Simulating Our Fears, To Conquer Them

1. No More Parties

The best time in the world used to be hour two or three of a party when we were in our twenties.

That was my time to shine; people were just drunk enough to want to talk about something real, and almost always somebody would find me and we’d have a discussion. If you’ve heard me speak, my sober speaking voice has a lot of oomph to it; my drunk-yay-we-get-to-talk-about-ideas voice… is louder.

My loud voice, talking about something real with another person, would usually attract bystanders and onlookers. People who wanted to hear about real things but who didn’t want the pressure of being in the conversation.

Lurkers, basically, just in real life.

In a way they were like my first classes. My lifelong wish is just to be able to workshop ideas with every person I meet, and this was a chance to work on ideas; often with someone I’d only just met.

There are no more parties. We all grew up and had no more time or freedom to party.

It’s just as well: it wasn’t really technically good or responsible to host classes drunk in my early twenties.

I knew more than most, but I still didn’t know what the hell I was talking about, or who was ready to hear the things we were discussing.

It was bad teaching.

It felt good at the time, because it felt low-stakes.

It was high-stakes; if we talk about big ideas with a person before checking if they’re ready to leave old ideas behind, we’re helping to create powerful and dangerous tugs-of-war within a person. Bad.


So while it seemed fun, what was really happening was that I was using people as toys for my own amusement, and if someone had mentored me, it would have something they’d have put a stop to.

2. Never Toy With People; If You Must Toy, Toy With Characters.

Characters are useful.

Like the old statistician’s adage, “All models are wrong. Some models are useful.”

All characters are wrong. They’re all of them many multitudes less-complex than the most boring human you can find.

Humans are made up of such intricate layering of experiences. We are a mess of contradictions.

A character, is a tool, created by a writer to create an intended experience within a human recipient.

I had a strong need to speak up on the topics that I half-knew about.

Half-knowing feels like all-knowing, when you’re around people with no-knowing.

Know just enough to have responses on a topic, and if no one smarter comes along, no one more informed, you can feel like an expert.

I had a powerful need to feel like an expert.

I wish some of the games I’m working on had been available back then.

3. How To Fuck Up Without Hurting People

Screw up in a single-player video game, and you might feel bad, but in reality, there is no other person who is aware of your failure.

It’s isolated.

It’s simulated; it’s a simulated failure.

When you make mistakes in a video game and it seems like you let people down: you didn’t.

You let characters down.

The characters were created for you to have the experience of trying to help them, but the game was designed to make it possible for you to fail.

I hate failing.

It still stings when I screw something up for characters in a video game because I didn’t play the game as expertly as possible.

There are games I’ve played where characters died because of mistakes I made, and then for the rest of the game, they were gone, dead, absent. But they didn’t have to be, if I’d known what I was doing.

4. Do-Over Is My Flow State

My favorite time in a video game is in my second playthrough.

I’ve played the game once, and made all the “first pancake” mistakes that came out of ignorance of what the game was asking me to do. I know where plenty of the secrets are hiding, in which places is there a secret power-up hiding, which characters have the best optional dialog to not-miss, I know the secret to being powerful (each game tends to have some strategies for you to learn which will make you very effective, but they’re not obvious right away).

I want to have played the game recently enough that I have not forgotten the important aspects I want to master this time around, but it shouldn’t be so recently that I just remember every single beat of the game.

I want to enter into the game with a nice blend of novelty because some of it I had forgotten until I got back into the game, and experience because I know the arc of the game and how I intend to play it.

5. Weddings Are For Characters. I’ll Die On This Hill.

Weddings in movies are great.

I love a wedding in a movie or a tv show.

When my favorite characters get together and have their wedding, it’s wonderful to see.

Why is it wonderful: because it’s fake and scripted and REHEARSED.

My favorite state to exist in, is something that I’m not doing for the first time.

I hated moving across the country because there was no rehearsal and we made avoidable mistakes.

I hated getting my wisdom teeth out because there was no rehearsal and we made avoidable mistakes.

Every wedding I have been a part of, was stressful: because there was no TRUE rehearsal, and we made a lot of avoidable mistakes.

There was no responsibility, no direction, no sense of experience.

Always they were an attempt to create a movie-perfect experience, without the luxury of being characters made up for that exact wedding.

