Part 2: Distributed Play Through Extended Cognition

Part 1 of this article is “Facilitating a Wealth Transfer Towards the Violet Congregation.” This part can be understood without reading Part 1.


What is the purpose of social games? The physician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott argued that the ability to play was the definition of good mental health.

Winnicott held that in infancy, we are unable to distinguish between “me” and “not me.” We are deeply connected physically and psychologically to our mother. As soon as we feel any sense of discomfort, we are immediately comforted and fed by our mother’s breast. But gradually, as we get older, our needs are not immediately met. We begin to feel a sense of separation from our mother. We begin to develop a sense of “me” and “not me.”

The primordial sense of comfort and belonging to the mother is transferred into a “transitional object,” a blanket or a toy that makes us feel comfortable, but helps us get used to the distinction between me and not me. Interest in the transitional object is later generalized into childhood games. And then later in life, into cultural domains like religion or mathematics.

The key is that, for Winnicott, play is about the primordial distinction between me and not me. The phenomena that I experience often seem foreign and unfamiliar. Yet in play, I should consider whether these unfamiliar things are not really an aspect of my own character, a part of my psyche that I haven’t dealt with yet, and whether those things would still bother me if I properly integrated them.

I would venture to say that in the contemporary situation, we are moving towards an immersive reality where “internal” thoughts are more immediately reflected in the “external” environment. In contemporary techno-capitalism, money and technology match desires with satisfactions almost immediately. But this techno-capitalist infrastructure is only a special case of more general, high bandwidth value exchange which takes place in social games. Social games are the way that we exchange value, in the sense of importance and meaningfulness, rather than in the capitalist sense. These social games serve as the corrective to the harmful, asymmetric aspects of techno-capitalist exchange.

The maximally meaningful interest that is exchanged in social games is a universally shared, unconscious structure. We are all unfailingly pulled toward flow states in which we are immersed in the environment. The flows can be attained in groups and teams, which involves synchronous, coordinated activity. Group flow can manifest as dangerous mimetic contagion and madness of mobs, or as collective intelligence and wisdom of crowds.

How could we achieve healthy group flow at scale? This is a hard problem that has been addressed by things like religions, nation-states, corporations. I think under techno-capitalism, the main barrier to healthy group flow is mental health. It is hard to learn how to play. It is hard to take responsibility for the environment as though it is an extension of my own psyche. And it is extremely dangerous. It requires care, caution, and guidance.

In order to play this new kind of Game, we would have to understand embodiment dynamics, the process by which the external environment reflects our internal thought and vice versa.

Embodiment starts in the imagination of the individual. An idea gets shared, and it thereby becomes a physical constraint on someone else’s action process. It affects how they think and what they say and do. It is then is reflected back to the individual directly or indirectly, through environmental responses. The individual can either embody the responses, accept that the environment is providing him with reliable feedback, or he can deny the reliability of the feedback. The feedback response may be haphazard and delayed if the system is inefficient. The individual embodies the feedback responses, he takes them as an aspect of the original expression. The more that the idea circulates, the more it takes on a evolving physicality that affects people’s established ways of behaving. The idea becomes a “thing.” Embodiment dynamics is a self organizing negotiation of social constraints. The social constraints are interconnected, any kind of interaction with the environment affects the whole chain of interlinked social constraints.

If an individual trusts that the environment is providing reliable and valid feedback signals, then he can trust his plans and intentions extending into the future. He can then generalize that trust to other people. They can coordinate behavior, they can play. If on the other hand, he can’t trust that his environment is giving him reliable feedback signals, then he can’t coordinate with his own future self, and he can’t generalize full trust to other people. He will externalize and repress some element of his own personal adaptive growth.

The sources of social reliability, validity, and credibility that coordinate our social experience start in direct, embodied experience.  The current crises of legitimacy as reflected in fake news and faltering institutions, are a result of a breakdown in the asymmetric model of broadcast-style information exchange. Social coordination originates in the capacity to embody symmetric feedback responses from the physical environment. If two individuals can converge on a trusted feedback response, then they can coordinate behavior, they can play. The legacy institutions which served as the most trusted sources of information are no longer capable of conveying embodied information. Myths, archetypes, narratives seem to more closely convey the structure of experience.

The distributed play model is a more basic, immediate model of cause and effect than materialism or physicalism. It is rooted in an emergent, responsive physicality, rather than a dead, mechanical, externalized physicality. We have to trust that the environment is providing reliable signals, no matter how haphazard or delayed the responses. Dialogue and conversation are fundamentally a negotiation of physical constraints, which are interlinked through embodiment processes. The attractor equilibria of social convention influence how we discuss issues and ideas. Our thoughts are constantly adapting to these equilibria and gradually altering them through the interactions. We must converge on a fundamental level of embodied mutual trust in order to bring about healthier, coordinated social forms. A further path of inquiry will try to determine how we get past the steep adoption curve. This is what myths and religions are good at, they provide embodied narratives in a simple, understandable format.

Social conventions are traded, negotiated, and dialectically transposed in social games. These conventions compete for the stability and endurance, they compete to endure as social forms. The ones that have the most enduring capacity to coordinate and mutually organize human relations in the simplest way, will eventually win out because they make more practical evolutionary sense. They become the foundational axioms of coordinated group flows, which become traditions, institutions, and organizations.

The more people embody the environment, the greater the network effects and reinforcement of the equilibrium around harmonized, synchronous unions of activity. Many people cannot accept that the environment provides reliable feedback signals. Many prefer a zero sum battle with the external environment. There are systemic barriers to adopting the distributed play model, but this model is itself designed to overcome systemic barriers since it deals with self-organizing dynamics of social constraint. It has never been more clear that denying embodiment is against one’s own self-interest. The mutually beneficial strategy for everyone is to converge on embodiment.

The purpose of social games is to negotiate and trade common sense vocabularies in which we belong, in a deep psychological and spiritual sense. The environment becomes a womb, a stable reinforcing shelter for the imagination, an intricately evolving, maximally interesting place. This social form is the generalization and completion of capitalism, the corrective to its socially malignant aspects.


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