Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Games, Play and Fun

It seems pretty obvious to say that we play games because they are fun. This however, introduces two related concepts that are associate with games but not games. We play games but games are not the only form of play. Kids play make believe, or dress up or cops and robbers. None of these are games as they do not have goals and rules. But they are played nonetheless. Not all games are 'played'. Professional sports, for example, are work. We may use the term play to describe the activity. But, it is work. Suit's definition of playing a game as a voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles does not apply easily to professional sports. It is no longer voluntary when one is getting paid.

Making further distinctions, not all play is fun and fun can be derived from activities other than play. For example, an amusement park ride may be fun or meeting up with old friends my be fun, but neither could be considered play. Looking at it from the other perspective, a game may cease to be fun if one is loosing badly.

I am making these distinctions because play, games, and fun are often linked in much of the literature that I have read thus far. Clearly they are related concepts but they are not the same thing. Both play and fun deserve closer scrutiny but are distractions at the moment. So, I am going to set them aside definitionally and hopefully get back to them later.

It seems that play is some sort of a rehearsal activity. We pursue thing in a non serious way so that we can develop necessary skills for serious situations. Games are a very structured form of rehearsal but not all rehearsals are structured. Puppies fighting is a good example of play that is not a game. Further, it seems that fun is the reward for rehearsing. The reward of fun can be achieved through other means such as spending time with old friends. But the reward of fun makes play and hence games inherently satisfying.

There is a great deal more to both fun and play than I have time to get into at the moment. But, I needed to set them aside because they occur so frequently with the concept of games.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Games, Goals and Rules

As we look more closely at the internal structure of a game we see that games have a goal of some kind and a collection of rules governing the behaviors that one can engage in to achieve the goal. So, for example, in a football game, the goal is to score more points than the opponnent by getting the ball into the end zone more times. (This is not to diminsih field goals and extra points. It is just to make the analysis simpler). In getting the ball into the end zone, the team must achieve this goal using prescribed means. If you were to drive a tank down the field or gun down all the members of the defensive line, getting into the end zone would be much easier. But football has rules which say that these tactics are not acceptable.

The goal has to be worthy and achievable. If the winner in football were defined as the first team to score 100,000 more touchdowns than its opponent, few people would engage in the game. But the goal of more points within a limited time frame seems reasonable.

The rules also have to be reasonable. They have to make achievement of the goal challenging and satisfying without making it frustrating. So, if one of the rules of football were that players had to have their feet tied together, nobody would wish to play it.

In addition, as you strive for the game goal according to the game rules, you get better at the game and the satisfaction of playing the game increases.

So, Suit's definition of a game as a "voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles" might be slightly restated as an attempt to achieve a challenging and satisfying, but unecessary goal using challenging and satisfying but unecessary means. The goal here is not simply the game goal, but achieving the game goal using the means allowed in the game.

Next we will consider degrees of "gameness' looking at some quintessential examples, some borderline examples, and some bad examples.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Distinctions and Refinement

Suits' definition that playing a game is a "voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles." seems like a pretty good one. It seems to capture the essence of what playing a game is all about. But we are far from done. For example, it appears that a game is an object of play but not the same thing as play. Can you play something that is not a game. Can a game be experienced through anything other than play. What is the difference between work and play? Can a game be work?

Taking this a step further we can ask - if a game is a "voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles" how do those obstacles arise? Why would anybody attempt to overcome them? It seems that these obstacles arise from the fact that the game has a goal and a set of rules for achieving that goal. But there are lots of things that have goals and rules which are not games. For example, in your career, your goal may be to get to the top and one of the rules is that you can't just shoot everyone to get there. So, is your career a game?

And why would anyone engage in a game. Clearly, in your career plan, you are pursuing it for very tangible rewards - more pay, more prestige, a bigger office, whatever. And yet in the game it is merely the satisfaction of winning. Is there something inherently satisfying about playing a game that is a reward in and of itself. If we play games for their own sake while we always work for the sake of something else, doesn't that make playing games a superior activity?

The more questions we answer, the more questions arise. Sigh! This is the essence of the project of knowledge. We merely become more and more aware of how much we do not know. Socrates was referred to as the wisest man alive by the Oracle at Delphi. He responded by saying that his wisdom was derived from the fact that he realized how little he knew. But, don't reach for the hemlock yet. We will return to Suits in a little more depth and try to get a little more structure on our concept of a game.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Grasshopper

In a delightful book entitled The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia, Bernard Suits explores the concept of a game. This book is a stunning piece of work for three reasons. First, he achieves what Wittgenstein failed to do. He manages to define the concept of a game. Second, it is an excellent example of the process of concept analysis as the grasshopper attempts to define the concept of game and then defend it against challenges. Third, it provides some profound insights about both life and games.

On the first point, Wittgenstein not only failed to come up with an adequate definition of the concept of games, he proved (or thought he had proved) that such a definition was not possible. Yet Suits defines playing a game as a "voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles." [pg. 55] This is not the formal definition and one would have to read the book to understand Suits' definition more fully. But, it does capture the essence of playing a game. How did Suits get this right where Wittgenstein got it wrong? I believe that the answer lies in the fact that Wittgenstein was looking for attributes - rules, players, strategies, and so forth. Suits' definition is teleological. It defines games in terms of the purpose they serve. Aristotle's final cause was the purpose for which a thing exists. And, according to Aristotle, you must understand the final cause in order to understand a thing. Sadly, teleology has fallen out of favor. And, yet, it is clear that you cannot define the concept of game without reference to the purpose for which they are played.

On the second point, Suits provides us with an excellent example of concept analysis, a technique that is often woefully missing from social science research and almost unheard of in business research. Using commonplace understandings of concepts in research is as destructive to good research as is replacing statistical analysis with 'gut feel' or replacing methodology with mere curiosity. This was, in fact, the essence of Bacon's Idols of the Marketplace. Bacon saw, way back in the 17th century, that using commonplace understandings of concepts was destructive to the project of science. And yet, today, we do it all the time. Sadly, there are far too few examples of good concept analysis and Suits provides us with an exemplar.

On the third point, games are one of the few activities that we pursue for their own sake. This means that they have intrinsic rather than instrumental value. Aristotle pointed out that happiness is the only goal we pursue for its own sake. Now, Suits is pointing out that playing games is an activity that we pursue for its own sake. Is there a connection between happiness, games and the ideal life? I think so, but it would be way too premature to suggest that. Let's see how things unfold.