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Life as a Set of Games

November 8, 2010

Here I’m going to defend this view: Life is best seen as a set of interconnected games.  I will probably provide little novel content, as I will draw vaguely on ideas from Kant, Quine and – significantly – Wittgenstein.  Since most people know of Game Theory, most people will know where I’m coming from.  These are ‘thoughts in progress’, not a final statement of my views – but this is the manner in which, I believe, most philosophy (if you can call it that) should take place. If people provide comments on this article, I hope they’re of the form “I think you’d find X interesting to read” or “I think Y is a good reason why you’re wrong to see it like this on that point”. If you don’t want to read vague, speculative philosophy, stop reading… now!

What is a game?

Here I am defining a game very loosely, as any behaviour which is governed by rules.  Games differ interestingly along two sliding scales.  Firstly, rules may be explicit or implicit. Explicit means something like ‘spelled-out’ or ‘openly defined’, and can be linked to ‘features in consciousness’. Implicit means something like ‘there but not seen to be there’.  Secondly, games themselves may be mandatory or elective – meaning that some games I’m forced to play, others I choose to play. This may seem odd; it will be discussed below. It is very important to see both rules and games varying on sliding scales due to these two distinctions.  It’s also important to see that different people will interpret rules and games as at different places on a sliding scale.  For example, people may disagree on which rules in ‘Hide and Seek’ are to be made explicit (e.g. ‘You’re only allowed to hide in the house’); students may disagree with a teacher over whether a game played in a lesson is really elective.

Two other obvious comments: firstly, in games consequences tend to differ according to whether you choose to follow rules or not.  If you perform a ‘hand ball’ in football, you may get a yellow card. If you punch another player in the face, you may never be allowed to play football again.  Secondly, most games are social i.e. they involve others.  It is probably because games are social that they connect up many diverse activities that we take part in.

Aren’t Games Just Frivolous?

The intuitive objection to seeing life as a set of games is that games are ‘just for fun’, they are in some way not ‘real’ or ‘useful’.  I think that on reflection it’s pretty evident that this doesn’t work even for activities we uncontroversially call games. Take tennis. While playing tennis, I may build up my calf muscle and thus improve my fitness, despite the fact that nothing to do with this is mentioned in any explicit or implicit rule set for tennis.  I may in fact get bored with the endless to and fro of tennis and come to see it mainly as a keep-fit activity. Perhaps I may make the game more or less mandatory for my children because of what I see as its benefits.  At no point here does tennis cease to be a game and ‘graduate’ into something purely ‘real’ or ‘useful.’

Aren’t Games Just Instrumentally Useful Then?

It could then be objected that games may be useful but only in some instrumental way, as in the previous example. Tennis appears to be useful as an instrument for improving fitness. Playing Civilization V is only useful because of the instrumental value of learning some facts e.g. Napoleon was French. Yet this is an odd line to take, since all our instruments must at some point be instrumental for something, whether that’s happiness or virtue or whatever you like. Yet there is no reason why any of these things cannot surface within a game. Imagine a child’s joyous face as they win at ‘Hide and Seek’.  This moment of joy – as real and intrinsically good as it may be – is not itself mentioned in any part of the game. And better calf muscles presumably contribute to a fitter and happier tennis player within the game of tennis, as well as outside of it.

Aren’t Games Isolated Experiences?

Hopefully it is becoming clear from our considerations so far that it is very difficult to find any significant distinction between classic ‘games’ and ‘non-games’.  The differences between ‘chess’ and ‘getting a job as a waiter’ are differences only of degree.  In chess there are fewer rules, which are more easily made explicit, and the game is seen as almost entirely elective.  Getting a job as a waiter is more mandatory, as there are obviously ‘pressures to play’ such as needing to earn a living, although for some professional chess players this line will be blurred.  Both have frivolous elements; both are ‘useful’ or ‘meaningful’ in and of themselves but also in instrumental ways; both are typically (but not necessarily) experienced with others.  “Ahh!” someone says, “But a game of chess is an isolated experience, whereas the job is woven into the very fabric of their life!”  Let’s then look to dispel this fear that games are isolated experiences.

