Token Economy

Nick Williams
8 min readFeb 9, 2024
Image taken from Craig Boeman’s blog —

We could say that there are ‘two types of people in the world’ — those who see that the game is empty, and those who do not see this. This isn’t to say that we can’t transition from one group to the other because we absolutely can — this isn’t a hard-and-fast ontological distinction (or ‘typology’) but rather an orientation (or ‘modality of being’). When we are in the second group of people (i.e., when we can’t see that the game is empty) then we can never be actually ‘happy’ — we can only dream of being happy (or of ‘knowing peace’). We can only dream of a life that isn’t all about ‘endless striving’ and that’s exactly what we do do — we dream. Everyone is allowed to dream, after all. Dreaming is what it’s all about…

When we’re in the second group then we spend all our time trying to be happy (which we do by ‘playing the game’) and it is this business of ‘trying to be happy’ (or ‘trying not to be unhappy’) that constitutes neurosis. To be neurotic is to be jinxed — when our aim is to be happy then we never can be (which is to say, when we’re fighting against unhappiness then we’re doomed to be permanently unhappy). We are locked into a conflicted situation — a situation where we’re fighting against ourselves without knowing it. We’re hoping to come out ‘on top’ of course (that’s our motivation, that’s what drives us) but when we’re fighting against ourselves ‘what we like to call success’ is never really on the cards. We talk endlessly about it, we make it into the meaning of everything we do, but it isn’t a real thing — it’s just a glittering projection born of our ‘unacknowledged inner deficit’.

The ostensible point of the game (the game that is empty without us being able to see that it is) is to deliver happiness or well-being — this is our ‘major obsession’, as we have said — but because we have this overall aim or agenda we are guaranteed not to get what we want, and this is why we can say that the game is ‘empty’. The game is ‘empty’ but it distorts the way we perceive the world so that we can’t see that it is; to be a game-player is therefore to be constitutionally unable to see that we are playing that game (it is to be unable to see that the game is a game and not simply ‘the way things are’). The game doesn’t contain the possibility of ‘seeing that the game is only a game’, and this is a consequence of the fact that it doesn’t contain the possibility of ‘not playing the game’ (since if the game is ‘all that there is’ then it can’t be a game).

Most of us are trying to be happy by playing the game — this accounts for — by far — the biggest proportion of us. At least 99% of us are trying to be happy by playing the game. We are dependent upon the game going well for us before we can feel good; we’re dependent upon external outcomes, in other words. We are dependent upon successful controlling in order to feel good. But the game being what it is, even when we are doing well, even when we are ‘obtaining the outcomes we want to obtain’ (the outcomes we’re told we should want) we’re still not going to be happy. The game doesn’t make us happy; the game never makes us happy. That’s not what it is about — that was never what it was about. ‘Happiness’ or ‘genuine well-being’ can only come about when we’re not striving or grasping for it (and ‘not striving’ is of course seen to be an abdication of responsibility’ in our fast-paced goal-orientated society).

The reason the game ‘never makes us happy’ is because games only ever deal in tokens for the real and never in the thing itself. If the game dealt in ‘the thing itself’ then it wouldn’t be a game. When we do well in the game then we win a ‘token’, a token which stands for something or other. But the point is that we don’t have to cash in the token in order to feel good; because we no longer realise that the game is a game, we feel good straight away, we feel good in advance. We have taken out a loan. This type of feeling good has nothing to do with ‘happiness’, however — happiness can’t happen in the absence of truth whilst the type of good feeling we get in a game (euphoria) can only happen in the absence of truth. Euphoria is the lower (or ‘degenerate’) analogue of happiness — it’s a different kind of beast entirely. Instead of coming about as a result of us letting go of our illusions, it arises — we might say — as a result of us holding onto them. [We ought to point out that we’re calling ‘happiness’ isn’t a kind of blissed-out ‘Ken and Barbie state’ (such as we might see in actors in an advert who have just bought some life-enhancing product) — that’s just how it is marketed, that’s just appears to us when we’re ‘playing the game’. That’s the ‘token‘ we’re playing for. Rather, it is — we might say — a state of inner well-being / sufficiency as opposed to ‘external dependency’.]

