You may have seen the name Bernard Suits popping up with increasing frequency the past few months. Suits was a philosophy professor at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, and it’s a little odd that he’s worked his way into the gaming zeitgeist at this particular moment. After all, the book that’s suddenly drawn so much attention — The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia — was originally published in 1978.
The revival of Suits’ argument may be another indication that our conception of gaming is in something of a crisis. That state of affairs can be traced back to a number of trends that have been brewing over the last several years — among them, the recurring debate over whether games can be art and the vogue of gamification. Because they each want gaming to change or facilitate culture in different ways, the public figures pushing those trends have adopted a range of ways of talking about games. Ultimately, that leads to disagreement over the very meaning of the word.
That’s where The Grasshopper comes into play. When it comes right down to it, most people are really only talking about two brief portions of the book, but they’re useful portions precisely because they offer relatively robust definitions. The first is brief, plain language version of the second, and reads,
Games are the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.
The second ostensibly breaks that down into four specific elements:
To play a game is to attempt to achieve a specific state of affairs, using only means permitted by rules, where the rules prohibit use of more efficient in favour of less efficient means, and where the rules are accepted just because they make possible such activity.
I say “ostensibly” because there’s a significant difference between the two that few people have noted, namely that the first defines a class of things, games, while the second defines an activity, playing a game.
While we’re at it, there’s technically a third version that renders those elements into more technical terminology: prelusory goal, lusory means, constitutive rules and lusory attitude, respectively. That list could be said to define neither games nor game-playing, but the cultural and psychological foundation on which either is based.
Most recently, those definitions have shown up in an editorial by Amanda Lange of Tap Repeatedly. To what end is difficult to say. At times, she seems intent on cutting through a lot of the noise that attends these discussions. As she puts it,
Now, we have reached a point where, in critical commentary, “That isn’t a game” is appearing the same way “that’s not art” appears. Not as an expression of a formal definition: but as a value judgement. “Not a game” has become a bludgeon used by academics, game designers, or just anyone, to describe something that they do not like, which someone else has called a game.
Of course, the same could be said in the other direction: ambiguous definitions of gaming are also employed to “bludgeon” others into accepting as games things that only fit that category when we’re willing to stretch one or the other. Ultimately, Lange seems alright with that, saying,
If we force ourselves, as designers, ludologists, or pundits, to develop a very narrow definition of the word game, we are making the unfortunate mistake of excluding people who want different things out of games. […] I believe we should be open-minded, and invite this experimentation.
The question is, do we need to call an activity “game” in order to sanction experimentation? The point that goes unspoken here is that a judgment like “that isn’t a game” only closes off those avenues if the experimenter feels that something is lost by not calling their experiment a game.
It wouldn’t be too far off the mark to call such disputes political. The implicit debate over what it means for an activity to be a game is as much about shaping the reception a piece of software receives as it is about clarity. Only by putting away the vested interests of this or that party can we begin to really define gaming per se.
Given how readily it’s been put to use by each side, I’m not sure the quotations from Suits are the best way to go about it. There are simply too many ambiguities lending themselves to more polemic. What, for example, is the specific state of affairs to be achieved in Tetris, and does it matter if that state of affairs is literally unattainable? Does an activity cease to be a game if the rules are accepted not only to make the game possible, but also to achieve a practical goal, such as the mapping of an enzyme involved in the spread of AIDS or securing lucrative endorsement deals?
Beyond that, there’s at least one point at which the second definition turns a bit wobbly. One of its criteria for identifying a game is that “the rules prohibit use of more efficient in favour of less efficient means.” But much depends on how you define the goals of a game, and Suit’s criteria invite us to pick the context that gives the greatest appearance of inefficiency. If your goal is to embed an arrow in the center of a target, then archery is a relatively inefficient way to do so, but by no means the most inefficient. Dropping the arrow from an airplane would be even less efficient, but how that increased inefficiency affects its status as game is unclear.
On the other hand, archery is not particularly inefficient if your goal is to use a bow well. In point of fact, there is an entire class of sports where performance is judged not by the attainment of a specific state of affairs, but rather by the perfection of the activities themselves. Against Suits’ definition, it could be argued that the archery target is simply part of the standard by which the activity itself is judged. On that view, the rules are designed not to get in the way of attaining a goal, but in order to keep the player focused on actual archery, rather than target decoration.
Suits may well have had counterarguments for all of those points — that’s fine, since I’m disagreeing less with him than with the use to which a small part of his book has been put. But if the aim is to undercut unresolvable controversy, it’s probably best to simply dispense with prelusory goals, the lusory attitude, and all that comes with them.
Besides, there is, it seems to me, a much simpler and less problematic definition. Games are the formalization of play. That’s a premise on which I intend to elaborate in the next edition of Playbooks.