Dopamine Games: An Introduction

by Charles Lyell on April 26, 2012

“You have to learn the rules of the game. And then you have to play better than anyone else.” – Albert Einstein 

People play dopamine games for the same reasons chimpanzees play dopamine games. Some play in response to threats that interrupt dopamine flow. Some play to trigger dopamine. Most play for both reasons.

We respond to threats to dopamine flow by playing games that:

  • Placate fears.
  • Furnish a sense of safety.
  • Protect peer approval.
  • Guard status.

We trigger dopamine by playing games that:

  • Provide a sense of power.
  • Win peer approval.
  • Attract attention.
  • Elevate status.

The difference between Homo sapiens and chimpanzees is that apes play dopamine games as a means to two related ends, survival and sex. (Because the expectation of orgasm provides major dopamine rewards.) People play dopamine games because our more recent ancestors turned our primitive ancestors’ means into dead-ends unto themselves.

In a nutshell, our dull-witted predecessors started playing dopamine games simply to protect dopamine flow and/or trigger dopamine, then bequeathed their predilection down to future generations who were born into tribes that played games that kept them from noticing, comprehending, or questioning why they were honoring such a dishonest tradition.

Before introducing the first dopamine game it’s important to note that dopamine games aren’t “mind games.” Instead, they’re ”mindless games” that require an unconscious commitment to self-deceptions, denials, and mindlessness.

A fairly straightforward dopamine game, and good place to start, is:


For example, two fathers are chatting and proud pappy A starts boasting about his child’s grades. Suddenly, insecure daddy B cuts A off to brag about his child’s tie-breaking home run from three years ago.

On a dopaminergic level, pappy A’s attempt to elevate his esteem (i.e. trigger dopamine by bringing up his son’s grades) interrupts daddy B’s dopamine flow. B, who is defensive about his son’s poor grades, immediately reacts. Discombobulated by having his dopamine supply cut off, B stops A in his tracks and tries to restore his dopamine flow by grasping at straws, in much the same way he would be gasping for air if his oxygen supply were cut off.

One-upmanship is played in playgrounds with sneakers, in high schools with cell phones, and in boardrooms with profits.

A more involved variation of One-upmanship is:

I Don’t Play Games (IDPG)

While it’s possible that Albert Einstein didn’t play dopamine games (though it’s more likely that he did and would have been the first to both understand and admit to it) most people who insist that they don’t play dopamine games are actually playing IDPG.

Unlike basic One-upmanship, where players rely on relatively quantifiable criteria (i.e. grades, sneakers, profits) to elevate their esteem, IDPG players fabricate arbitrary criteria that allow them to elevate their esteem by looking down on others. For IDPG players the arbitrary criteria is that game playing is for less honest, aware, and/or intelligent types.

IDPG players play I Don’t Play Games in order to (unconsciously):

  • Protect themselves from having to consider the esteem deflating / dopamine depriving possibility that they play games just like the people they enjoy looking down on for playing games.
  • Trigger gratuitous dopamine hits by elevating their esteem with the convenient self-deception that they are superior to lesser mortals who do play games.

Learning how to follow the dopamine is the key to understanding how dopamine games work. For example, most game players can’t admit that they’re playing dopamine games because the truth reduces their esteem, and the only thing they are interested in is triggering dopamine by relying on self-deceptions that elevate their esteem. By learning how to follow the dopamine it’s also possible to understand why the few game players who willingly admit that they play dopamine games are often also doing it for the dopamine.

Honest individuals admit to playing dopamine games because being honest makes them feel good about themselves = elevates esteem = triggers dopamine. Insecure individuals, who admit to playing games, do so to turn off the fear = dopamine deprivation that can be traced to the expectation of being caught trying to deny what they are afraid they might be doing.

When confronted with their self-deceptions, adamant IDPG players often switch to another popular dopamine game:

That’s Ridiculous! (TR!)

TR! is a favorite with intellectually challenged individuals who aren’t able to provide articulate and/or honest explanations / defenses for their indefensible self-deceptions and suspicious denials.

Bolstered by layers of self-deceptions, accomplished TR! players convince themselves that “winning” any discussion is as easy as blurting, “That’s ridiculous!” with the confidence of a chess master proclaiming, “Checkmate!”

Warning: People who play That’s Ridiculous! have been known to respond to challenges to their self-deceptions, pretensions, dopamine flow by escalating to one or more dangerous dopamine games, such as I Won’t Let You Prove I’m Wrong! and/or How Dare You Insult Me!.

In future posts I’ll discuss popular games people use to avoid learning about dopamine.

  • Look How Much I Already Know About Dopamine
  • I’m Tired of Hearing About Dopamine
  • Nitpicking
  • This Is Too Complicated
  • This Is Too Simplistic
  • Why Does It Matter?

Other popular dopamine games I hope to cover include:

  • I Won’t Let You Prove I’m Wrong!
  • How Dare You Insult Me!
  • I Totally Understand How Other People Play Games
  • Stop Attacking Me!
  • The Religion Game
  • I’m Smarter Than You Are / We’re Smarter Than They Are
  • Connoisseur
  • If You’re So Smart Why Ain’t Your Rich?
  • I Am Not an Addict
  • Bigotry, Racism, Sexism, Misogyny
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