6. Flight Simulator

I grew up around flight simulators.

While we were not a super tech-forward household, we had pretty solid computers growing up, in the 90’s, which could not run the latest in video game graphics, but our computer could always run flight simulators. My dad needed them for his work as a co-pilot.

Growing up around flight simulators meant that I was aware of how many dials and readouts there are in a plane, though I knew what almost none of them did. I know to look for the one that is the artificial horizon and keep that level, and I know one of them tells me if the landing gear is down (though I do not trust myself to know how to read that one for sure, the indicator light is always like one letter or an icon, it’s like when your dashboard in your car lights up to try to tell you something and you have to pull your owner’s manual out to see what the hell light is on).

Planes are a lot more predictable than weddings.

In a book called, “Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World,” I learned the terms, “wicked learning environment,” and “kind learning environment.”

A kind learning environment is one where the feedback loop is short; if you screw up you know about it right away.

The rules are clear and consistent in a kind learning environment, you can get things right because there are right answers.

Kind environments don’t require you to invent anything in order to progress, your progress is based on performing the same exact actions as anyone else pursuing that endeavor, and if you practice more and practice better, you will outclass your competitors.

But a wicked learning environment.



None of that is the case in a wicked learning environment.

Wicked environments have inconsistent or unknown rules. You must construct your way past obstacles which means you’re taking different actions than your competitors, and different actions than the people training you; you’re very on your own. And often the feedback loop is egregiously long; you don’t know you screwed up, for sure, until long after you’ve invested yourself.

Weddings are wicked.

So is most of life.

7. A Plane, A Wedding, And A Blogger Walk Into A Bar

Blogging is not a fad, far as I can tell. I’m still here, fifteen years after my first failed blog, trying to learn the skill, because those who can write about their profession have more ability to bring people into their world, to borrow a phrase from Scrivs.

You want to bring people into your world, and you don’t want to have to go door to door trying to explain your whole life and career to people, one at a time.

Blogging allows you to write out what you do, showcase who you are and why what-you-do matters, and it helps you send out the “bat signal” to the persons who are a good fit to the goods or services that you offer.

But blogging is a wicked-as-hell learning environment.

Weddings are superfluous. They don’t need to happen.

Weddings provide very little social utility for the world, given their expense and imposition.

Blogging its video-equivalent, are key components to you getting your message out, and if we could create simulators that let you practice and do-over your publishing to the world, that would help the world.

Weddings would be very hard to build a simulator for, to train people in what to expect and how to act, but they’d be nice to have if it meant you could prepare for your responsibilities in the wedding party before you have to go out and perform those duties in real life.

Do-overs are nice.

Do-overs are especially nice, even if they’re fictional and simulated, especially when the task you’re getting a do-over on is a wicked task.

They’ve had flight simulators for the home-office computer for as long as I’ve been alive, but the complicated tasks of life, those involving wicked, unpredictable elements, like people, are much much harder to model and simulate.

Get-your-message-out simulators are harder to come by.

In the absence of a simulator that let me practice getting my message out, I relied on the roleplaying genre of games to help me pretend I was making a difference.

The major problem was of course, I was almost always doing it at gun-point, or like, using the literal Force from Star Wars, but in that pretty non-consensual, problematic way that probably only the Sith ought to be using.

8. Coercion: The Video Game

I’ve been studying diplomacy in video games for most of my adult life and certainly within the last decade.

I’ve gone to college and taken classes outside of the game design building, trying to find the missing pieces required to build true diplomacy simulation into a video game.

Most video games are kind learning environments, because most video games are about training muscle memory, which is a kind learning environment skill. If you play longer, your muscle memory will get better, and you’ll kill things faster.

Diplomacy is wicked as hell.

There is no roadmap to a common ground. There are strategies that can sometimes work, but because you’re working with humans who each have led a complex and unpredictable life, there are any number of unexpected snags in the process of trying to come to an agreement.

Thus, when you perform a persuasion check in a video game, you’re almost always actually coercing someone to agree with your side and do your bidding.

This was nowhere more clear than in Star Wars the Old Republic, a game set a thousand years before the movies, in the era of the jedi running around the galaxy trying to quell problems.

And one of the abilities you could opt into was: Force Persuade.

Force Persuade is the thing that Obi Wan Kenobi does when he says, “These are not the droids you’re looking for.”

