[Being a paper by me about games, work in progress that I'm posting in instalments. The first instalment is here - NG]
I now give you Bernard Suits's definition of what games are. To start with something short (what he himself calls the portable version):
playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles. (p. 55)In the full version, this definition has three elements - what Suits refers to, in turn, as the prelusory goal, the lusory means (defined, these, by the constitutive rules of the game), and the lusory attitude (which is an acceptance of those rules because they make the activity possible). So, using my own example... In football the prelusory goal would be to put the ball in your opponents' net more times than they put the ball in your net. The lusory means, allowed by the rules, would be kicking the ball, heading it, passing it to other players in your team, and so on; but would exclude handling the ball, picking it up and just running across the goal line with it, shoving opponents out of the way, deliberately tripping them, knifing them. Thus more efficient means of scoring and thereby winning are prohibited over less efficient means. And the lusory attitude is the willing acceptance of these various requirements and prohibitions in order precisely to be able to play the game as constituted. Or, for another shorter example, Suits's own: a runner in a race isn't free to take a short-cut from the route over which the race is being run and so expedite his or her arrival at the finishing line; and isn't free to use a bike.
From which and from a fair bit more, Suits's full definition:
To play a game is to attempt to achieve a specific state of affairs [prelusory goal], using only means permitted by rules [lusory means], where the rules prohibit 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]. (pp. 54-5)Suits says of Wittgenstein that he did not follow his own 'unexceptionable advice': that is, to look and see whether there is anything common to all games.
He looked, to be sure, but because he had decided beforehand that games are indefinable, his look was fleeting, and he saw very little. (p. 21)Now, how is one to decide on the truth or usefulness of this definition? And, as part of that undertaking, how judge it against Wittgenstein's view of games?
First of all, I take it not to be a cogent objection in itself that we can think of uses of the word 'game' which are well understood but do not fit the definition. Thus the games referred to in 'Don’t play games with me' (with the rough sense 'Don't lead me a song and dance') can be set aside as involving only games in a non-standard usage. The fact that there are no constitutive rules with such games (rather the opposite, in fact) wouldn't damage Suits's case.
Equally, that an activity not standardly referred to as a game becomes one on his definition is not necessarily a problem. So, for example, mountain-climbing. It is a game which, like patience, doesn't - or doesn't usually - involve competition against another participant trying to put obstacles in your way and to win against you, but it does involve the voluntary overcoming of obstacles. In the book, the main protagonist, Grasshopper, is challenged by his interlocutor, Skepticus, with the thought that the mountain-climber is not forbidden from using the most efficient means available (in the way of climbing equipment and so forth). Grasshopper responds by suggesting that Sir Edmund Hillary would not have regretted the trouble he took conquering Everest had he found someone else already at the summit who had got there by taking the escalator on the other side. (pp. 85-6)
That we don't usually call mountain-climbing a game is no barrier to seeing that it has the features of some kinds of game - those, precisely, picked out by Suits's definition - and to being willing to recognize it as a game.
But how do we do this? I mean, how do we know when the 'fit' is good or when the lack of 'fit' doesn't matter? And how do we know when the lack of 'fit' does matter or when the 'fit' is bad? I'm not sure. Is it our old friend 'reflective equilibrium'? That is to say, we start with some rough and ready notion of what games are and then we look for a definition, or, if there is no strict definition, an account, of what they are and see what definition or account will work best. If we have to exclude, under the definition or account being considered, some secondary or marginal usages, that's one thing; but if we cannot accommodate some of the central usages, then that is more problematic.
Let's shelve this methodological issue and proceed. I shall go on to argue that Suits's definition is question-begging - both in itself and when read as a critique of Wittgenstein - and that this can be seen by his failure to deal persuasively with the sorts of activities known as games that I began with, as well as many others.
'Tree and Girl', and what I shall from now on call 'Staircase', 'Caractacus Potts' and 'The Suits Game' do not meet all of the three conditions of Suits's definition, so if they are properly called games these conditions can't be necessary conditions. In this situation it seems to me that there are two strategies of defence available to Bernard Suits.
(a) He could try to provide a convincing argument for these not really being games.A putative third strategy of defence that might be suggested is this:
(b) He could show that, despite possible appearances to the contrary, they do in fact fit his definition.
(c) Suits could just acknowledge that his is a theoretical definition and as such revises the ordinary understanding of what a game is by narrowing the meaning of the word; and he could claim that it is therefore no problem for his definition if 'Tree and Girl' and a lot of other activities known as games fall outside it.But this third suggestion fails, in my view, because it amounts merely to stipulating what the word 'game' is to mean henceforth, and in that case his book, so far from being a boot placed where Thomas Hurka says it was, is more like a mislaid sock at the back of a shelf of philosophy books. Suits has recourse to both of strategies (a) and (b).
Strategy (a) - they're not really games. Faced with the suggestion that there is a class of children's games that do not fit his definition - Cowboys and Indians, Cops and Robbers, Ring Around the Rosie - Suits concedes (or, rather, Grasshopper does, for him) that children, teachers and others may refer to these as games, and goes on:
But I think you will agree with me that Ring Around the Rosie is simply a kind of dance to vocal accompaniment, or a choreographed song. It is no more a game than Swan Lake is.Similarly, of Cowboys and Indians and Cops and Robbers he writes:
Aren't these things just ritual performances?... [If they] are games they strike me as being highly imperfect games, just as they did when I played them myself. For it was never quite clear what counted as a successful, or even legitimate, move. (pp. 89-91)You can see how it works. By the same reasoning, 'Tree and Girl' might be said to be simply a kind of dramatic performance, and 'Staircase' likewise, though with more scope for improvisation; 'Caractacus Potts' would be just a form of collective story-telling; and 'The Suits Game' no more than a decision procedure.
But to say that some putative game is like something else which isn't a game doesn't establish that it isn't a game - unless you've assumed beforehand the truth of what you're seeking to demonstrate by argument. That the Zimbabwean political process in the last couple of weeks has been like a dramatic farce doesn't mean that it isn't still a political process.
The point is accentuated by something Thomas Hurka says in his introduction to The Grasshopper. On Suits's definition, games are still games when they are played by professionals - played, that is, primarily for money and whether or not for fun. Hurka writes - correctly, in my view - 'And it's essential for Suits's analysis to say this, since it would be absurd to deny that a pure professional golfer is playing golf' (p. 15). By extension, it would be absurd to deny that it is games that professional sportsmen and women play.
Hurka knows this how? He knows it just by virtue of the circumstance that this class of game is so central in our thinking and talking about games that the definition, to be a credible one, has to fit it. But isn't it exactly the same with children's games? Children, like professionals, are amongst the first kinds of people we think of when we think about the human activity we call game-playing. They are games-players par excellence and the games they play are central to our usages in talking about games. It would be ironic, therefore, if a whole wide class of their games were to be excluded by what purports to be a definition giving the meaning of the word 'game' - ironic and, I contend, not credible.
[The third instalment is here.]