Comic Reviews

On Local Maxima

There’s this manga series I follow religiously called Chihayafuru. One of the themes it covers is the realities of becoming elite in a field: the personal cost, the conditions necessary to become elite, and the cost to your support network. In the case of the story, the field is a niche card game called Karuta that basically only exists in Japan. As a result, there’s a lot of Japan specific trappings involved in how these things are depicted, but the concepts can be generalized.

One of the aspects I want to focus on today is the mindset that the characters develop in order to become elite. The story features a large ensemble cast in addition to its main character, and goes into each character’s mindset for why they play Karuta and why they strive to improve. In general, people have different mindsets for recreational games – some people play for the fun of interacting with others, whereas some people like the competitive aspect – they like beating other players. Or maybe they just hate losing. There’s many different reasons why people generally play games. However, for competition, there’s a crucial difference between normal recreational play – everyone who participates generally also try to improve constantly in order to keep up with or to surpass the rest of the field. In order to do so, they have to play the game with a mindset of constantly learning and/or constantly improving over time. The details in which this is implemented will differ from person to person.

Chihayafuru really focuses on the players’ psyches, as well as the makeup of their mindset – what drives them to be better? what drives them to be the best? Naturally, as there is only one person who stands at the top of their field (well, two in this case, as there is one champion per gender in the series), the series will also showcase the perspectives of the losers. When the main characters lose, it also delves into their mindset and why they lost. One important thing to note that we see in the main characters is how their mindsets change over time – after serious losses, they reevaluate their mindset – “Is this current method still working? Am I still improving, or have I gotten stuck in a rut?” We see it constantly – players stop changing their mindsets even after it no longer improves them, and as a result, they plateau. They stop growing, or improvements only help in terms of refining small pieces of their game – the broad strokes remain the same. They get trapped in their local maxima.

In the case of the main characters (There are three) we see how all of them change their mindsets over time to keep striving for growth. This is most evident in the main character, Chihaya. She’s a Karuta fanatic, and as a result she devotes all her focus to improving in the game. We see her stuck in periods of ruts, in periods of flux (which necessitate a lowering of overall skill in order to learn and improve) and in periods of growth. She constantly strives to adapt and improve, though many times she gets stuck banging her head against a wall (aka the plateau) until she has some insight that leads to a shift in mindset and ultimately growth.

Interesting to note, as well, is seeing things from the champion’s perspectives. They’ve largely stagnated in growth – they’ve largely become accustomed to a local maxima that seems to be sufficient – they can beat everyone else, after all. It’s hard to say their perspective is wrong – after all, if it isn’t broke, why fix it? One important thing to mention about changing your mindset is that change doesn’t necessarily lead to improvement. Sometimes, your change can just make things worse. Imagine if you drive a car, but you transition instead to using a horse and buggy. Obviously a step back, right? The changing costs of moving away from a successful formula can be a giant barrier to transition. You’re going from a known formula that works to something that is risky and unproven. Looking at it from a champion’s perspective, it becomes easy to see how they become less risk averse over time. Whereas from the challenger’s perspective, you can afford to still make big changes, because you haven’t reached the pinnacle yet. You don’t know if your current method is the best method for success, so you can keep experimenting to see if there’s something better. Ultimately, success, in a way, becomes a prison.