from an important square can lull the player into thinking small and not focusing enough on bigger goals.
In LoL, the position of jungle best emphasizes this problem. The jungler is a troubleshooter who is responsible for events anywhere on the map and has to have the judgment to know when and where their presence is most likely to give their team the greatest possible advantage. Merely avoiding disaster is not enough. The price of sub-optimal decisions is defeat.
In real life everything we do carries a price when we could have been doing something else instead. Strategy invites us to reflect on this eternal principle.
This one especially addresses the most insidious pitfall of modern life. With just a smartphone we could google anything we wanted for the rest of our lives and we wouldn’t even scratch the surface of the content that’s out there.
The abundance of information and stimulation makes it especially important for us to be able to inhibit our impulses and make strategic decisions about where to most effectively invest our extremely finite time and attention.
Keep Cool When Things Are Going Badly
When a queen breaks through the front line in chess and has the king in check with multiple other pieces in jeopardy, it can be easy to panic and by doing so pretty much forfeit the game. Panicking when there’s a setback ensures defeat.
If you keep your composure it’s possible you may still lose, but there is then still a chance you can
-turn things around–maybe even turning the situation against your opponent, by persevering and winning the trade,
-or simply control the damage as best you can and wait for your opponent to make a mistake.
In a team game like LoL, dealing with group dynamics is hugely educational. There’s always that player who despairs at the first minor setback and types in “gg ff20″(surrender at the first opportunity) when the other team gets first blood or the first dragon. If you’re in bottom lane, you’ll always have that support or ADC who criticizes everything you do. If you’re jungle, there’s always someone, or even more than one person that blames you when they lose their lane. This situation tests your ability to stay focused and keep the big picture in mind even when there’s chaos and dissent all around you.
Whether on your own or in a group, training in strategy prepares the mind to treat adversity in real life as a momentary setback that can be dealt with if we just stay calm. Just once coming back to win a game you thought was lost, and were tempted to quit, is an experience that changes how you think forever.
Practice Ahead of Time
Anyone who’s ever been in a real-time or fast-paced contest of strategy has learned the hard way why armchair generals are worthless.
Mike Tyson may have summed it up best: “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
It’s a perspective-changing experience to freeze up and fall apart under pressure while getting completely destroyed. Losing like this destroys delusions of grandeur and forces us to acknowledge exactly what our capabilities are, no more, no less.
Then we learn the game and practice until we begin to be able to react appropriately when things start happening fast.
Strategy games teach us that the intuition that fails us so spectacularly at first can be trained until we can make those split second decisions under pressure. That intuition is itself an algorithm derived from previous experience. To function, it needs the appropriate conditioning.
It teaches the worthlessness of talent without experience. Starting out a game like league of legends or starcraft, there are legions of toxic morons that destroy you effortlessly simply because they know how the game works and you don’t.
Your Hand is Better Than You Think
When you first play any game of strategy, you get crushed by anyone with even a bit of experience and it seems a monumental endeavor. The opposition seems invincible. But by the time you win your first victories, you begin to see everyone else has flaws and doubts they constantly struggle with. When you see people with good jobs and pretty women in the real world, it’s easy to be jealous with inexperience. But when playing games of strategy vs. humans you get glimpses of your opponents’ character and realize even those who may be better than you are just people who have their own baggage to contend with. You learn to value the advantages you have and exploit them to the fullest against your opponents’ weaknesses. Once you start thinking like this, you ponder how to turn the situation to your advantage instead of getting jealous.
Strategy teaches you not just to avoid overestimating your own capabilities–even more importantly it gives you the imagination to not see any opponent as inevitable or invincible. Once you internalize this, you find yourself capable of much more than you thought possible.
Strategic training and ability should be absolute prerequisites for any position of responsibility in a competent society. Games of strategy simulate high stakes struggles with both sides evenly matched. The ability to repeat the experience in a controlled environment with nothing real at stake teaches lessons in a few months that would normally be hard-won over decades or even generations. One can make the many blunders of inexperience with pieces on a board instead of with real people.
A simple game doesn’t approach the complexities of real life, but that’s the point. Like with any other experiment you remove as many variables as you can so you can isolate the individual moving parts. This works because the laws of physics are always the same, even if we are faced with the complexity of a giant pool table with thousands of balls colliding.
Above all, learning the principles of strategy changes the way we think, allowing us to override the simian kneejerks that dominate the vast majority of human responses and actually become capable of behavior that is somewhat rational.
See Also: Life Lessons From Starcraft 2