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Suits on the Structure of Games

Posted in Friendly Philosophy

𝅘𝅥𝅮 We Don’t Need No / Definitions 𝅘𝅥𝅮

Despite what Republican Senators might think, you can know what a word means without knowing its definition.

Don’t believe me? Try teaching a toddler a new word by way of its definition.

Go ahead. I dare you.

A child looks at a picture book.
Definition books are big with toddlers
Photo by Stephen Andrews on Unsplash

“But I’m not a toddler,” says our impatient Senator. “I frequently learn what words mean by having my staff define them for me.”

Totally. Once you know enough words, you can start to learn new ones by combining old ones. But often — and to start — no definition is required.

What, for example, is the definition of “dog”? You can tell which animals below are dogs, and which aren’t. But can you list the set of properties all the dogs in this picture have, but the non-dogs lack?

You can’t. And yet you just authored a bill banning all dog barking after 11pm, probably, as if you new what you were talking about.

Old Dead White Guys

Approaching the same issue from a different angle, consider the famous words of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart. He was nominated by Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower, so perhaps Republican Senators might listen to what he has to say.

What did he have to say?

Oh, you’ll know it when you hear it.

A photograph of Marsha Blackburn.
“Can you define ‘Marsha Blackburn’?”
A photograph of Potter Stewart.
“No. But I know it when I see it.”

Not authoritative enough?

Well, try a philosopher on for size. Specifically, consider the work of Cambridge philosopher and logician, Ludwig Wittgenstein.

A photograph of a younger Ludwig Wittgenstein, staring forlornly into the distance.
Ludwig Wittgenstein
being completely unbothered by not knowing definitions
The cover of "Philosophical Investigations," 4th edition, by Ludwig Wittgenstein. The cover is essentially a bunch of text in different font sizes.
Can you find the book’s title?
#GraphicDesign

There is at least one word that everybody uses and yet nobody can define, said Wittgenstein. Maybe a biologist could come up with a definition “dog” (though maybe not), but Wittgenstein argues nobody can define the word “game.”

Try to define “game,” why dontcha?

Everyone understands what games are. We know what people are talking about when they speak of “games.” And we can point to examples of games if we are trying to teach a child what the word means. We know that chess and soccer and poker and Super Mario Bros. are all games, and that yogurt, work, and going to grocery shopping are not.

People sit around a board game (Concordia) with pieces on the board and cards both on it and around it.
A Game
Photo of the game Concordia by Karthik Balakrishnan on Unsplash
A cat lies on the floor beside a salmon-colored beanbag chair.
Not a Game
Photo by Raychan on Unsplash

But no one knows a precise definition of the word “game.” For any definition you come up with, you can think of things that don’t fit that definition and yet are still games.

So, we all know what the word “game” means even though none of us has a satisfactory definition of the word ready-to-hand, and none of us could find one even if we wanted to. That is Wittgenstein’s argument.

But a Definition of “Games” Would Be Handy Though

Wittgenstein is right. Well, he’s wrong about whether games can be defined, but he’s right about words in general.

The person who showed Wittgenstein is wrong about games in particular is another philosopher, Bernard Suits. I think this is what he looked like:

Three purported photographs of Bernard Suits, a bearded man. In the left photograph, he has a pleasant smile on his face. In the right photograph, he is grinning. In the middle photograph, he is older and scowling.
The Three Moods of Bernard Suits
The central photo is the only one I’m sure is of Suits. It’s from his philosophy department’s “In Memoriam” page!?! (left image source | right image source).

If you know anything about Suits, you’ve probably heard that the following is his definition of games:

[P]laying a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.

Bernard Suits, The Grasshopper: Games, Life, and Utopia (3rd ed., Broadview Press, 2014), p. 43

I first encountered that definition in Jane McGonigal’s 2011 book, Reality Is Broken, but it’s from Suits’s much earlier (1978) book called The Grasshopper.

