Philosophizing About Games

What exactly are games, and why do we play them? Ludwig Wittgenstein famously used the concept ‘game’ to illustrate what he called ‘family resemblance’—the idea that some things don’t have a single, defining characteristic. Some games are amusing, some games are competitive, and some games require a board, but not one of these traits is shared by all (and only) games. Is there not something distinctive about games? The late Bernard Suits put the following words in the mouth of a grasshopper:

…games are, I believe, essentially different from the ordinary activities of life, as perhaps the following exchange between Smith and Jones will illustrate. Smith knows nothing of games, but he does know that he wants to travel from A to C, and he also knows that making the trip by way of B is the most efficient means for getting to his destination. He is then told authoritatively that he may not go by way of B. ‘Why not?’ he asks. ‘Are there dragons at B?’ ‘No,’ is the reply. ‘B is perfectly safe in every respect. It is just that there is a rule against going to B if you are on your way to C.’ ‘Very well,’ grumbles Smith, ‘if you insist. But if I have to go from A to C very often I shall certainly try very hard to get that rule revoked.’ True to his word, Smith approaches Jones, who is also setting out for C from A. He asks Jones to sign a petition requesting the revocation of the rule which forbids travellers from A to C to go through B. Jones replies that he is very much opposed to revoking the rule, which very much puzzles Smith.


Smith: But if you want to get to C, why on earth do you support a rule which prevents your taking the fastest and most convenient route?

Jones: Ah, but you see I have no particular interest in being at C. That is not my goal, except in a subordinate way. My overriding goal is more complex. It is ‘to get from A to C without going through B.’ And I can’t very well achieve that goal if I go through B, can I?

S: But why do you want to do that?

J: I want to do it before Robinson does, you see?

S: No, I don’t. That explains nothing. Why should Robinson, whoever he may be, want to do it? I presume you will tell me that he, like you, has only a subordinate interest in being at C at all.

J: That is so.

S: Well, if neither of you really wants to be at C, then what possible difference can it make which of you gets there first? And why, for God’s sake, should you avoid B?

J: Let me ask you a question. Why do you want to get to C?

S: Because there is a good concert at C, and I want to hear it.

J: Why?

S: Because I like concerts, of course. Isn’t that a good reason?

J: It’s one of the best there is. And I like, among other things, trying to get from A to C without going through B before Robinson does.

S: Well, I don’t. So why should they tell me I can’t go through B?

J: Oh, I see. They must have thought you were in the race.

S: The what?

This passage is taken from Suits’s humorous but challenging dialogue, The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia, which has been described as “philosophically profound, yet genuinely funny” (Shelly Kagan, Yale University) and “[a] brilliant (but neglected) masterpiece” (Colin McGinn, University of Miami). Read the book to see how the grasshopper (“a shiftless but thoughtful practitioner of applied entomology”) presents a new definition of ‘game,’ and defends it against the attacks of his companions, Skepticus and Prudence.

Posted on July 3, 2012