You Just Lost the Game

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S1: There’s this thing that millions of people are doing, and yet no one discusses it in public and just anecdotally when I run into groups of people, if I mention the game usually like half the people in the room have been playing the game, and yet they’re like the other half of the country has no idea this is even a thing.

S2: By listening to this episode, you’re going to lose the game, you’re going to lose it a lot.

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S1: My first strong memory of playing the game was going to my brother’s wedding and then trying to get my brother to associate the phrase I do with I just lost the game. So that we’d have to lose it at the altar and then admit to as much.

S2: That’s forced Wickman, the culture editor of Slate. He’s been playing the game since the mid 2000s.

S1: He did not lose the game at the altar. People may be relieved to know, though. Immediately after the wedding, he came up to me like a little teary eyed and then lost the game.

S2: OK, if you keep listening to this episode, there is no going back because you can’t unlearn the game and once you learn it, you can never stop playing it. So turn off this episode right now. If you don’t want to know what it is, we’re going to give you five seconds. OK, here it is. You lose the game by thinking about the game, when you think about the game, you have to say, I just lost the game and that’s it. That’s the game. And I just lost the game. This is Decoder ring, I’m Willa Paskin for a handful of you, this episode may sound familiar. Back in 2018, we made another episode called The Incunabula Papers, and in it we hit a bunch of honestly pretty difficult clues that led to a special bonus episode. This episode and episode only a few hundred people have heard until now. Basically, we’re opening up the Decoder vault and loving this episode out of just a few updates, and this episode is about the mind game known as the game. It’s silly and harmless, but also infectious and unforgettable. If you already know that there’s a good chance you learned about it around the year 2010 or earlier this year on TikTok, but it goes back further than that. It’s an analog viral phenomenon with roots in psychology, game shows and a British science fiction club. So today on Decoder ng, where did the game come from? OK. So I learned about the game making this episode about the game by Benjamin Frisch, Decoder Riggs, producer, has been playing the game since the late aughts, and he reported this story out.

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S3: I learned about the game when I was in college, riding in the back of a cramped, rickety van during a European road trip. Road trips are maybe the best or the worst way to learn about the game when you’re playing it in a car with the same people for a long time, with nothing else to do or think about. The game is going to come up a lot. We lost the game dozens of times on that trip, and in retrospect, it made that trip really memorable to me and helped bond me to people I didn’t know so well. And in talking with other people, it’s clear that I’m not alone. Dan Czech is Slate’s CEO.

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S4: It is the first thing out of your mouth, I think when you see me typically,

S1: which is pretty great. For whatever reason, I associate you with the game, but the opposite doesn’t really happen. So I lose the game first and I say I just lost the game and we both kind of hit early. It becomes it

S4: becomes a greeting ritual at that point.

S3: The idea that the harder you try not to think of a thing, the harder it is not to think of that thing isn’t new. There’s a Dostoyevsky quote from 1863.

S2: Try to pose for yourself this task not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that curse thing will come to mind every minute.

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S3: In 1987, the social psychologist Daniel Wagner came across that quote and decided to do an experiment with it. He told participants to sit for five minutes and not think of a white bear. And every time they did think of a white bear to ring a bell, they rang the bell a lot. The game relies on exactly this human habit and turns it into, well, a game when one person loses the game and announces that they have lost the game, everyone else in the vicinity must also necessarily lose the game. Having been reminded of its existence, unlike most games, you can never win the game. There are only two states of play. Either you have forgotten about the game temporarily or you have lost it. Now, some people include another rule that when someone declares that they have thought about the game, it creates a temporary immunity period in which other people may think about the game without losing it, allowing someone to win the game. In a sense, this is not a universal rule, though, and it remains controversial. And that’s in part because the game being this weird, amorphous, difficult to pin down thing makes figuring out what the rules are pretty difficult. But if there is an established authority on the game, it’s probably Jonty Haywood, who created the website Lose the Game Dot Net in 2005.

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S4: And I was kind of just playing as most people do, like occasionally thinking about it and losing it. Really, I wanted to just kind of develop my web design skills and didn’t have any idea of what to make a

S3: website about what I was searching the game online

S4: and couldn’t really find much about it, so I thought I’d make my website about the game.

S3: Jonty Haywood is from Cornwall in the UK, and he seems like the kind of gentle prankster who’d be really into the game. Famously in Cornwall, at least. He started a website in 2007 for Cornwall’s most beautiful beach port them.It Beach, a huge, almost tropical strip in North Cornwall filled with beautiful wildlife and topless sunbathing. A beach that doesn’t exist. Jonty website about the game became a nexus for information and in a real way, an authority on the rules, records and notable events regarding the game. Jonty rules are as follows one.