Reality Is Broken by Jane McGonigal
The Grasshopper, by Bernard Suits (3rd edition)

Upon tracking down The Grasshopper, I saw that the quotation above was just a tiny piece of an enormous iceberg. Well, The Grasshopper isn’t a long book. It’s just packed full of great ideas and great writing and will change your life.

Your life, I tell you!

An image of Bernard Suits in older age, scowling at the camera.
CHANGE YOUR LIFE

Unfortunately, if you only ever hear “the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles,” you may end up missing out.

Suits calls that the “portable” version of his definition in The Grasshopper (chapter 3, p. 43). The first time Suits published that definition, however — in an obscure 1973 collection of essays — he called it “only approximately accurate” (Bernard Suits, “The Elements of Sport,” The Philosophy of Sport: A Collection of Original Essays, ed. Robert G. Osterhoudt [Springfield, IL: Charles C Thomas, 1973], 55).

So, we need to look at Suits’s full definition.

Suits’s Full Definition of Game Playing

Suits’s full definition of game playing is on the same page — in the prior sentence. But no one ever quotes it because . . . well, look at it:

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 use of 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].

Bernard Suits, The Grasshopper: Games, Life, and Utopia (3rd ed., Broadview Press, 2014), p. 43

“What in the heck does that mean?” you reasonably ask.

“I couldn’t even finish it,” you reasonably add.

And I equally-reasonably respond as follows.

Unpacking Suits’s Definition

Here is a pictorial representation of Suits’s full definition of game playing:

An image of two concentric red rings around a solid red circle. This is meant to look a bit like an archery target. Central circle contains another smaller target, but in white. Leading to that target are four white arrows. The outer two are relatively smooth curves forming almost a complete circle. Inside those are two much more wiggly arrows. Between them is a much straighter arrow with an "X" through it.
A Visual Definition of Game Playing

The small white target in the center of the above image is what Suits calls the game’s “prelusory goal” (ch. 3, p. 38). It is usually something simple — and boring — like getting a ball into a net, or getting a ball across a line, or getting yourself across a line, or writing three Xs (or Os) in a line.

A football (of the American football variety) player in red crouches in a dynamic pose with their left arm extended holding a football, as if trying to move the football a little further. Behind them, an opponent in white and red kneels on the ground but appears ready to leap forward.
Almost . . . there . . .
Photo by Ryan Reinoso on Unsplash

Why “prelusory”? Its prior (“pre-“) to the game (“-lusory”).

But what does that mean? Well, you can describe it without describing how the game wants you to achieve it. (See ch. 4 for details.)

In soccer (sorry, “international football”), there are a bunch of rules you have to follow as you try to get the ball into the net. But someone just learning about the sport can understand what it means for the ball to be in the net even if they haven’t yet learned that players aren’t allowed to use their hands to get the ball there.

Means and Methods

Once you understand the rules of a game, however, you realize that players aren’t just trying to achieve their game’s simple, boring (“prelusory”) goal. They are trying to achieve it in a particular way.

A tic-tac-toe grid with three yellow Xs on the diagonal (top left to bottom right) and two purple Os (one in the upper middle, and one in the lower middle).
X wins! (If X followed the rules to get to this point)

A tic-tac-toe player isn’t just trying to get three Xs in a row. Their full goal is something more like this: to-get-three-Xs-in-a-row-by-taking-turns-with-someone-who-is-trying-to-write-three-Os-in-a-row-in-the-same-spots-they-are-trying-to-draw-three-Xs.

This more complex goal includes the game’s simpler, more boring (“prelusory”) goal. That’s why the diagram contains two targets (the larger of which contains the smaller).

An image of two concentric red rings around a solid red circle. This is meant to look a bit like an archery target. Central circle contains another smaller target, but in white. Leading to that target are four white arrows. The outer two are relatively smooth curves forming almost a complete circle. Inside those are two much more wiggly arrows. Between them is a much straighter arrow with an "X" through it.