It is easy to trick yourself into thinking that a game of chess has a clear start and a finish and that anything that happened in-between could be bracketed-off and deleted from the player’s memory entirely.  Yet this is just as possible in the case of the job with a tiny bit more imagination – it just goes from 9 to 5 after all.  Obviously in a job you do other things: meet people, develop new ways of thinking, get exercise etc etc.  But is there really any reason think these things cannot occur within a game?  Can you not learn strategies in chess that you can apply outside of chess, or get to know someone over a game of chess?  To repeat: the differences are differences in degree but not in kind.

Some parts of videogames are known as ‘mini-games’. Often these are relatively isolated experiences that are bracketed off from the game proper, e.g. a bow and arrow game where you try to win some coins.  Other ‘games within games’ are relatively pervasive and hard to disentangle from the rest of the game, e.g. in a first person shooter there is a ‘movement game’ which is essential to master so that you can play the rest of the game.  Some skills learnt in this ‘movement game’ can obviously be transferred to other games, like other first person shooters. Arguably, your initial skills in the computerised ‘movement game’ are going to be highly influenced by your playing of the ‘movement game’ in what we call the ‘real world’.  Another game which is pervasive within and across other games is ‘the language game’, which involves things like processing syntax, semantics and pragmatics.   There may be many variants of this game, as Wittgenstein investigated.  Some people will object to calling complex things like movement and language ‘games’.  I agree that it is misleading in so far as these games are complex, and are composed of games within games and elements from other games, but they still fit my definition of a game, and all you would need to engineer them from scratch would be a games developer with sufficient time and imagination.

But We’re Not Playing By Any Rules…

You may object that things like talking aren’t games, because we’re never told of – or think of – the rules.  This objection revolves around the explicit/implicit distinction. It is true that we are not explicitly told of, or think of, the rules of talking, or movement. However, it is actually very rare that we are explicitly told a complete list of rules for any game.  Think back to playing your last board game or videogame – were you given a list of all the rules? And did you bother reading them?

Furthermore, despite what these rules may tell us, there’s a great deal they miss out.   Chess is a good example of a game with explicitly defined rules, almost to the point where the experiences seems to be exhausted by the rules – but talk to any chess player to find out that it isn’t.  In the case of talking, linguists generally assume that syntax comprehension and production is based on rule-following – but people are rarely aware of the rules.  Of course, linguists can try to make the implicit more explicit.  These examples show: we play by rules even when rules aren’t made explicit. An extreme case of an entity playing by rules without ‘knowing what the rules are’ is an AI computer character in a game. They may play a pretty sophisticated game, play it well, and follow – and break – rules, but (presumably) they don’t know it.

But an AI Character Doesn’t Choose to Play a Game, We Do!

Yes, an AI player doesn’t seem to choose to play a game, but often nor do we. Imagine a baby playing ‘Peekaboo!’  Do they in any way choose to play this game?   Surely not, although sometimes they seem to choose not to, and as they get older this’ll become more likely.  Does a child choose to play football the first time they play, or do they just find themselves kicking a ball and then gradually find out more specifics about the game?  You may also become involved in a game without any say-so whatsoever, for example if you’re the Jim and you’re the ‘something beginning with J’ in ‘Eye Spy’.  Obviously over time we learn to think of classic playful games as relatively isolated experiences which are mostly ‘elective’, but many activities lie somewhere closer to ‘mandatory’ on a sliding scale: playing a times-table game in a maths lesson; accepting the conditions of a new job; responding to a parent when they ask questions; roughly following the laws of physics when walking from A to B.

‘Following the laws of physics’ seems like a very strange game indeed. And this is because we are at the opposite end of the scale from playing chess. Here, where our words like ‘mandatory’ and ‘lawful’ are usually blurred with notions of human authority, we have no choice at all. This is where my definition of ‘game’ comes close to a breaking point, but nevertheless I believe it still holds.  Isn’t the behaviour of a gardened plant governed by (implicit) rules, in a way which seems entirely mandatory?   Now, you may say that a plant cannot choose to (or otherwise) break a rule – but you can’t break the rules in a computerised version of chess, either. That does not disqualify it from being a game.  The ‘laws of nature’ would certainly have a special status in a compilation of rules for games – they appear to be the rules we must play by, like it or not.

