Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Games and the Ideal Life

Suits asserts that "in Utopia the only thing left to do would be to play games, so game playing turns out to be the whole of the ideal of existence." [pg.154] Most activities that we engage in, we engage in for the sake of something else. We work to earn money to eat. We form social structures for protection and survival. And so on. But, if we lived in a Utopian Society where all our needs were taken care of, the only activity we would engage in, according to Suits, is game playing. That is to say that game playing is the only activity that we pursue as an end in itself. I am not sure if it is, indeed, the only activity that we pursue as an end in it self. But, it does seem fair to say that is an activity that we view as an end in itself. And a reasonable question is - Why?

Aristotle claimed, as I mentioned before, that happiness is the only goal that we pursue as an end in itself. So, if game playing is the only activity that is an end in itself, is there a connection between happiness and game playing? Assume for a moment, (I will argue this point later) that one is happy if they have a high quality of life and unhappy if they have a low quality of life. Then do games contribute to our quality of life? If so, is this why playing games is an important element if not the very definition of the ideal life?

Next in our discussion of games, we will turn to happiness and qualify of life. We will attempt to understand the connection between game playing and quality of life. I will argue that game playing contributes in a significant and positive way to our quality of life and that is why we find game playing to be inherently satisfying. Further, we can use this insight to see how the nature of games can be applied to other activities such as work and education to make them more satisfying.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Reflecting and Refocusing

Many years ago, when I worked in a government office, there was sign that circulated which many people would pin to the walls of their cubicle. The sign began with an articulation of the ideal expectations for employee behavior and ended with the observation "but when you are up to your ass in alligators, it is easy to forget that your goal was to drain the swamp." This seems to have broader applicability as we get into any number of situations where dealing with the dynamics of the situation distracts us from the very reason that brought us into the situation.

As we explore the philosophical foundations of games and the various analytical and linguistic subtitles, we are vulnerable to the same phenomenon. So, let us pause for a moment to reflect on what we have done and where we would like to go with it.

We have defined the concept of a game. We have constructed a universal. Ideally, this universal includes all things that are games and no things that are not games. The Aristotelian approach of defining games did not work because games do not have attributes like rocks, plant and trees that were developed over years of evolution. We have taken a more Platonic approach in attempting to discover the essence of "gameness", not in the World of Forms but in the world of abstract ideas. Abstract ideas are ideal when they are intellectually economical.

We needn't worry about Hume and Wittgenstein because we are not trying to account for all conversational uses of the word "game". Bacon steered us away from that in his warning about Idols of the Marketplace. Our goal was to find a definition of games that reflected the essence of games not the variety of uses of the word. We did this because we want the particulars within our universal to be the 'same' thing. We want this because the extent to which they are the same the more we can learn about them. So, if we have to toss out some particulars as not really being games, this is the cost of gathering more knowledge about those that are games.

As we proceed with out analysis, we may wish to refine the definition. However, unlike the philosopher who would refine the definition to give it greater coverage, the researcher would refine the definition so that it works better for research purposes. That is, we would refine the definition if that refined definition would help us to learn more about the particulars contained in the universal.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Serious Play

I am not ready to say categorically that all play develops skills which historically have had survival value. For example, one may play to reduce stress or overcome boredom. In this case the play may only have distraction value. At the same time, I am not willing to go out on a limb and say that there are instances of play that do not develop skills that historically have had survival value. Instead, I am going to step around this problem by defining 'serious play' as those instances of play that develop such skills. It may be that all play is serious. Or it may turn out that there are instances of play that are not serious. But, I am trying to get to the core of the concept of games here, not play. So I need the idea of serious play.

It should also be pointed out that serious play is inherently satisfying. Nature, or perhaps evolution, has provided us with a reward for rehearing these skills and that reward is a pleasant feeling that we refer to as fun. So, we practice these skills because the practice is an end in itself as far as the individual is concerned.

Bernard Suits points out that games have a goal of some kind and this goal can usually be accomplished much more efficiently if the rules of the game are not followed. For example, if the goal in poker is to acquire money, then one could acquire the money just as well by clubbing the opponent over the head and taking it. But the rules of poker do not allow that. In fact, at one point, Suits points out that a key characteristic of a game is the pursuit of a goal via inefficient means.

Why would somebody pursue a goal via inefficient means? The answer, I believe, is that the pursuit of the goal via inefficient means constitutes serious play. As serious play, it, in turn, produces fun; and, of course, skills that historically have had survival value.

Suits goes into much more detail regarding the concept of games and I would strongly urge anyone who is interested in this to give it a read. However, Suits is examining the landscape of games while I am trying to come of with a definition that will be useful in understanding the construction of games. So my purpose is not to come up with a definition that covers all current instances of games. Rather my purpose is to come up with a definition that allows us to create new instances and apply that constructive process to new applications.

So a tentative definition of a game might be that it consists of a goal which must be pursued according to a set of rules and that the pursuit of that goal according to that set of rules constitutes serious play.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Man the Rehearser

I think I may have tried to set aside the concepts of play and fun a little too quickly. Why is play fun? I think there is an important reason for this and this reason is also important in understanding games. Think back to the puppies playing on the floor. They are rehearsing skills that will become important when they are adults. The play fighting they engage in is preparation for real fighting later. Now, granted, they are probably not going to encounter any life threatening struggles with other animals on my living room rug. But nature selected animals int he past who were good fighters and evolution does not change course just because my living room is a safe environment.

Taking a step back from this we can see how animals who practiced important survival skills would be more likely to survive. Further, we can see that animals who derived pleasure from practicing survival skills would be more likely to practice them and hence more likely to survive. Taking this to its conclusion we can see how natural selection would favor animals who found play to be fun. This argument could stand a little fleshing out. But, the sketch, I believe, makes the point.

In the case of humans, the necessary survival skills would include not only survival skills like wrestling with siblings, but would also include cognitive skills such as planning, problem solving, strategizing, and coordinating. Early humans did not have the advantages of speed, power, claws, teeth or other weapons that other animals had. There advantage, or at least one of their advantages, was the cultivation and application of the above skills.

So, incorporating the argument from the previous paragraph, we can see how early humans who derived pleasure in practicing these skills would have a higher chance of survival. Over time the adaptation 'derives fun from play' would become a species characteristic.

There is probably some survival value in all things we do for fun. However, I am sticking to play. Play is fun because it allows us to enjoy the rehearsal of skills that historically have provided survival value. Not all play is games, but games represent a special kind of play; a special kind of rehearsal. Understanding games as a special kind of rehearsal helps us to understand the nature of games and that understanding can, in turn, be applied to other things we need to such as work and education. But, once again, I am getting ahead of myself. Next time I will look at games as a special kind of play; a special kind of rehearsal.