This larger goal, furthermore, includes the way in which that simpler goal is to be achieved: using the tools and techniques that the rules allow.

Suits call’s the more complex goal the game’s “lusory” goal (ch. 3, pp. 38-39). But he also just calls it “winning” (p. 39). You can achieve the boring, simple goal of a game in many ways — that is why there are multiple arrows leading to the smaller target. But some of those ways will be cheating — that is why one of the arrows is X-ed out.

If you want to actually win the game — if that is your goal — then you have to get the ball into the net (or three Xs in a line) by following the rules.

Challenges

While a game’s “prelusory” goal is often simple, bland, and boring, a game’s “lusory” goal (winning; achieving-the-prelusory-goal-using-the-methods-allowed-by-the-game) is often quite interesting. But why?

Because it’s challenging. (See ch. 3, p. 34)

Sometimes the challenges imposed on players are themselves simple. In a foot race, you try to get to the finish line first. (That’s your “prelusory” goal.)

Three people walk across a striped crosswalk. We only see their legs and the bottom hems of their coats. The person closest to us appears to be slightly ahead, with the front half of their left foot having completely crossed one of the crosswalk's lines. They are wearing black pants. The person just behind them appears to be wearing stonewashed jeans, and their left foot isn't quite as far ahead. Slightly ahead of that person, but further from the camera, is a third person in shadow.
Winning
Photo by Ivan Lenin on Unsplash

But you aren’t allowed to start by standing on the finish line, or even by standing next to it. No. You have to start at least 100 meters away, and a lot can happen in 100 meters. What’s not allowed to happen, however, is tripping your opponents (ch. 3, p. 39), or hopping on a bicycle.

“Getting to the finish line by starting far enough away that other people have a chance of getting there first, but trying to run faster than them so you get there first,” is the more interesting, more challenging “lusory” goal of foot races.

Upping the Complexity

With other games, however, the challenges are more involved. In basketball, you’re trying to get a ball through a hoop. That’s your “prelusory” goal. But they put the hoop several feet above your head and they turn it parallel to the ground. Then they tell you that throwing the ball upward through the hoop doesn’t count. You have to somehow get the ball above the hoop (which is already above you), and have it drop in from the top.

To make matters worse, they then put five other people in between you and the hoop, and give them the job of stopping you. You can’t just walk over to a conveniently-placed hoop and drop the ball in. You have to first overcome all the obstacles the game has put in your way.

A young child (1 or 2 years old, perhaps), smiles as she hoists a basketball up in front of her face as she gazes over it. She appears to be about to "shoot" the ball toward some hoop that is out of view.
How I Feel Whenever I Try to Play Basketball
Photo by desean robinson on Unsplash

Inefficiency

So, games not only have goals; they have structures (set-ups, “rules”) that limit the ways in which players are allowed to pursue their goals. And the ways in which players are allowed to pursue the game’s goals are usually challenging in some way.

Suits talks about the creation of challenge in terms of restrictions and limitations (e.g., ch. 3, p. 40). There tend to be multiple ways in which you could achieve any given goal. Some of those paths to the goal will be more efficient and others will be less. And, Suits argues, you will always find the most efficient path in the group of forbidden paths. Players are restricted to inefficient means.

An image of three arrows leading to a target (two concentric red rings around a red circle). The middle arrow is straight, but crossed out. The left arrow winds back and forth. The right arrow loops around and crosses over itself.
No Path of Least Resistance for the Gamer

It would be more efficient to cross the finish line, for example, if you could start closer. It would be more efficient to get the ball through the hoop if you could do so on a court not filled with opponents. It would be more efficient to write three Xs in a row if you didn’t have to take turns with another player who writes Os in all the places you want to write Xs.

Or, to use a different sort of example, it would be much more efficient for Mario to get to the flagpole if he could start right next to it. And even if he couldn’t start right next to it, it would be more efficient to get there if there weren’t massive holes in the ground, giant green pipes, and dangerous enemies he had to jump over. And even if those things were there, it would be more efficient if there just wasn’t gravity, and he could fly over them all.

