"Games You Can Play In Your Head, By Yourself" and meme design
"Games You Can Play In Your Head, By Yourself" is a series of books published starting in 1988. These books were edited together, in 2019, into "Top Ten Games You Can Play In Your Head, By Yourself". The games in "Games You Can Play In Your Head By Yourself" are something like 10-15 page long daydreaming prompts.
The book's format and style is probably inspired by several previous books such as:
- Gary Gygax's "Dungeons and Dragons" tabletop role-playing game manuals,
- David Ahl's "Basic Computer Games" which contained the code of computer games, to be typed into your home computer, and
- Edward Packard and Bantam's "Choose Your Own Adventure" books.
An example game is "Dungeon", which invites the player to imagine a dungeon, and take a role as a resident, owner, prisoner, or delver of that dungeon.
Compare this daydreaming prompt with Oleg Dolya's 2019 "One Page Dungeon"; dungeon delving has been a popular fantasy for decades now.
In contrast to a board game like Monopoly or a wargame like Gettysburg, there are not many mechanics or rules to the games. In a more-familiar game, there might be a booklet of instructions that has:
- some text about how to set up the board, and also
- how a typical turn is played, and also
- some way to win. These "games" are more like the character creation part of a tabletop role-playing game. They are a series of choices of who you want to play as, interspersed with flavor text, illustrations, statements about the fictional world, and instructions for what to imagine - but the instructions end at the end of character creation.
I think this is an interesting book, and I'd like to explain how the games that it contains function, by placing them on a landscape of things (memes and meme formats) that function similarly and/or differently.
Meme environments and metabolisms
Memes such as the "I can has cheezburger" image often have a format, such as "cat macros". Meme formats are themselves memes; to explain the difference, if you share a cat macro on a social aggregator site or show it to a friend, then that particular meme has replicated. If, after viewing that meme, you layer a cute photo with some silly text and share that new image, then the meme format meme has replicated.
Like life in general, meme format memes have an environment that they're adapted to, and also, they need a non-equilibrium environment in order to self-catalyze - which generally means a metabolism and/or a lifecycle.
For example, a horizontal convective roll vortex is a simple self-catalyzing pattern. It has a native environment: its fluid layer. Though it can spread horizontally in that layer, it cannot spread "up" or "down", and it needs to be powered by a temperature gradient. A particular blob of liquid will get heated by the bottom boundary, expand becoming less dense than average, float up to the top side, cool and become more dense than average, sink down to the bottom and so on. That's the metabolism of this autocatalytic - the particular mechanism by which the particular pattern consumes the non-equilibrium aspects of the environment in order to recreate itself.
Raleigh-Bènard convection is another, slightly different pattern, which in an infinite plane forms hexagons.
Unlike DNA- or RNA-based life forms, these patterns do not have a lot of heritable information. A particular symmetrical experiment might have a pattern of roll vortexes that point in a particular direction on one run, and on another run, another direction, but everything else about them, such as the vortex aspect ratio and pattern of speeds and temperatures and so on, is either not heritable or pinned down by the boundary conditions of the experiment. This is why we don't normally consider vortexes a form of life, though many other things fit.
The would-you-rather meme format
An example BTS would-you-rather or choose-your-fighter meme might go like this: "Would you rather (Choose your fighter) Ampanman or Gogo". Another example, which is frequently asked in Reddit's r/ama interviews is "Would You Rather Fight a Horse-Sized Duck or a Hundred Duck-Sized Horses?".
The "Would you rather?" or "Choose your fighter" dilemma game and/or meme format has a home environment and a metabolism. The environment is pretty straightforward - in the first case, BTS fandom, in the second case, r/ama. The metabolism of the meme format is the advantages it brings to both to the author and to the audience - the reasons that they keep using it.
To compose a would-you-rather, take two things or scenarios which are both desirable, both undesirable, or both compromises. This is your in-progress would-you-rather. Imagine what you yourself would pick. If you yourself would simply, straightforwardly, and quickly pick one side, make the decision harder by changing something about one or both sides. Iterate until you find it a somewhat difficult decision.
The author of a new post gets "paid" in attention from the audience. Using a would-you-rather, the author might get more attention than a free-form post because the people in the audience take time to think about the meme, and because different people in the audience might make different choices, and offer rationales, leading to discussion, which is more attention for the author.
A third reason for an author to use the would-you-rather, the meme can act as a convenient vehicle for "smuggling" content. Because the meme format leaves substantial freedom to play with, authors can avoid bluntly saying "do you like X?" or "do you want to change the topic of conversation to X?", which might be awkward and/or repetitious.
There are also advantages to the audience. The audience, depending on their taste, might get better, more original, more intriguing posts than if authors were not using the would-you-rather format. Possibly the constrained leads to easier (less cognitive effort) absorbing of the author's message, or easier generating of responses - alternately, possibly the difficulty of the dilemma leads the audience to stop and think, which might be pleasurable, if the audience enjoys thinking about the topic.
The would-you-rather format is similar to the games in "Games You Can Play In Your Head, By Yourself" in that the choices are deliberately balanced and do not have a downstream effect. There are no right answers, there is no skill at making choices like which move to make in chess. This is very unlike the historical "Choose Your Own Adventure" books, such as Steve Jackson's "Scorpion Swamp". The choices are simply a matter of self-expression and/or agency.
