Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Games and Purpose

We're talking about Bernard Suits' book The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia.

There is a major difficult issue for me, however. Suits emphasizes the process of games. It has had me thinking about the relationship between purpose and games.

I've argued often on this blog that we need more of a sense of purpose in society. I think neutral procedural rules leave people with a very thin basis for life. They mean we lose the substance of what we want as a society in favor of neutral rules. It is as if we have a referee, but no actual games.

But is that kind of purpose or end actually achievable in games? Is the goal, the purpose in games intrinsically valueless? That would be a problem for how I see things, because the whole point of games for me is to provide a purpose.

According to Thomas Hurka's introduction to the book,

Game-playing must have some external goal one aims at , but the specific features of this goal are irrelevant to the activity's value, which is entirely one of process rather than product, journey rather than destination. That's why playing in games gives the clearest expression of a modern as against a classical view of value - because the modern view centres on the value of process. (p17, my bold)
So on this argument, by focusing on games we would actually be entrenching the neutral procedural view of value. Aristotle believed that the value of the process must derive from the value of its goal, he says, and so ends mattered more than actions. For Hurka, however, the moderns are very different.

Marx and Nietzsche would never put it this way - their styles are far too earnest - but what each valued was in effect playing in games, in Marx's case the game of material production when there's no longer any instrumental need for it, in Nietzche's case the game of exercising power just for the sake of doing so.
Marx thought in the great communist future material work and production would still be the major objective, Hurka says:

.. Marx held that when scarcity is overcome and humans enter the realm of freedom;, they'll still have work as their 'prime want', so they'll engage in the process of production for its own sake without any interest in its goal as such. (p18)
(Ironically, some on the right who would see the future just as more and more specialized production of goods - more and more brands of coffee at the store - actually echo vulgar Marxism.)

Suits' modern approach is more democratic than the classical view, says Hurka.

More generally, the values found paradigmatically in playing in games can be found in any activity which is difficult and valued partly for its difficulty - in raising a family, running a community organization, renovating a house and so on. So these values can be found in many activiites and therefore achieved by many people. Classical views tended to confine intrinsically valuable activity to the small elite who can discuss philosophy, contemplate God, or engage in whatever their stipulated highest activity is. By contrast, the modern view that Suits defends extends the opportunity for a good life, democratically, to many people. p19-20.
I think there is something wrong with this view. First, even a mere temporary contingent purpose, within a game, is better for people than having no purpose at all. If the goal is nothing more than the Yankees winning the World Series, that at least will make some people happy. White Sox fans can continue to have the goal of pride in their brave loserdom.

A multiplicity of games can serve a multiplicity of purposes which can nonetheless serve a real good. In a way, Suits makes the same mistake he accuses Wittgenstein of making - confusing the surface multiplicity of goals with the underlying one of how they contribute to the good life. It is not simply process. It is exercising the virtues, showing excellence which is the goal. Putting the ball in the back of the net is the immediate goal, but the ultimate goal is stimulation and flow and excellence.

So there is no reason to see it largely as a matter of elevating process over ends. Indeed, the entire point of games is to find a contingent purpose which serves the larger purpose of enjoyment and pleasure and flourishing .. life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, in fact. We could still believe in that in 1776, rather than just the process.

Maybe it is a matter of looking for and promoting the best games, the ones which are most effective at producing aspects of the good life. Suits' approach more or less implies that it does not matter what kind of games we play, or what the rules are, or what the prelusory goals are, so long as we play them. And that is not true.

Some games are better than others. Some games are like Angry Birds, and get played a million times a day. Thousands of others languish in the App Store. Some chance is involved, of course, but some games are designed better than others.

And the whole point of the "modern" approach, as Hurka puts it, is that we do not try to design games at all. The playing alone matters, and there is no real way to distinguish whether some play is "better" than others apart from its difficulty. The specific features of the external goal are relevant to an activity's value. The destination does matter.

And it does not have to be just aristocratic ends, or the notion that only being a philosopher is praiseworthy. We just need a broader definition of human flourishing than the aristocratic or martial ones of the past. The problem is what the destination should be, not whether we should have one.

I'll think more about direct versus indirect purpose, however, because as Hurka implies, this issue of process is embedded so deep in contemporary attitudes.


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