Basically we’re capitalizing on the fact that a person has low psychic tolerance to our influence and we’re telling them how they’re going to live their lives.

It’s kinda crappy.

But it’s so much easier to model than a game where if you want someone to work with you, you have to deal with all of the variables of what makes a person tick.

Even a character who has been created specifically for the scenario is still somewhat a problem, because if you can learn what their likes and dislikes are, you can say the literal right things and get the exact answer that you’re hoping for.

In, “Groundhog Day,” Bill Murray’s character tries this approach to getting his crush to love him back, and the creators of the movie have the wherewithal to make that approach always fail.

He’s coming from a place of disempowerment and manipulation, and that’s not what we want to see in our heroes.

Only once Bill Murray’s character gives up trying to get what he wants from other people, and focuses on what is under his control (his attitude), does he manage to legitimately be a match to the woman he would love to have a relationship with.

But in video games, we’re not required to become a full person and then attract a healthy relationship. If we want to get to the sex scene with that character we like, all we need do is get a guide that will walk us through the process. All wickedness removed, and the character is yours to do with what you will.

Eventually some games became more sophisticated, and instead of hopping onto the perfect things to say, they adapted a mini-game for you to beat which would let you get the same kind-learning-environment result.

Play your cards right, and they’ll listen to you. Your literal cards. Griftlands is a video game where you have a deck of cards that represent your ability to wear down someone’s resolve and get them to do things your own way.

The game has two separate decks: one represents your ability to fight and kill people like in most video games, and the second deck I just mentioned which represents your ability to fight through people’s objections and get them on your side.

Play your cards right, beat them in the card game, and they have to listen to you.

9. Complex Fakery, Low-Stakes, And USEFUL

I love the second playthrough of a video game.

I really enjoy the feeling of expertise.

Video games are (for the most part) kind learning environments and you’re likely to do better the second time around.

For some games, games that are designed to be played over and over and over again, the fun comes from getting better and better, and acquiring mastery over the systems of the game.

Not all games are killing/coercion simulators.

After the Minecraft craze, games about crafting became far more prevalent.

But even when the crafting genre is largely non-violent, the games have been striped of all of the wicked elements you’d find in real life construction.

In other words, you click “Build” and the thing is built; there is no discussion about it. Once again you are the god of that world and things are programmed to go well for you in the end.

And it’s comforting.

If you want to detach from life, and go toy with a fictional world, that’s a great outlet for that instinct of wishing we had total control.

It’s peaceful, to have the difficulties of life and all its wicked tricks removed.

Those games need to exist, and I’m glad that people keep making them.

But it’s mentally and creatively backbreaking to build a game from scratch.

I cannot convince myself to make games which ferry people away from the world.

I crave too much to make something that is useful and prepares you for life’s wicked lessons that it has in store.

That’s why my games and simulators sometimes center around a theme of what can you do, what is under your control, that will make you more prepared for the unpredictability of what life has to offer.

Eisenhower said, “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

In single-player video games that simulate battle, you are never fighting humans, only characters. The characters you fight are designed to give you a challenge, but ultimately they exist to be defeated by the player.

In the book, “Do Hard Things: Why We Get Resilience Wrong and the Surprising Science of Real Roughness,” Steve Magness explains that the United States military in 2018, was the biggest employer of sports-psychologists in the country. It’s become clear that there is so much benefit in training people how to use their minds, not only how to use weapons. The era of the yelling drill sergeant is long gone, Magness says. You must first teach people how to react to stressful situations, and then put them in challenges that test them. Skipping the imparting of wisdom and skill is no way to build a person up for a difficult task.

Blogging is wicked, but it is far lower-stakes than combat.

10. Business: A Trial Of The Mind

Grady Hillhouse has a book which explains the engineering of things we take for granted, things like telephone poles.

In reading his book, it became clear that the majority of the engineering that goes into our world, is redundancies to help prevent catastrophe.

A modern day telephone pole has so much technology in it and on it to keep it from failing, or to help it get back in working order when there is a problem.

Similarly, it has been my experience that most people who have studied a little bit of online business have got a pretty clear idea of what they need to be doing, but the missing pieces are training that would help cushion the mistakes as they are made.

What do you do if someone says a snide, confidence-eroding remark to you, on the day that you’re supposed to write something? How do you rally from that? Can you rally from it, or is the day a wash?

