Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Grasshopper: Games and Purpose

I've become steadily more interested in games , as prime ways in which we can entrance and stimulate people. They can provide motivation and purpose quite separate from the compulsion to make a living to survive.

If growing material abundance means our major challenge is finding purpose and the right rules to help people achieve the good life (or at least a better life),  then games must be a central part of the conversation.

G recommended I should read The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia by Bernard Suits, a Canadian philosopher. It was originally published in the 1970s, but it has enjoyed a new lease of life in the last decade among those people who think about games.  It is quite a lively and short book, mostly in the form of a dialogue between a grasshopper - in fact, Aesop's careless insect who dies after failing to make provision for the onset of winter -  and some friends.

Defining games and Wittgenstein

There are several issues here. First is Suits' definition of games.
To play a game is to attempt to achieve a specific state of affairs (prelusory goal). using means only permitted by rules (lusory means), where the rules prohibit use of more efficient in favour of less efficient means (constitutive rules) and where the rules are accepted just because they make possible such activity (lusory attitude). I also offer the following simpler and, so to speak, more portable version of the above: playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles. (p55, my bold)

The prelusory goal  is an aim which can be described independently of the game, such as putting the ball in the hole in golf or reaching the summit of a mountain. The function of rules is to forbid the most efficient means to reach the goal (such as placing the golfball in the hole with your hand, or riding a helicopter to the summit of the mountain.) And the player has to be willing to accept the rules.

Finding a definition of a game actually relates to one of the most crucial issues in philosophy. Wittgenstein famously argued in Philosophical Investigations that no single definition of games is possible, because there is no single essence. Instead, there are many concepts with overlapping similarities, just "family resemblances". And so conceptual analysis, breaking things down into components, does not necessarily help solve problems.  In the words of Thomas Hurka in the Introduction to Suits' book, there are no "sharp edges" to concepts.

Wittgenstein advocated "look and see whether there is anything common to all" instances of a concept. "This is unexceptional advice", says Suits. "Unfortunately, Wittgenstein himself did not follow it." He looked too cursorily at games, Suits says, and so saw only surface differences rather than abstract, conceptual similarities.

I'm not convinced Suits' definition is sufficiently robust, however. "Ring a ring a rosie" is a particular problem in the book, as are other instances where drama and games overlap. Of course it is possible to come up with a definition, even a good definition - as Suits has done. But that does not mean a single essence is proven, except tautologically by means of the definition. Language and practices "in the field" may be wider.

And in any case, I think the essence of games is more to induce the right level of flow or stimulation, following Cziksentmihalyi. I would see them as relating to a purpose rather than particular conceptual features.

Utopia and games

Suits concludes the book by imagining a kind of utopia. Some utopian theorists take this quite seriously as a contribution to utopian theory. But I read it more simply as just a brief thought experiment, because it is very restrictive in its assumptions.

In his world, all instrumental aims that people may have - food, shelter, security, belonging - are taken care of. All interpersonal rivalry or tension or longing is gone. No moral excellence nor evil need exist any more, and the subjects of art are therefore all gone too. What would be left when we were completely free to do anything we wanted?
G: I believe that Utopia is intelligible, and I believe game playing is what makes utopia intelligible. What we have shown this far is that there does not appear to be anything to do in Utopia, precisely because all instrumental activities have been eliminated. There is nothing to strive for precisely because everything has already been achieved. What we need, therefore, is some activity in which what is instrumental  is inseparably combined with what is intrinsically valuable, and where the activity is not itself an instrument for some further end. Games meet this requirement perfectly. For in games we must have obstacles which we can strive to overcome just so that we can possess the activity as a whole, namely, playing the game. Game playing makes it possible to retain enough effort in Utopia to make life worth living. 
S: What you are saying is that in Utopia the only thing left to do would be to play games, so that game playing turns out to the whole of the ideal of existence?
 G: So it would appear, at least at this stage of our investigation. 
Utopia might not be sustainable, Grasshopper warns, as some utopian inhabitants might eventually conclude that if tasks were merely games instead of useful, life would not be worth living. Laboriously woven clothing might come to be seen as better than abundant machine-made clothing, for example. A certain amount of difficulty, in a way, is the supreme good in the form of games.

The grasshopper concludes that, unlike a laboring ant,

.. I am truly the grasshopper; that is an adumbration of the ideal of existence, just as the games we play in our non-utopian lives are intimations of things to come. For even now it is games which give us something to do when there is nothing to do. We thus call games 'pastimes', and regard them as trifling fillers of the interstices of our lives. But they are much more important than that. They are clues to the future. And their serious cultivation now is perhaps our only salvation. That, if you like, is the metaphysics of leisure time. (p159)

The idea is fascinating, and congruent with my interest in games. It is impossible to take all instrumentality away , of course. But nonetheless games would perhaps be most of what is left in conditions of abundance. The world would be much more like a game. The rules and institutions and goals of the games we play would matter much more than the old aims of survival and confronting nature.

Game-playing itself is not the good life. But it may be conducive to it.

I've got just a little more to say about the book in the next post.

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