Smart Theory

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
A brief work about cults where maybe I, myself, saw what I wanted to, November 30, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

Smart Theory is a great title, from my view. I guessed what the game was about, and I was right. It's very slippery. You see, if you're an advocate of Smart Theory, you get to show how smart you are, but you don't actually have to put it into practice. And if you're wrong, well, it's a theory and You Can Evolve. Of course, the antagonist in this game, Paul Bother, who invented Smart Theory, doesn't state things so directly. He strongly invites you to his lecture on Smart Theory, and you have no way to wiggle out (smart of him to know all the angles, eh?) You find Smart Theory is simple and accessible and has also changed people's lives. Everything about it works, and if it doesn't work for you, well, you don't understand it well enough.

This seems very much like a cult but also of times people just needed to hear themselves talk and I was a convenient alibi. I wanted to tell them they were full of nonsense but just couldn't. Sometimes they rattled on for a half-hour, which was longer than I spent with Smart Theory, both when I tried to reject Paul Bother's "philosophy" completely and accept it.

Now this isn't the first game to railroad you and try to do so amusingly, but I think it's quite effective, and I'm glad it's only 15 minutes, because too much would be too heavy for me. The author probably knew this, too. Paul Bother, to me, is every sort of person who informs you how lucky you are they are sharing their opinion at, I mean with, you. When he gets up there to make that lecture, he gives you a lot of things to think about but, of course, no time to. It's impossible to leave. And of course you get the inevitable "How was it?" question at the end. There are no right answers. Fortunately, unlike Paul Bother, the game (via Paul) exhorts you to think about what he said, and then it actually leaves you to think about what he said.

ST certainly pulls the usual psychological tricks to keep someone roped into a conversation. It pulls a lot of psychological tricks on the protagonist that can hurt in real life. You have the sense no matter what you do, Paul Bother will show you why you just weren't being very smart. Around Paul, you need to kiss up, but you also need to expect to be ignored. More advanced Smart Theorists will understand. At some points the game lampshades Paul's "rules for thee but not for me" approach. He is more advanced than you, you see, and his secrets are worth $10000 because, well, they just are. Paul's a philanthropist with stuff everyone should know, but only the people willing to make a commitment deserve to know the good stuff. He knows how to shift from soft repression to hard repression of actual ideas. And sadly, learning these tricks from someone like Paul would, indeed, be worth $10000 or more to some people.

All these thoughts are serious, but ST never got too serious. I see a lot of self-important humbugs from my past in Paul. Some had good concrete information and some didn't. But in either case, their personalities overshadowed any good advice. All needed to be looked up to, or fawned on in different ways, but nothing too obvious. They gave me a sort of ceiling I felt I couldn't break through, and if I wasn't able to overwhelm them with praise, I did look back feeling guilty I didn't praise them enough.

So I was quite happy to see this sort of polemicism dealt with. It didn't need anything deep. I've long had an axe to grind with "if you believe it, you can achieve it" motivational speakers (note: there's a place for developing your intuition and faith, but it's not with the Paul Bothers of the world). And people who need to tell you how smart they are (or common-sensical, because all YOUR book knowledge, well,i it's not practical.) It certainly brought back memories of very awful conversations with very overbearing and self-assured people, both smarter than me or not. Ones where no matter how much I contributed, I was sure I was doing it wrong, even if someone said "chime in if you want to."

So I think Smart Theory captures the basics of Internet arguing and grandstanding quite well. I know I spent years wondering why I didn't fully agree with people who I should agree with. This seems teleological, but over the years, I've realized there are attention-grabbing tricks and methods, or even just flat out assuming people would rather hear you than listen to your own thoughts. Confidence and taking constant steps towards your goals ... works. We need to develop that, despite our fears. And we need to trap ourselves into taking action, too. We need people to push us with Morton's-Fork style arguments. But doing it the wrong way can make you into a Paul Bother type. Some people actually want that. And, of course, bad people can use all these skills to seem like they have something to offer.

So I'm glad I was exposed to Smart Theory in a context that showed it was nonsense. Perhaps sometimes it's occasionally too on-the-nose, that's okay. What was on the nose for me was probably an insight for others, and vice versa.

And yet in a way, maybe ST fooled me. I suppose it told me what I already knew, and I agreed with it, and I was intrigued to learn more. Or I saw what I wanted to, for better or for worse. Which left me worried how weighty the game actually was. But one thing's for sure: I enjoyed seeing Paul Button flipping from "just listen" to "you said you'd give me a chance but you didn't REALLY" all too quickly.

Other people saw something different. Perhaps we all see what we want, or what we expect, in ST's generalities. After further reflection, I'm inclined to believe it was meant to be ambiguous. And I think clearly it's not the sort of thing you say "ALL THE FEELS" or "SO MUCH YES" to. But if you're in the right mood, it will help you deal positively with the next person who "just wants a bit of your time" about "something you need to know." Maybe it will pinpoint something from your past to bury. For a fifteen-minute investment, that's worth it.

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