The Mechanics Fallacy

by radimentary

Already Playing StarCraft

From Day[9]:

There’s an illusion I want to dispel right now, that in Brood War, you need to master your mechanics before you get to really play the game. There’s this idea that if you practice for three months, you’ll have your mechanics down, and then you get to play the strategy portion. This is totally false. If you watch any fucking pro play, literally Flash, Jaedong, Bisu, Stork – the four best players of all time – stuff is going wrong all the time. All the time. They’re losing track of dropships and missing macro back at home and they have a geyser with one dude in it and they forget to expand. Stuff is going wrong all the time because it’s hard to be a commander. So if you’re sitting there thinking, “Aw man, I can’t wait to get good at the mechanics so I can play StarCraft,” I want you to know, you’re playing StarCraft right now.

I’ve been following Day[9] for ten years and this is the most profound thing I’ve ever heard him say, so I’m going to give it a name. This is the Mechanics Fallacy – the idea that you have to be good at all mechanical aspects of the game before you are really playing it.

The Mechanics Fallacy is what every forum thread tells newbies: if you’re below [Plat/Diamond/Master/GM], mechanics are all that matter. Don’t study strategy, it’s a waste of time. You can’t really play StarCraft until you’ve mastered building hotkeys, creep spread, map awareness. Until then, just keep your head down and grind – all you need is mechanics. You don’t need micro, you don’t need advanced strategies!

To anyone who believes that no real games of StarCraft are played below the grandmaster level, I suggest they watch some Bronze League Heroes (older games cast by Husky, more recently by Winter). Every game is filled with mechanical errors and varying levels of BM, but among them a surprising number shine through nevertheless. Beautiful things happen at this level that I’ve never seen around Plat/Diamond: the players are having fun! They are showing heart and fighting spirit, trying ridiculous things. We get to watch extended double base trades and a single battlecruiser racking up triple digit kills and a dozen 3/3 roaches kill 200 supply of unupgraded marines and all but a thousand minerals get mined out on a four player map (in 1v1!). Me, I do the same 6 minute stim timing day in, day out. So who’s really playing StarCraft?

The Mechanics Fallacy in Morality

From Compass Rose:

People who think that control-seeking is the best strategy for benevolence tend to adopt plans like this:

Step 1 – acquire control over everything.

Step 2 – optimize it for the good of all sentient beings.

The problem with this is that step 1 does not generalize well. There are lots of different goals for which step 1 might seem like an appealing first step, so you should expect lots of other people to be trying, and their interests will all be directly opposed to yours. Your methods will be nearly the same as the methods for someone with a different step 2. You’ll never get to step 2 of this plan; it’s been tried many times before, and failed every time.

The Mechanics Fallacy in morality is the idea that you have to master your mechanics [money/power/skill/influence] before you can do good. Everyone knows that the real point of life is doing good. But you don’t really get to change the world until you acquire an outsized amount of power – so why waste your time doing good now? Maximize power first!

The Mechanics Fallacy is what every premium mediocre adult tells children: if you’re not as rich as Elon Musk, not as powerful as Barack Obama, not as famous as Oprah, then you don’t have the luxury to do good. Don’t study morality, it’s a waste of time. You can’t really fight for justice until you’ve got a couple billion dollars and tenure! Just keep your head down and accumulate degrees, buy cryptocurrencies, suck up to your boss, keep padding that resume. Lie and cheat if you have to – only the rich can afford to be moral. One day, if you ever make it to the top of that same ladder everyone else is scrabbling up, you might finally have the luxury of making decisions for the sake of good and evil.

I say otherwise: Every single human being has the choice to really live right now. It is written, clean your room. Start by doing what good you can in the confines of your own life. It can be as small as making your bed every morning and smiling when you greet people. Maximize your good-to-power ratio before, or at least concurrently, with maximizing your power.

You probably know people who do this – the light shines through them. They’re not particularly ambitious, but put that person in any job, and in a week the whole place is pristine. Put that person in any conversation, and they won’t dominate the conversation, but in an hour everyone will be laughing with their guard around their knees.