Of course, many people don’t like to think they have to play by the rules.  People disagree enormously on what these rules actually are.  You could say that part of the job of a scientist is to make these implicit rules into explicit rules (scientific theories) used to explain and predict events.  Yet, as mentioned above, different people will interpret this game in different ways.   Some will not take laws of nature to be mandatory, and will instead think they have some choice over them, or that God does, and so on.  Perhaps some laws are seen as ‘local’ to this part of space and time, and there is nothing in our logic games to which can dismiss this.  People’s strategies of how to play the game will obviously differ as well. If you choose not to pay much attention to the ‘rule of gravity’ you’ll probably suffer a few injuries.  Some people, who fall more for ‘pseudoscience’, will think that they’re playing an entirely different game, with entirely different kinds of rules, to those sticking to mainstream ‘science’.

But This Looks Like Relativism!

Yes it does look like relativism, for the simple fact that: you will never be able to force everybody to agree to play the same game. But this does not mean that they aren’t actually playing many similar games, and that some games are so mandatory that they really have no say in the matter.

Let’s look at language. Syntactical rules of language are obviously not in themselves ‘objectively true’. But language is a game that serves within other games to such a useful extent that we can’t help but follow its rules.  But OK, we could make up a new language and eventually convince everyone to play by these rules, and then we wouldn’t need the old one.  So the game of a specific language seem mandatory at first but turn out not to be.  Let’s then look at mathematics, which seems as objective as it gets.  We seem to play games with mathematics when dealing with quantities of things, and it’s extremely useful.   The mathematics that we use has rules that have been adapted and refined over time.  Sometimes we do have a choice as to which ‘game of mathematics’ to play, for example 8 + 8 = 4 on a 24-hour clock, and ½ person + ½ a person does surely not equal 1 person.  Yet most of the time, conventional mathematics is an extremely useful game to play.  We do have a choice, but given that many ‘games’ in the real world – those in the world of work, those to do with things like gravity etc. – are fairly mandatory, mathematics becomes fairly mandatory in the process.

Won’t People Disagree on Fundamental Issues Here?

Yes.  They will disagree about which game to play and how to play it.  Particularly tricky notions to work into a game are things like ‘truth and falsity’ and ‘right and wrong’.  People will have very different interpretations of what games make use of these pieces, how they do so – and what kinds of games these are in the first place.  Some will think that ‘right and wrong’ are part of an entirely mandatory game, with rules which we should make explicit.  People who believe that violating human rights is objectively wrong see things like this.  They’re obviously not going to be keen on seeing anything to do with ‘right and wrong’ as a game at all, in a similar way to science.  Others will disagree entirely on seeing a game (of morality, or of politics) as being mandatory, and they may think that we have more choice in specifying what rules we play by.

So What’s Your Point?

One of my points here is that when people act in moral ways, and when they refer to various moral theories, they are essentially saying to others: ‘I am playing by THIS game!” and they have to be aware that others may not want to play that game, or believe that they were ever playing that game in the first place. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights lays out rules for a game in an explicit way, and assumes that this game is more or less mandatory for all human beings (or at least nation states). The UN is essentially shouting out to everyone something like ‘Please play this game!’ or ‘I’m going to force you to play this game!’ or ‘Like it or not, you’re playing this game!’  States either agree to play this game, or choose an alternative game, or no game at all.

Now, I like some videogames more than others, and I don’t think that these games are ‘useless’ or ‘just frivolous’, as I’ve argued above.  It’s not surprising then that I think: the political games that people and states choose to play are incredibly important.  It is important to discuss the nature of these games and the rules we want to play by.  I don’t think that many people would really disagree with this – except they may take objection to it being called a game, due to the word’s connotations.  My purpose for viewing moral and political activities is twofold. Firstly, it stresses the responsibility we have in actively scrutinising, constructing, modifying and promoting the rules we play by.  Secondly, politics and morality should not be seen as some other part of life, they are connected in meaningful ways to almost anything else we do.

So That’s It

These are just some thoughts.   I disagree with Wittgenstein about how to present philosophy: he thought that it had to be perfectly formulated before being presented; I entirely disagree.  Perhaps it seems like there’s a difference between bad scientific and bad philosophical writing. A bad scientific article could be negligent and dangerous. A bad philosophical article would probably just be good ‘target practice’.  Yet I don’t think this is the whole truth of the matter, since I see both as being part of a number of different, important games that we play.  A good scientist will playfully throw conjectures to their colleagues; this is an attempt at something a bit similar.

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