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S2: You are playing the game. You, along with everyone else in the world, always is, always has been and always will be playing the game. Neither awareness nor consent is required to play. Every time you think about the game, you lose losses temporary. As soon as you forget about the game, you stop losing. The objective of the game is to forget that it exists. Good luck. Three. Loss of the game must be announced every time you think about the game and hence lose, you must say so. This is the only roar that can be broken. But do you really need to cheat now?

S3: Paskin Jonty notes that the idea of grace periods are a common addition, but they are not included in his classic rule set. Jonty is also a notable figure in the law of the game, not just for collecting resources on it, but for single handedly spreading the game to thousands and thousands of people. According to Jonty, his Facebook group devoted to celebrating and spreading the game was hugely popular

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S4: before Facebook changed their like group system and eventually deleted all the groups of like 200000 members in the Facebook group.

S3: A hit counter on his website currently stands at over four point eight million, in his words. In fact, it. The heyday of the game on the internet, at least, was in the late aughts and early 2010s. This was a time when the concept of virality was coming into everyday use and the game was a perfect, if extremely analogue example of how an idea can spread in the digital age. A rash of notable pranks having to do with the game happened around this time. In 2009, the site 4chan rigged Time magazine’s online poll of the 100 most influential people. So the first letter of each name on the list spelled out a lewd form in-joke, followed by the words. Also the game. In the same year, Christopher Heatley, a man from Belfast and Northern Ireland, won a prize from Cadbury the Chocolate Company and got to put a message of his choice on two roadside billboards in Belfast. His choice was you just lost the game. Since then, references to the game have showed up all over the place, but especially on social media and most recently on Tik Tok, where thousands of people have been losing the game since lockdown.

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S2: He just lost the game. You just lost the game. Hey, everyone, guess what? One, but I just lost the game.

S3: I guess once you know it exists, you start to notice the game all over the English speaking world. It’s pretty much endemic at this point. So now we turn to the big question how did this happen? No one knows for sure exactly where the game came from, but I think it’s pretty likely that it evolved from a mind game, a totally different mind game played by British students in the late 1970s.

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S4: This is in the days when there really wasn’t any kind of proper geek culture.

S3: That’s Nick Lowe classic scholar at Royal Holloway College in London, who was a PhD student at Cambridge at the time.

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S4: There was a science fiction society in Cambridge, a student science fiction society which met in a pub once a week. It was the age of punk. There was this kind of punky sort of attitude to the ways in which we were thinking about maths as a tool for a kind of exploding people’s heads and, if possible, the foundations of reality with it and

S3: people in this science fiction club. One of the games people were playing was called Finchley Central, which dates back to at least 1969, when its rules were detailed by the mathematicians. David Fowler and Anatol back in an issue of Manifold magazine. According to that article, the rules are as follows

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S2: two players alternate naming the stations of the London Underground. First to say Finchley central wins is clear. The best time to say Finchley Central is exactly before your opponent does. You could, of course, say Finchley Central on your second turn. In that case, your opponent passed on his cigarette and says, Well, shame on you.

S3: In other words, you can win at any time. You just have to say Finchley Central. But if you say Finchley Central right away, that’s bad form, bad sportsmanship. After all, it ends the game just as it begins and you can see how it’s related to the game. But the key difference you can actively win Finchley Central. There’s also a game very similar to Finchley Central that prepared later in 1989 on the BBC comedy panel show. I’m sorry, I haven’t a clue. The rules are exactly the same, but the winning phrase is another London tube station, Mornington Crescent. Now we’re going

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S4: to play the game called Mornington Crescent. Fulham Palace Road, Marylebone Station, Seven Sisters Road. Oh. Oh, hoist with his own petard. It’s ours in three pal Mal, Charlotte, St. Mary’s and Crescent Angel. So obviously, you know, any player can win at any point in the game, and this was a kind of game that mathematical matter must be a model of game theory. I couldn’t do anything with

S3: Nick and a group of his science fiction society. Friends would play Finchley Central together, and at some point the game evolved.

S4: One of those I came up with the suggestion that you could have a variant in which you win, not by saying Finchley Central first, but simply by thinking of it first. And then it was a very small step from there to an even more interesting variant where instead of winning by thinking of Finchley essential first you lost by thinking you. That’s so you lose the game. The moment you think of the winning moves in the game, which is the only move you can sensibly make.

S3: The society loved this version of Finchley Central and started passing it down within the society from year to year. Nick Hobson recalls that there was one man, Mark Haslett, who wasn’t there for its inception, but who was really into it.

S4: Mark, in particular, I think, was the kind of Typhoid Mary of this particular memetic virus. He kind of spread it to everyone he met.

S3: Nick says that you were the person who was like telling everybody about it.

S5: Well, that’s Nick for you.

S3: That’s Mark Haslett, Nick former roommate. He’s retired now, and for what it’s worth, doesn’t remember his enthusiasm for this version of Finchley Central being quite as extreme as Nick remembers it being. But he was nonetheless a major part of its origin.