From TheZvi:

Slack is hard to precisely define, but I think this comes close:

Definition: Slack. The absence of binding constraints on behavior.

Poor is the person without Slack. Lack of Slack compounds and traps.

Slack means margin for error. You can relax. 

Slack allows pursuing opportunities. You can explore. You can trade.

Slack prevents desperation. You can avoid bad trades and wait for better spots. You can be efficient.

Slack permits planning for the long term. You can invest.

Slack enables doing things for your own amusement. You can play games. You can have fun. 

Slack enables doing the right thing. Stand by your friends. Reward the worthy. Punish the wicked. You can have a code. 

Slack presents things as they are without concern for how things look or what others think. You can be honest.

You can do some of these things, and choose not to do others. Because you don’t have to.

Only with slack can one be a righteous dude.

Slack is life.

This is absolutely right, but one has to interpret it carefully to avoid the Mechanics Fallacy. You need slack to be a righteous dude, you need slack to have a code and be honest, but no amount of intellectual prowess or financial security or political power will shore up your anxiety to give you slack if you don’t cut yourself some. At the end of the day, slack is in the mind.

There are a thousand ladders between good and bad in the world: ladders where you climb in competence and power until you git gud. You can spend your slack to climb the ladder in StarCraft, or the corporate hierarchy, or the sportsball hall of fame. But if you spend all your slack climbing these ladders, you miss the most important ladder of all, the ladder between good and evil.

Alexander Solzhenitzyn wrote about how one prisoner created his own slack to survive the horrors of Soviet prison:

Sukhanovka was the most terrible prison the MGB had. Its very name was used to intimidate prisoners; interrogators would hiss it threateningly. And you’d not be able to question those who had been there: either they were insane and talking only disconnected nonsense, or they were dead.


The cells were all built for two, but prisoners under interrogation were usually kept in them singly. The dimensions were five by six and a half feet.

To be absolutely precise, they were 156 centimeters by 209 centimeters. How do we know? Through a triumph of engineering calculation and a strong heart that even Sukhanovka could not break. The measurements were the work of Alexander Dolgun, who would not allow them to drive him to madness or despair. He resisted by striving to use his mind to calculate distances. In Lefortovo he counted steps, converted them into kilometers, remembered from a map how many kilometers it was from Moscow to the border, and then how many across all Europe, and how many across the Atlantic Ocean. He was sustained in this by the hope of returning to America. And in one year in Lefortovo solitary he got, so to speak, halfway across the Atlantic. Thereupon they took him to Sukhanovka. Here, realizing how few would survive to tell of it – and all our information about it comes from him – he invented a method of measuring the cell. The numbers 10/22 were stamped on the bottom of his prison bowl, and he guessed that “10” was the diameter of the bottom and “22” the diameter of the outside edge. Then he pulled a thread from a towel, made himself a tape measure, and measured everything with it. Then he began to invent a way of sleeping standing up, propping his knees against the small chair, and of deceiving the guard into thinking his eyes were open. He succeeded in this deception, and that was how he managed not to go insane when Ryumin kept him sleepless for a month.

Here was a man who by all accounts could afford absolutely no slack, and yet did not allow himself the luxury of confessing to crimes and plots he did not commit. Dolgun’s fellow prisoners must have thought of him: what a fool! You are no comrade Stalin. Protect yourself and confess to whatever they want. Heroism is a luxury for the powerful.

If every man in Russia had the fighting spirit of Alexander Dolgun, the Bolsheviks would have been ousted in a month. And if Alexander Dolgun could find the slack to be a righteous dude in Soviet Russia’s most notorious torture chambers, maybe you can too.

Every idea carries an injunction. The Mechanics Fallacy carries this: cut yourself some slack. Climb the ladder between good and evil with it. Prefer the life of Alexander Dolgun to that of Josef Stalin. Maximize your good to power ratio before you dare to seek power.