You post an article, but someone gives you the comment, “Oh this is just like so-and-so’s article on the same subject…” Do you take the post down? Do you rewrite the whole thing? Do you accept that there are multiple writings on most subjects in existence and leave it as is? Do you put a disclaimer that someone else has another article on this topic?

Sidebar: A Tale of Two Cities is one of the best selling books of all times, and yet if you read the foreword, Dickens is like, “oh so-and-so wrote this great book about the French revolution, and so I thought I’d make one; mine’s not as good though, sry, sorry everyone.” And I just think it’s such a great example of a person not realizing the lasting value they might have because they discount what they’ve created as not-good-because-I-made-it.

We doubt ourselves, and we rescind our efforts.

With very little time, you can learn that the way online business works, is you write content that people consume, and they get on your email list so you can tell them when you have new content, and so that you can make them offers.

Basically you create your own tv station and run ads for your own products; that’s the business model for most online business that an individual person is running.

But if it’s that easy to understand, where is the wickedness? Why is it something which vexes us?

A wedding is easy to explain also. Two people are going to stand in front of their loved ones and take a vow, which will also represent a legal contract consolidating their assets into one unit.

But what about the bachelor/bachelorette parties? How do you pick a place that everyone will like? How do you find a weekend that everyone has free? Can you keep it fun but also affordable for everyone coming along?

And then -and this is still just for the parties- how will you work through the personality conflicts, or the person who is scared of meeting new people?

Will there be in reality two parties? The one that starts off sober, and the very different vibe by the time everyone is drunk? Are you prepared for the Jekyll/Hyde transformations you might encounter?

I don’t understand why people push through the wicked conflicts of a wedding, but we give up on our own businesses.

That’s not true, I do know why, I just think it’s dumb.

Everyone knows what a wedding is. And a huge portion of the population goes through them so there is peer-pressure to keep them going.

Most people are employed or prepared themselves for employment. I never checked the veracity of the stat, but I read that half of all people are now working remotely or in a gig of some kind and now need the training of someone who self-directs, a training that was largely not given to us growing up, at least those of us born last century for sure (and I’d be amazed if schools have caught up to this completely, training the next generation to be self-directed and agile in their work life).

Weddings get my ire because there are no do-overs. You’re stuck with the one performance, and the memories are permanent, whether you succeeded or not.

Your business caries similar scars if you’ve screwed up.

And while it’s challenging to enumerate all the possible ways you can now hate yourself or doubt yourself and prevent yourself from the work your business needs, that’s part of what I’m trying to build.

I’ve called it the Business Fear Simulator, as a way to face your fears and get back out there, but I’ve changed it to the Business Support Simulator, since really what you need is to simulate getting back out there because you were supported well to do so not because you faced down your fears through some grit.

Like a telephone pole, a person writing about their work needs redundancies that help us stay on track and keep writing, even though there are moments along the way which encourage us to throw away everything we’ve worked for and curl up into a ball.

It will never be as kind and accurate as a flight simulator, but I’m hopeful that while the scenarios contained within the simulator will be worthless and made of characters and not applicable to real life, perhaps the act of experiencing the scenarios, no matter how fictional they will be, will give us the chance to face the possibilities of failure, and practice regaining our balance. I cannot simulate what it actually feels like to run a business, but it should be possible to make a training ground to go to, where we can go through the steps, be interrupted by some wicked, unexpected interruption from life, but rally our resources, call in for help, and get ourselves past the fictional obstacle and publish the fictional blog.

My hope is, just like playing through a game the second time, with that understanding and mastery of having done it once before, when we get back out into the real world, we will be more at-peace with the realities of the day-to-day life of a person who is broadcasting their work life over the internet to help bring in new customers who want to, as Scrivs says, spend some time in our world.

It’s scary to share our world with others.

Less scary the second time. (I hope.) (We’ll see.)

The above post was an entry for Paul Scrivens’ 30 Day Prompt Challenge.

Prompt: Where are you most at peace? What are you doing?


Blogging Simulator Demo

The real simulator will be more sophisticated than this, but if you need something to get an idea of what I’m talking about, click below to see a simple web demo that you can play from your laptop web browser. It is not currently designed for mobile screens, so it may not work as intended on your mobile device.