In chapter 1 of The Grasshopper, Bernard Suits argued that the point of work is play. But apparently the Grasshopper thought that no one ever really works; we’re always playing games without realizing it.
In chapter 2, we saw Skepticus and Prudence (the Grashopper’s primary pupils) puzzling over that idea. Even if work’s job is to prepare the way for play, why would people be playing games specifically?
Chapter 3 begins with Skepticus’s account of a conversation he had with the late Grasshopper. By the end of that conversation, we will hopefully have Suits’s definition of games.
One reason it’s taken me so long to get this post done, however, is that I find the Grasshopper’s argument extremely convoluted. I think I’ve finally figured it out, though.
The Grasshopper’s argument centers around two aspects of games — their goals and their rules — and two activities that contrast with games — work and ethical action.
Games: Unserious About Goals?
Specifically, the Grasshopper says it is tempting to distinguish games from work in terms of how we treat the goal of a game, as opposed to the goal of work.
Consider the following command, for example: “Stop playing around and get back to work!” When we say that to someone, we’re accusing them of not taking their goal — their task, their job — seriously. Instead of getting on with the business at hand, they are wasting time, dragging their feet, lollygagging, etc. (see p. 22).
So, the Grasshopper says it is tempting to define games as “activities in which we do not take our goals seriously” or “activities in which we go about achieving our goals in deliberately-inefficient ways.”
And yet! Games can’t be activities where we treat our goal unseriously — in which we deliberately act inefficiently — because the winning player often is the one who is most single-minded and efficient in achieving the goal of the game (pp. 23-24).
If players who win by being efficient and focused on their goal are still playing a game, then we need a different way to define game playing.
Games: Unserious About Rules?
Alternatively, the Grasshopper thinks it is tempting to define games in terms of their rules — and in contrast with the rules of morality. While the rules of morality apply generally and have the final say in all activities, the rules of a game are binding only when and where the game is being played. And even then, we think a game’s rules are subordinate to the rules of ethical practice in general (see pp. 26-28).
So, should we define games as activities in which we don’t take the rules very seriously?
Well, imagine a college baseball player who is on the fence about whether continue playing — perhaps for a major league team — after graduation. The problem is that he had promised his dear old gran that he would take over her medical practice serving impoverished families in his hometown.
Then during the final game of his senior year, he hits a grand slam and is rounding third base. Mid-stride, the baseball player makes his decision: there’s nothing more important in life to him than baseball — his promise, his grandmother, and the impoverished families in his hometown will have to wait. He wants to spend every waking moment of the next twenty years at least playing baseball.
If we define games as activities where we treat the rules unseriously — as limited in scope and importance, subordinate to the laws of morality — then that baseball player would have ceased to be playing baseball mid-step. After all, he would have started taking baseball — an activity which is defined by its rules (see p. 24) — as the most important thing in his life. And that means he has ceased to be treating those rules unseriously. And that would mean he is no longer playing a game.
And yet what is he doing? He is running from third base to home in an attempt to fulfill his obligation — imposed by the rules of baseball — to touch all three bases and home plate (in order) after hitting a home run. And he doesn’t suddenly stop doing that the moment he makes his decision to spend the rest of his life following that same rule (and all its companions). He keeps playing the game, running to home, scoring a run (see p. 28).
The Rules Are the Goal (Sort of)
Instead of defining games in terms of how we treat their goals, or how we treat their rules, therefore, the Grasshopper suggests that we think about how the goals and rules of games are connected (pp. 24-25).
Imagine that someone has decided to become your benefactor by helping you achieve your goals. As you are about to leave for work in the morning, they stop you. “No need to work,” they say. “Here’s a check worth more than you could possibly earn in 50 years.”
You thank them profusely. And since the goal you had for working is now achieved, you decide to go play golf.
As you are teeing up, your benefactor once again stops you. They pick up the ball and walk over to the 18th hole. Dropping it in, they turn to you with a generous smile. “No need to play now!” they say. “The goal of the game is accomplished.”
Would you thank them?
No! The point of the game isn’t to get the ball into the 18th hole. It’s to do so by playing the game — by following the rules peculiar to golf — by doing golf-y things.
While you have a particular mission when you’re playing a game — to be at (or on the other side of) a line on the ground, for a golf ball to be in a hole in the ground, for a dart to be stuck in a circular board on the wall, etc. — your goal is not just to fulfill that mission. Your goal is to fulfill that mission by following a particular set of rules (pp. 24-25).
Limits Worth Having!
So, our goal in game-playing is to achieve something by means of following some set of rules. The rules are “inseparable” from the goal (pp. 24-30), or “internal” to it. More than that, the rules of a game place an unusual limit on the means available to us (p. 30). In normal life, we can put small white balls into holes in the ground however we wish. But in golf, the rules say we’re only allowed to do so by hitting the balls with clubs from a very long way away (pp. 23-24)
Why put up with such restrictions? The reason, as hinted above, is that there is a particular “activity” that those restrictions “make possible” (p. 30). And it’s engaging in that activity that the game player wants (p. 31).
In other words, we follow restrictive rules when playing a game because doing so is fun. Imagine, for example, one friend saying to several others: “Hey, let’s see who can get to that tree first.” One of the others responds, “Ugh. Boring.” So, the first friend says, “I forgot to mention the rule: you’re only allowed to walk — no running — and you have to walk backward.” Suddenly, the task has become an interesting one.
Or imagine one student saying to another: “Want to help me organize my notes for the exam?” The other responds: “Ugh. Boring.” So, the first student says, “I only mention it because I want to see if I can rewrite my notes only using words that are less than five letters long, and you’re so good with words.” The second responds, “Okay. But that’s still not an interesting challenge. If we aim to use only words less than five letters long and we have to get every line to rhyme, I’m in.”
At Last! The Definition
The idea is that the rules of a game don’t just limit the ways in which you are allowed to go about doing something or getting somewhere. They actually create activities. You have all the ways in which you could do something, but limit yourself. In carving out that particular path to your goal — specifically because you find that path interesting (p. 30) — you have created an activity (the activity of doing x while limiting yourself to means y) (p. 31).
“We may therefore say,” quoth the Grasshopper, “that games require obedience to rules which limit the permissible means to a sought end, and where such rules are obeyed just so that such activity can occur” (p. 32).
Or, to put it in a more long-winded way: “to play a game is to engage in activity directed towards bringing about a specific state of affairs, using only means permitted by rules, where the rules prohibit more efficient in favour of less efficient means, and where such rules are accepted just because they make possible such activity” (p. 34).
Or better still — and I love this version most of all — “playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles” (p. 41).
Whether that definition is defensible, why it should describe the only life worth living (as the Grasshopper claims), will have to wait for another post.