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S5: You know, your head’s just caught up by some people that got so, so into it into metagame. But you kind of almost felt like when you weren’t thinking about Finchley Central, that was a matter of law. He spent, you know, possibly had was just permanently thinking about Finchley, Ventrell and Lord. If we’d stumbled across a game that was spectators. As addictive as Finchley, Central is damn good thing. We didn’t find one that was dangerous.

S3: Eventually, Nick and Mark and all of their friends left Cambridge and sort of forgot about Finchley Central.

S4: I never knew about the game until about 10 years ago, so I just started appearing in the British press, and it was the first time that I knew this. It’s gone out in the world. All my students turn out to know about it, and I was the last to know. I got in contact with with Mark and with other people who had been part of that original. Well, we were all completely baffled. We none of us knew that the game had become this thing. This is kind of a sobering life lesson with me that all the high minded attempts to be a scholar and a teacher that have driven many of our careers since they pale into insignificance by the side, having a kind of collaborative hand into creating one of the stupidest ideas in human history.

S3: Mark Haslett told me that every decade or so, some journalist comes poking around asking about it. And in the intervening time, he hasn’t thought too much about Finchley Central. He doesn’t see his old college buddies that often, after all. Well, presumably there was a long, maybe decade long period where you didn’t where you were winning the game.

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S5: No, no, no. There is no such thing as winning Finchley Central. That’s the point. It only has one rule, and that’s how you lose.

S3: I mean, the idea of the immunity period is basically so that you can enjoy having won the game,

S5: but that you can’t win the game. That’s the point. Oh dear. No, no, you’re clearly missing the point.

S3: I am realizing that this this rule like, feels very American to me because we have to win everything.

S5: Yeah, we’re exactly. And I’m very British, and I think it’s funny that you have a game where it’s impossible to win because the only rule is how you lose.

S3: There’s still a hole in the story. I couldn’t find anyone who could explain to me exactly how Finchley Central turned into the version of the game that we know today. We’re thinking about the game itself, rather than thinking about a London tube station makes you lose. If I had to guess, I suspect it probably has something to do with Finchley Central spreading beyond the Greater London area. No doubt, part of the fun of Finchley Central was a losing Finchley central every time you saw the name on a map or a signpost. But when you don’t live anywhere close to Finchley Central, why should you think of it at all? When players moved away from London, they probably just dissolved the tube station entirely and the game became fully self-referential. The game is such a simple, basic idea. It almost seems like something that has always existed, like it wasn’t something that was invented. It was just discovered. And I think that’s because it corresponds to something very basic about human psychology. Which brings me back to that Dostoyevsky quote from earlier about the polar bear. In psychology, the phenomenon of not being able to think about something you don’t want to think about is called ironic process theory, the way that the mind when it tries not to think of something seems incapable of letting it go.

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S6: Ironic process theory is this idea that when we engage in thought suppression, there’s this ironic rebound effect,

S3: which Nick Hobson is a lecturer in psychology at the University of Toronto.

S6: We have two systems in our in our mind or brain. So we have our one system which tells us, you know, consciously and deliberately, don’t think about this thing, don’t have this thought or this idea. So when we tell ourselves not to have a particular thought or an idea that sets off this unconscious monitoring process, and it sort of checks in every so often to make sure that we’re not thinking about X, but as a result of monitoring for X, well, then X comes to mind. And that’s that is the irony, which is it’s sort of like a flaw in the design of our of our psychology, you know, through evolution. And as this is the outcome of it,

S3: we all experience some amount of ironic processing in everyday life. Like when you get a really annoying song stuck in your head. But ironic process theory isn’t just about frivolous things.

S6: I would make the argument that as we see it manifested in everyday psychology, that it does sort of tend to be more negative when you start to think about people with anxiety and mood disorders and PTSD

S3: in a mental health context. Ironic processing is a way the painful memories can reassert themselves. It’s a way that depression and anxiety disorders manifest, and it’s a way negative thoughts burrowed deeper and deeper into the mind. What I love about the game is that it trades on this odd, potentially dark thing inside of us this flaw in human cognition and turns it into a completely harmless prank. It diffuses it. It turns it into a kind of bonding agent. And that’s not silly or frivolous at all. It’s actually kind of beautiful.

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S4: We all went kind of went our separate ways, and some of us have made more in touch than others. And so it became the game became a sort of little re bonding thing every time we got back in touch. And so it’s part of your relationship. It was part of this kind of shared madness.

S2: This is Decoder ring, I’m Willa Paskin.

S3: I’m Benjamin Frisch. Thanks for listening. This episode was written by Benjamin Frisch and produced by Benjamin Frisch and Willa Paskin. Cleo Levin is our research assistant. Special thanks to forced Wickman for suggesting this topic and to June Thomas Healy, Gavin Danielle Hewitt and everyone else who gave us help and feedback along the way. See you next week!