A screenshot of the video game Super Mario Bros., World 1-1. In it, small Mario is standing to the left of a green pipe, with a cluster of blocks hanging in the air behind him. Beyond the first green pipe is a second, taller pipe, and a Goomba (a kind of walking mushroom wearing a scowl) appears to be approaching that pipe from just off screen.
UGH. The inefficiency.
(How is this site allowed to exist?)

So, in setting up their games to be interesting, game designers create challenges. In creating challenges, they impose inefficiency on players.

In fact — though Suits never says this — it may be that creating a challenge just is imposing an inefficiency. And even if the two are not simply the same, inefficiency is the inevitable consequence of challenge.

The Playful (“Lusory”) Attitude

A game designer can’t make their game too difficult — too inefficient — or pursuing the game’s goal will change from being an interesting challenge to being a frustrating chore. But the right kind of inefficiency will actually attract players (ch. 3, p. 32-33).

A meme image involving two photographs of rapper/singer Drake, from his music video for "Hotline Bling." In the first, he appears to be rejecting an idea or sight, and in the other he is smiling and pointing as if approving of something. Beside the first ("rejecting") image, are the words, "writing three Xs in a row." Beside the "accepting" image are the words, "trying to write three Xs in a row before your 'friend' writes Os everywhere."

Why? We accept inefficiency if it is necessary for safety, or if it is required in order to act morally, Suits points out. But if it is neither of those, we call the inefficiency “bureaucratic red tape” and decry it to the heavens (ch. 3, pp. 33, 40-41).

Except in games.

The Journey, the Destination, or Both

There are three things that we might value in any goal-directed activity.

(1) The most obvious is the goal of that activity, considered separately from whatever means are used to achieve it. For example, someone might dislike writing, but like books so much that they will put up with writing in order to get a finished book. For them, it’s the destination, not the journey.

A winding arrow leading to a target. The target is circled in yellow.
Option 1: All Destination, All the Time

(2) The second is the means or methods for achieving that goal, considered independent of the goal toward which they aim. For example, a person might have to drive to some meeting they would rather avoid, and yet enjoy driving their fancy sports car to get there. For them, it’s the journey, not the destination.

A winding arrow leading to a target. The arrow is circled in yellow.
Option 2: All Journey, All the Time

(3) The third thing we might value in any activity is the whole thing: pursuing-a-goal-by-way-of-some-means. Instead of valuing the goal independent of (and perhaps even as opposed to) the means, and instead of valuing the means independent of (and perhaps even as opposed to) the goal, you might value the particular process of pursuing a particular goal. While valuing the journey and destinations for themselves, you might also enjoy the journey because of where it gets you; and the destination because of how you got there.

A winding arrow leading to a target. The arrow and target are both circled by a single yellow oval.
Option 3: The Whole Activity

Holistic Gaming

Suits insists that you will never understanding why players play games if you see games as activities primarily focused on their purported goals (ch. 3, p. 41). So, option (1) is out. But that still leaves options 2 and 3.

C. Thi Nguyen has argued convincingly — to me, at least — that you need to genuinely value the goal you are pursuing in the sort of game playing Suits describes. You don’t have to value getting the ball across the line or into a hole outside the game; but for the duration of the game, you need to care a lot about ball locations.

As independent confirmation, consider playing golf. More specifically, consider a person who just loves hitting golf balls with golf clubs. For them, clubs and balls are toys. They don’t particularly care where the balls end up; they just enjoy the experience of swinging the club, feeling and hearing the club connect with the ball, and watching the ball go zooming off into the distance

That activity would count as playing around with golf stuff, but not playing playing a round of golf. Right? RIGHT?

In contrast, consider someone who enjoys actually playing the game of golf. They’re probably a Republican Senator, or the type of person who hangs out with Republican Senators.

