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The Game and Finchley Central – Minds Blown

“You just lost The Game.”

Those words have been immortalised – not by video game designers or those who create different forms of entertainment. Instead, they are said hundreds of thousands of times across offices, playgrounds, and the very streets we walk on a daily basis. It’s not about losing a specific game. It’s about losing THE GAME. The two are very different.

Recently, I’ve been looking at single player boardgames and card games for the sake of this blog. As gamers, we often find it difficult when we want to play, but don’t have anyone to play with. So, with that in mind, I’ve grown a recent interest in solo (or solitaire) games to play, review, and generally, have a good time with. This includes a couple of entries in the Tiny Epic series of games, as well as games like Friday and The Game. 

In this case, The Game is an actual card game (rather than The Game we are talking about) that is way easier to get in German than in English. As such, I found myself looking online for the rules. Instead of finding them, I came across this lots of posts like this:

Screen Shot 2017-10-06 at 22.49.47

It reminded me of The Game, and I lost. From this moment on, when we speak of The Game in this blog – I am not talking about the card game. Instead, we are talking about the psychological mind sport that the copypasta of The Game turned into.


What is The Game?

The Game is a strange phenomenon, believed to have originated in the early 1990s as a form of distraction before reaching a peak in around 2008 as a cultural meme in its own right.

It has a couple of origin stories, the most likely being that it was designed by two engineers who missed their train and had to spend all night on a platform. To keep their minds busy they created a game wherein they had to think about anything but the situation they found themselves in. This evolved over time to The Game we are all losing now.

Essentially, The Game only has three rules –

  1. Everyone who knows about The Game is playing The Game.
  2. Whenever you think about The Game, you lose.
  3. When you lose you must announce your loss.

So, in reading that, if you didn’t already know about The Game…I guess “Welcome to The Game“. I’ve just lost by the way…and on that note so have you.

Of course, it is childish and weird and a little bit creepy (I’m thinking Creepypasta here); however, if we remove ourselves from The Game for a minute, it is also really interesting, and there are some quintessential psychological principals at play. Most notably, it involves a really cool concept called Ironic Process Theory.

Ironic Process Theory

Ironic Process Theory is the idea of trying to avoid something consciously, causing it to pop into your mind as an intrusive thought at a later date. The whole concept actually stems from something said by the author Fyodor Dostoevsky, when he once played a game with his brother. He wrote:

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

Since then, Ironic Process Theory has actually been studied over and over again, and is actually a process that can be used in memory improvement to try and remember obscure things by trying not to think of them. It’s a really weird juxtaposition (I’m desperately trying not to say the word “Ironic”) and interesting that in a strange way it can be used as a method to actually control the brain.

Mind blown point #1: By telling your brain it can’t think of something, you are actually training your memory. Kapow.

Of course, it’s not just Ironic Process Theory that makes The Game interesting.

The Zeigarnik Effect

An actual study into The Game, by the Cory Antiel, found that 57% of participants reported losing The Game simply by taking part in the study. By this, I don’t mean it distracted them – but instead, the study itself, in a really odd way, caused The Game to be lost. The levels of meta this involves gives me the chills just thinking about it.

The reason for this was put down to something called The Zeigarnik Effect, which states that people remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than complete ones. The actual study (the source is here, and it is a mind-blowing read) draws a conclusion that The Game, and the effect it has on psychology, may actually be impossible to judge. This is because judging it, in itself, loses The Game. You can’t judge how often people aren’t thinking of something if that very something causes you to think of it.

So mind blown point #2: The Game is so meta that it cannot exist outside of its own existence as an ironic thought.

All This Behind That

It’s spectacular. One small thing, that has essentially become copypasta online (text regularly copied and pasted between sources) and that we aim to give so little thought to – and yet it completely messes with our heads by being such a psychological conundrum.

Of course, the weirdness of The Game is not for everyone. As such, there is actually another game that can be played – this time between two (or more) different people who know they are playing it. This one little psychological gem is called Finchley Central.


What is Finchley Central?

Finchley Central is a thought experiment come mathematical challenge (weirdly, but bear with it) based on a kind of mental game of push-your-luck.

Most readers of this blog are familiar with push-your-luck games. They feature heavily in dice games, and some card games, so have featured a lot over the past few months on this blog in articles about some game or other.

Finchley Central is like a push-your-luck game, meets a mental game of chicken. The idea is very simple – it’s just to list London Tube Stations. The first person to name Finchley Central wins.

Of course, it could be over in an instant. As the first station I, for instance, might name “Finchley Central” and the game will be over. You are then well within your right to tut at me and tell me off. You see, Finchley Central is not a game about winning – it is a game about social bluffing and seeing how many tube stations you can name, playing your opponent as much as you are playing the game, before you feel the need to win by saying “Finchley Central”.

Of course, for those unfamiliar with the London Underground, it works with any list. My partner and I tried out Greek Heroes, not allowing each other to say “Zeus”.

So What Has This Got To Do With Mathematics?

I’m probably not going to explain this very well, namely because I have had my mind blown a few times whilst doing the research for this, but…

Interestingly, the three big names to have commented on the Finchley Central game are all Mathematicians (Jonathan PartingtonAnatole Beck, and David Fowler) and it has actually been attributed as some of the inspiration behind The Game.

Essentially, Finchley Central is kind of about mathematical optimisation if we break it down.

Imagine the optimum time to say Finchley Central is represented as a 1 in a 5×5 grid. The 1 is in the centre, and around that are 0s followed by -1. The grid can keep spreading out, but let’s keep it small for now.

Screen Shot 2017-10-07 at 00.25.48

The above grid actually represents a four-dimensional graph. The peak of the graph is the 1, which is the optimal time to ask the question. The best time to say “Finchley Central” is directly before your opponent does, but directly after they haven’t. It’s an absolutely nuts concept, that makes perfect sense.

To make it more logical and parabolic, this can be drawn as a graph, similar to this one. It uses the equation –

z = f(xy) = −(x² + y²) + 4

Complex stuff. It can get far more complex; however, I’m not going to go there for now. Instead, here is a Wikipedia page to explain all the intricacies.

The concept though, to simplify, is there is always an optimum time to say Finchley Central – the problem is we never know when it is. This is simply because, in our existence, we just go from 3D moments on a 4D axis, which makes it impossible to know when it is the best time to act.

There’s a lesson for life.


So there you have it – two mind-blowing games that show how weird our mental games can be. These stretch beyond simple games, and enter a realm of meta, oddness, and questioning of reality – the likes of which we don’t usually see.

It is a little bit of a divergence from what I usually post about, but I hope you found it interesting nonetheless. Let me know what you think about it in the comments below. This is certainly one of the strangest blogs I have ever written, from a physically writing it perspective, as these games really help us question…well…all kinds of things really.

Oh and…dear reader…?

You just lost The Game.


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