The New Objection
In chapter 9 of his The Grasshopper, Bernard Suits takes on the objection that his definition of games cannot account for games of make-believe. When children play “Cops and Robbers” or “House,” they are playing roles (the role of a police officer, the role of a thief, the role of a homeowner, etc.). However, there is no singular goal state that they are trying to reach (pp. 90-91).
The Grasshopper’s definition of games, however, involves choosing inefficient means to reach a goal. So, either “Cops and Robbers” isn’t a game, or the Grasshopper’s definition of games is incorrect.
The Grasshopper, therefore, tries to take the former option. These “games” aren’t really games.
To begin, the Grasshopper points out that just because people call activities like “Cops and Robbers” a game doesn’t mean they actually are games. We tend to call anything sort of play in which a child is involved a “game.” But “Ring Around the Rosie” (and perhaps clapping games) are more like theatrical plays than like games. The player’s job is to follow a script (p. 92).
Skepticus agrees that scripted activities are not games — they may be play-acting, but that does not mean they are game-playing. He disagrees, however, that the roles played by children in games of make-believe are similarly “just script following.” In those games, children are “performing a play which has been cast, but not written” since “the outcome is not known beforehand” (p. 92).
And I suspect this is not just a question about children’s play. Consider improv theater or ComedySportz, where adults stage comedic performances that have no scripts. It seems to me that if you don’t recognize such activities as games, you don’t know what games are.
Going back to Cops and Robbers-style games, the Grasshopper points out that players can spend a lot of time arguing about who shot first, whether anyone was shot, who’s winning, etc. The rules are quite unclear. And thus if these are games, they are at best inchoate games — games that are not yet full-grown, complete games (p. 92)
And I agree. Tabletop role-playing games (RPGs) like Dungeons & Dragons are the same sort of activity — except that the rules and procedures are clear. The players can always decide who did what to whom and when. Even the uncertainties are either settled by a dice throw, a decision by whoever’s turn it is, or a decision by the game or dungeon master (GM or DM).
But even if we are only willing to admit that games of make-believe are incipient games — games that are not-yet-finished — we seem to be in danger of having to say that there are two different sorts of games: goal-governed and role-governed (pp. 92-93). And that means we’d be admitting defeat in the debate with Wittgenstein over whether games can be given a single definition.
A Generalized Definition of Games?
Skepticus, however, thinks we shouldn’t be worried. What athletic games and dramatic games share is that both types of activity invert the relationship between means and ends (p. 93).
As the Grasshopper has already noted, you adopt a goal in an athletic game because you enjoy partaking in particular means/activities on the way to that goal. (That is, your focus is on the means, not the end). Now, Skepticus points out that you adopt a role in a game of make-believe not because you really want to rob a bank or clean the house, but because you want to behave like a thief or a parent for a while (p. 94). Once again, it’s the journey, not the destination, that really matters to you.
Whether the Grasshopper will accept this new, more general definition of games, however, will only be revealed in chapter 10.