Three young males in baseball caps, khaki shorts, and polo shorts stand on a golf course, raising drinks in a toast while also holding golf clubs in their other hands (at least two of them seem to be)
“To being well-off white males!”
Photo by Sugar Golf on Unsplash

But let’s ignore that, for the moment. Instead, ask yourself whether they would be as happy spending their Saturdays whacking golf balls in any old direction as they are whacking golf balls in the direction of holes in the ground.

I think the fact that people play rounds of golf (rather than “just playing around” with golf equipment) is evidence that golf’s particular goal is key to what golfers value. Surely the clubs and balls are toys for them, just as much as they are for someone who is merely playing around. And surely they enjoy hitting golf balls with golf clubs as an experience just as much as someone who is just playing around.

However, a golfer must value even more the hitting of golf balls with golf clubs in an attempt to sink those balls into holes. That is, golfers must value both the whacking and the sinking, the whacking as a means to the sinking, and the sinking because it is achieved by the whacking. (Compare Suits’s discussions of golf: ch. 3, pp. 25, 26, 28, 32, 35, etc.)

A close-to-ground shot of a golf putter about to hit a golf ball toward a flag (in a hole) in the distance, flanked by two previously-putted golf balls.
STAY ON TARGET
Photo by Robert Ruggiero on Unsplash

𝅘𝅥𝅮 All Together Now (All Together Now!) 𝅘𝅥𝅮

So, here once again is Suits’s definition of game playing, but as an image:

An image of two concentric red rings around a solid red circle. This is meant to look a bit like an archery target. Central circle contains another smaller target, but in white. Leading to that target are four white arrows. The outer two are relatively smooth curves forming almost a complete circle. Inside those are two much more wiggly arrows. Between them is a much straighter arrow with an "X" through it.
The structure of playing a game

This, being interpreted, is as follows:

  1. Small target:
    the basic “prelusory” goal of the game (e.g., getting a ball into a net)
  2. Arrows:
    ways of achieving that “prelusory” goal (e.g., kicking the ball without ever using your hands; carrying it and throwing it with your hands; cutting the net and sneaking it in by hand when nobody’s looking; firing it from a cannon; starting the game with the ball already in the net)
  3. Curved or winding arrows:
    inefficient ways of achieving the “prelusory” goal (e.g., kicking without using your hands)
  4. Straight, but X-ed out arrow:
    a more efficient — but disallowed — way of achieving the “prelusory” goal (e.g., carrying it by hand)
  5. Large target:
    the player’s “lusory” goal (to achieve the prelusory goal in the ways allowed)

In this image, note that the outer target presents the entire activity (the means/methods/paths and their goal) as being together what the player is aiming at. They combine to make up the bull’s eye.

Furthermore, whether there is anything beyond the general goal of engaging in that activity (e.g., the additional goal of gaining prize money or prestige by winning) is left out of the diagram. This is my attempt to represent Suits’s claim that in playing a game, we accept the rules of the game at least because we are aiming to participate in the activity of playing the game and those rules define that activity. (See ch. 13.)

To decide how well or poorly this theory of games works, it would be good to try to analyze a few games from its point of view. But this post is already too long. So, maybe next time.

2 Comments

  1. So would writing a poem be a “game” according to this definition? I’m thinking of xkcd 1045 in relation to this.

    April 28, 2022
    |Reply
    • Oh, good point. I think so. (That XKCD is a great illustration!) Given the importance to creativity of working within restrictions — and how much artists (often) really enjoy that process — I think many (most? all?) creative activities are games. Or at least the two activities are species of a common genus.

      One difference between doing art and “paradigmatic” games is that creative activity often produces a lasting result that is valued in itself even after the activity has reached its conclusion. (In contrast, nobody cares where the soccer ball is after the game is over. The artistic work of Andy Goldsworthy and the creation of sand mandalas may be more like traditional games.) But that may just mean that creative work is — ironically — often something like professional sports, where players both enjoy playing the game and are seeking to “build a career” thereby.

      April 28, 2022
      |Reply

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