[Being a paper by me about games, work in progress that I'll be posting in instalments over the next few days. - NG]
I start by describing four activities.
1. A man and a girl, respectively father and daughter, are playing at being two characters called Tree and Girl. Tree stands in the forest and Girl, who is wandering there, comes upon him and invites him to her house for tea. Tree explains that she'll have to uproot him first, which she does; she then shows him the way and helps him through the front door (he has to bend, being taller than the doorway). Girl gives Tree a cup of tea.
The routine may be repeated and usually is. It's me and one or other of my two daughters, many moons ago, playing what we called, unimaginatively, 'Tree and Girl'.
2. A man and a girl again, this time me and my granddaughter, are sitting near the bottom of a staircase with a doll, which is our child. Unlike the previous activity, this one has no official name and it doesn't run along the same fixed lines in every iteration. The man is sent off by the girl to shop for foodstuffs for the child - cereal, pasta, chocolate, broccoli. Sometimes he must phone back home to get further particulars. Other times he is a doctor, called to attend to the child. The two players improvise in their roles.
3. The next activity used to involve four participants taking turns in a constantly repeated sequence. One of them would begin with the opening words of a story: for example, 'Once upon a time, a tree stood in the forest.' The next participant would continue in any way she or he chose - such as 'The tree was called LBJ', or 'For a tree, it was remarkably knowledgeable about the work of C.B. Macpherson' - and so on, producing stories of an unpredictable kind and with the aim of having some fun. This activity was known - circa 1968, and for no logical reason - as 'Caractacus Potts'.
4. The last activity I now invent out of a story which goes like this. There was once a philosophy department, 12 people strong, in which every year a most unwelcome chore had to be performed by one of them. At first, it was just given out more or less arbitrarily by order of the Head of Department; but so hateful was the task that it left those who were lumbered with it deeply resentful. One year a new HoD decided that henceforth the assignment of The Chore should be resolved annually by discussion at a departmental meeting. For several years, the meeting to consider the issue was a scene of terrible strife, and the bad feeling in the department increased as a result. The same thing when a subcommittee was formed with the job of assigning The Chore on the basis of weighing everybody's teaching and administrative contributions, with a view to handing it to the least burdened colleague.
Finally, someone suggested that once a year the members of the department should sit around a table and be dealt, from a properly shuffled pack the seal on which had just been broken, four cards each - the deal to be administered by a non-participant known to all for her unbending honesty and incorruptibility. The player holding the most suits would have to take on The Chore; and in the case of a tie, the four-card procedure would be repeated until there was a unique loser; except that the procedure would be filmed from a hundred angles and any attempt to cheat disclosed by the cameras would override the state of the cards, the cheat becoming the loser and getting The Chore. This activity restored peace to the department.
I would be surprised if anyone reading this was surprised to learn that in the philosophy department of my story the procedure that finally brought peace to it came to be known as 'The Suits Game'. I doubt, also, that any of you would be surprised to learn that the other three activities I've just described were referred to by their participants as games, and that the two involving me and my daughters and me and my granddaughter have been known to follow upon the suggestion 'Shall we play a game?' They are all, or so I have always thought, activities coming under the standard meaning of the word 'game' - along with other better-known examples of games, like chess, Monopoly, poker, golf, football, running races over various distances, charades, I Spy (With My Little Eye) and patience.
My thinking that all these activities are properly referred to as games was consolidated some 40-odd years ago by reading what Wittgenstein famously had to say about games in the Philosophical Investigations (pp. 31-32 e):
Consider... [he writes there] the proceedings that we call "games". I mean board-games, card-games, ball-games, Olympic games, and so on. What is common to them all? - Don't say: "There must be something common, or they would not be called 'games'" - but look and see whether there is anything common to all.- For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that. To repeat: don't think, but look!And Wittgenstein goes on to argue that, in looking at games 'we see a complicated network of similarities', and he invokes the idea of 'family resemblances'. Games belong to a family, one member of it sharing some but not other features with another member that in turn resembles a third member of the family by virtue of some traits, but which may also differ from that third member by lacking traits which it possesses. There is, Wittgenstein says, an 'overlapping and criss-crossing' of characteristics; but there is not anything common to all games.
I was and have remained persuaded, these many years, by his view - that 'game' is a family resemblance concept; and, furthermore, that the notion of family resemblance has wider application: to the meanings of other words as well.
Just recently, however, my attention was drawn to a book by Bernard Suits - The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia - first published in 1978. It was drawn to my attention by a guest post on my blog by Nigel Warburton. Nigel was full of praise for the book. He reported, as well, on the laudatory opinions held of it by other philosophers - Simon Blackburn, Thomas Hurka and G.A. Cohen.
The Grasshopper's central thesis challenges Wittgenstein's view of games. To quote from Hurka's introduction to a new edition of the book:
[I]n giving necessary and sufficient conditions for playing a game [Suits is] doing exactly what Wittgenstein says can't be done... His book is therefore a precisely placed boot in Wittgenstein's balls. [p. 11]I will pass over the aggressive nature of this metaphor, and merely say that after reading Nigel Warburton's post â which gives a brief account of Suits's definition of games - I couldn't wait to get my hands on a copy of The Grasshopper, and ordered it without delay.
Why I couldn't wait was partly just because, having been convinced for as long as I had that there was nothing all games have in common - a thesis I'd shared with my students from time to time in one connection or another, challenging them to refute it, which none of them ever successfully did - I was curious to see the shape and colour of that 'precisely placed boot' now earning high praise from some eminent philosophers.
But it was more than this. Suits's definition of games, which Nigel's post on my blog had summarized, struck me as being, on its face, so obviously unsatisfactory that I was intrigued to see how he, Suits, had dealt with the predictable objections to it â as both Nigel Warburton and Thomas Hurka (in an online interview) reported he had indeed dealt with them, and most methodically at that.
So the book arrived and I read it. I was disappointed.
Let me qualify this before I explain it. The book has an engaging style, dialogic much of the way, and is sporadically very funny. Its thesis is argued lucidly and with care. And Suits has some interesting propositions about games and utopia, which I'm afraid, despite my own (independent) interest in that conjunction, I'm going to have to ignore here altogether, other than to say that in the end I wasn't persuaded by them, finding that they include claims of a silly, and also of a sinister, kind.
I want to concentrate exclusively, however, on Suits's argument about the meaning of the word 'game'. This - on which his book stands or falls - also hasn't persuaded me, and I am at a loss, I must confess, to understand why The Grasshopper has lately won the support amongst philosophers it has. That is why I'm posting this - to see if anyone can help me identify what I've missed, if I have missed something.
[The next instalment is here.]