The character creation choices are more complicated than the binary dilemmas of would-you-rather, but some people enjoy complexity. The content being "smuggled" - the flavor text, illustrations, and statements about the fictive world act as suggestions, priming the subsequent daydreaming.
The imagine meme format
The imagine meme format is something like a writing prompt for fanfic, if there was no implication that the audience would maybe write a story about it - and also no implication that the story would be fanfiction or set in a particular author's world. It's a daydreaming prompt.
An example might be:
#imagine youre outside with justin. its dark, so he grabs your waist to pull you closer & whispers in your ear, "i dont ever wanna lose you"— Bieber Imagines (@BieberImagines) October 23, 2010
Alternately, showing how to use the imagine meme format in conversation:
These imagines have a home environment - for example, Bieber fans - and it has some of the same metabolism as the would-you-rather. For the author, the constrained format pays off by making it easier to create posts that audiences want to spend time thinking about. The choice or dilemma mechanism from would-you-rather is not generally present in imagine. Instead, imagines have an explicit instruction "imagine" and a blank spot that tempts the audience (not necessarily everyone who reads it, just some susceptible people within the correct environment) to fill in the blank: what happens next?
The imagine format is similar to the games in "Games You Can Play In Your Head, By Yourself" in that there are explicit instructions to imagine, and a blank spot at the end, where the instructions to the game stop. The lack of guidance at the end of the instructions is similar to: An ellipsis, the dot-dot-dot symbol "…" that writers use to represent someone trailing off. A fade-to-black that cinematographers use to avoid explicit sex scenes - or any other scenes where the viewers are expected to imagine what happens next in the story. A detailed map fading to blank in a direction, possibly explicitly called out with an annotation like "here be dragons". A loose thread to a fabric, that seems to beg the noticer to do something about it, to complete the pattern or fix it somehow. The Yidam meditation meme format Now let's take a big jump and go to meditation, specifically Yidam meditation. David Chapman says "A yidam is someone you can consistently consider enlightened. In 'deity yoga' you relate to that person in particular ways. You 'become' the yidam in meditation by visualizing yourself in their form, and by replacing your ordinary mind with their enlightened mind."
As a meme format, Yidam meditation's home environment is probably something like "people that are seeking enlightenment".
I don't want to hurt or insult anybody. I realize Buddhism probably takes Yidam meditation seriously and treats it as high status, while nothing else I am mentioning is high-status. I'm not trying to lower Yidam meditation's status, or imply anything rude or hurtful about Yidam meditation and/or its practitioners.
I don't know in detail what the metabolism of the Yidam meme format is, but certainly in order to survive as a meme, Yidam meditation needs to turn tentative trialers of the technique into successful advocates of the technique - successful in persuading the audience to try it. Possibly it does that by causing enlightenment. Possibly another way to say that is that it promises and then delivers various psychological effects.
"Games You Can Play In Your Head By Yourself" gives a short visualization exercise to "fragment your mind to create opposing selves within yourself". You imagine splitting your self away from your shadow, visualizing your self entering your sanctuary, surveying all the precious objects / trophies in your sanctuary while your shadow stays outside. Then you invite your shadow in (while your self stays outside). You visualize your shadow rearranging everything inside your sanctuary and also stealing something, and then fleeing. You imagine the self-fraction that stays outside being ignorant of what your shadow did, and searching through your sanctuary until that self-fragment figures out what your shadow stole.
This is probably in some way related to Jung's ideas of a "Shadow", but it also roughly relates to the practice of Yidam meditation. The visualization instructions explain how to get your mind into a particular state by describing some qualities of the entity or entities that you are role-playing as.
There are lots of differences of course between these games and Yidam meditation, including the goal.
In all four of would-you-rather, imagine, Yidam meditation, and "Games You Can Play In Your Head By Yourself" meme formats, "you" occurs in the visualization instructions. This is probably not an accident. There are certainly meme formats that do not particularly emphasize "you" - for example puzzles, riddles, mazes, and image searches. However, people are self-centered. Probably instructions to visualize how you yourself, or a character you built, would think and feel are more engaging, lead to more fun visualizations, than instructions without the self-insert quality.
In a substantial fraction of would-you-rather, imagine, and Yidam meme formats, there are common wish-fullfillment tropes such as health and/or immortality, wealth, beauty and badassness, magical/miraculous powers that occur repeatedly in the incidental, "smuggled" content. This is probably not an accident. It's functional for the meme's life cycle, if wish fulfillment tropes are enticing for people to daydream about.
All four have explicit instructions to the audience regarding how to direct their attention and what to visualize. In two of them, Yidam meditation, and "Games You Can Play In Your Head, By Yourself", the act of visualizing is also described as a skill, and you are expected to get better at it over time.
In many ways, it's an incredibly original and interesting book. One of my favorite aspects of it is that it refuses to instrumentalize daydreaming. It doesn't promise that daydreaming will be useful for anything. It doesn't promise that the reader will eventually create visual art or fiction from their daydreams. It says that playing these games is fun, full stop.
On the other hand, it also contains a lot of expectations about the reader's viewpoint which are off-putting. The book assumes and sortof normalizes the idea that the reader is a young heterosexual male from rural or agricultural United States.
It is definitely possible to learn from this book and build new daydreaming-game-meme-formats that have great traction. Imagine memes that have great traction gripping human minds and catapulting themselves forward - like a cheetah grips the ground or an orangutan brachiates from tree to tree, rewarding both authors and consumers as it goes.