Suppose (for example) I learn that I have come into a windfall, that I’m due to receive a big sum of money, for whatever reason. Straightaway I feel good and the reason I feel good is that I believe that the money will enable me to become happy. I have received in ‘advance on my happiness’, so to speak. The good feeling that we’re talking about here isn’t happiness however — it’s a sense of security that we experience because we feel that happiness (or what we understand as happiness) is on its way. We can confidently anticipate it. The good feeling is the tokenized form of happiness therefore — it’s what we get when we feel sure that our happiness is in the pipeline, it’s what we feel when we allow ourselves to believe that ‘it’s all done and dusted’.

The problem is that the tokenized version of happiness (or as we could also say, the tokenized version of life) belongs to an entirely different realm of things, a realm that is different ‘in kind’ to the actual thing. The tokenized version of reality — is as we might expect — made up of tokens, which is to say, signifiers, the job of which is to ‘represent reality whilst not being reality themselves’. Thus, the word <dog> represents the living, breathing creature itself, without being in the least bit ‘creature like’ itself. It’s no good trying giving a pat on the head to the word ‘dog’ and expecting it to wag its tail. A description of a thing can never become that thing, no matter how good (or how thorough) that description might be because the simulation and what is being simulated (the token and the tokenized) belong to two different domains. To lose sight of this all-important distinction is to be subsumed by the World of the Hyperreal.

Another way of talking about the distinction between the Real World and the Formal World that is made up of our tokens is simply to say that there exists a discontinuity between the one and the other such that no matter what we do within the formal realm, it’s never going to make any difference to the real one. With respect to the aim of ‘connecting with what’s real’, (or ‘effecting change in ourselves’), therefore, we can say that all of our activities, all of our endeavours, in the Formal World are guaranteed to be 100% futile. Our endeavours are guaranteed to be entirely futile (in any real terms) but we invest everything we’ve got in it all the same (since we are convinced that there’s going to be a payoff somewhere along the line). This is like thinking that if we win in a game of Monopoly then this is somehow (magically) going to make us financially better off in real life; this is a joke because no matter how wealth we obtain in the game, this isn’t — as we all know — going to translate into ‘wealth in the world outside of the Monopoly board’…

We might (possibly) make the objection here that the law which says ‘everything we do in the Formal World is always entirely futile’ only holds good if the aim of the activity we’re engaging is in order to establish a relationship with the real world, and this point is of course perfect valid. The problem with the argument is however that there is no point in anything we do if it has no relationship with what is actually real! What we’re talking about here is as we have said an ‘empty game’ — which is to say, it’s a type of activity that only means something when we look at it in on the terms which it itself assumes. This is a ‘closed loop of logic’, in other words, and a closed loop of logic can be used to prove anything we want to prove. If I am a Christian and I prove that I am absolutely right to be a Christian (and not a Muslim or Buddhist or Zoroastrian or whatever) on the basis of what is written in the Bible then this is a closed loop of logic, for example. All prejudices are like this because of the way in which they justify themselves by referring back to themselves and what we are calling a Formal World is simply ‘a world that creates itself in accordance with its own assumed rules’.

But it’s not just that nothing we do as any in the Formal World has any bearing on anything real; the ontological discontinuity between the one and the other means more than this just, it means that we can’t be aware in any way of any possible world existing outside of the artificial world that we have tautologically created. We can’t see out of the closed world that we have brought into being and so this unreal world is — for us — the only world there ever possibly could be. This is ‘the trap of self-reference’.

Our ‘system of signifiers’ is fundamentally incapable of referring to the world that exists beyond our descriptions, the world that our signifiers are supposed to be signifying is itself a description (or signification) and it is this that puts us in an ‘uroboric loop’. The ontological discontinuity is therefore ‘a limit we cannot see’, ‘an obstacle that we don’t know to be there’. At this point the whole argument might all start to sound distinctly silly — we have put forward this proposition that there are two realms, ‘the formal one versus the real one’, and then we went on to argue that the Formal World is entirely empty (which is to say, that it is a null set, or ‘set with nothing in it’). This being the case, why would we bother to say that it constitutes ‘a world’ at all? If there are after all no grounds for claiming that it is a world then why start talking about it in the first place? Why go into it?

The point is of course that we have to go into it because this ‘world that isn’t a world’ (this world that is actually a Null Set) is the only reality we know. This is where we live, it’s where we hang out, it’s the realm we inhabit, it’s ‘what we have to make do with in the absence of anything else’. It’s the Mind-Created Virtual Reality‘ — it’s a futile exercise that we can’t see to be such’, a sterile simulation that is made up of tokens of the real world which we — in our shortsightedness — have been fooled into taking as an end in itself.