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The Grasshopper in Suits (8)

Posted in Friendly Philosophy

Last time, we finally got to Bernard Suits’s definition of games — or, more specifically, of playing games. Playing a game means trying to reach some goal by following rules that require inefficiency, because achieving the goal by following those inefficient rules is an activity you find worth doing in itself (p. 41).

Or, the “portable version” of the definition is: “playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles” (p. 41).

But now it is time to test that definition. Skepticus has some objections (p. 41) for the Grasshopper to consider in chapter 4.

Objection 1

To use the technical terminology of The Grasshopper, a game needs to have a “prelusory goal” (pp. 41, 44). The word “lusus” is one of the many conjugations of “ludere” — that Latin word for “to play.” So, “pre-lusory” means “prior to play” or “independent of the game.” So, on Suits’s/the Grasshopper’s definition, the creation of a game starts with a goal that already exists, then sets up rules for achieving that goal.

Consider the goal of a foot race (p. 44). Stepping over a line on the ground — and even stepping over that line before other people do — is something you can do outside the game of running a foot race. That is, you don’t need to even mention the rules of a foot race in order to describe the goal of the race.

But consider what “checkmate” — the goal of chess — means (p. 44). To checkmate the other player’s king means (1) to arrange your pieces in such a way that (2) the rules require the other player to move their king, but (3) simultaneously forbid the other player to move their king. That is, to checkmate the other player’s king is create a situation in which the rules of chess contradict each other.

So, on the Grasshopper’s definition, the goal of a game needs to be something that is independent of the various rules that you might follow in trying to achieve that goal. You need to have a goal first, then have a bunch of different ways you could achieve that goal, and then have a set of rules that require you to avoid the most efficient ways to achieve the goal. But chess — which everyone admits is a game — has a goal that is created by the rules of the game, rather than existing before them.

Response to Objection 1

The Grasshopper’s response has to do with the distinction between cheaters and “triflers” (p. 45). A trifler is someone who follows all the rules of a game while making no effort to actually win it. Instead of playing the game “properly” (you have to say that word with a British accent), for example, a player or team might just “play around.”

If a trifler follows the rules of the game without trying to reach the goal of the game, a cheater tries to reach the goal of the game without following the rules. They want their opponents to recognize when the rules say they (the cheaters) have won the game, but don’t want their opponents to notice when they (the cheaters) have broken the rules along the way.

Application to Chess

Everyone has encountered both sorts of player at some point in their game-playing life. And either sort might show up in a game of chess, the Grasshopper notes (pp. 45-46). That is, you can imagine letting a younger player win in chess. You would follow all the rules, and perhaps even put on a show of trying to checkmate the other player’s king. But your real goal would be to subtly set things up so your younger opponent can win.

(One of my favorite anecdotes, by the by, is the one time I lost a game of chess to my four year-old brother . . . when I was in college. In that case, I was not being a trifler. I was trying to play a proper game. I’m just terrible at chess.)

Similarly, you can imagine playing someone in chess who deliberately breaks the movement rules in order to position their pieces in a way that normally counts as your king being in checkmate. They want to achieve the goal of the game, and thus want you to acknowledge those rules; but they don’t want to have to follow the rules on the way to achieving that goal (p. 46).

Why This Works

These two examples show that even in chess, you can distinguish between the goal of the game and the rules of the game. You can follow the rules of a game without pursuing its goal (so you can have the rules without the goal), and you can pursue the goal of the game without following its rules.

The goal of a game of chess, then, is dependent upon the rules of chess definitionally or conceptually. It can’t be described without mentioning those rules. However, it is independent of the rules in application, speaking practically. Following the rules and seeking to achieve the goal of a game of chess are two different things.

The goal of a game of chess, then, isn’t prior to the Game of Chess — as a general practice or “institution” (pp. 45, 47) — but it is prior to any particular game of chess that you might play. In fact, there are multiple ways you could pursue that goal (by following the rules, or by breaking them), and properly playing the game requires you take the less efficient (the rule-following) path. So, even the goal of chess is “prelusory.”

Next time, we’ll turn to chapter 5, and Skepticus’s second objection.

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