Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Is Game-Playing the Highest Ideal of Human Existence?

Is this what it is all about?

Bernard Suits’s The Grasshopper is an odd book. Part philosophical dialogue, part playful allegory, it is most famous for its philosophical analysis of games. In a sharp rebuff to Wittgenstein — who thought that games had no essence — Suits suggests that games do have an essence. They are voluntary attempts to overcome unnecessary obstacles. More precisely, he says that all games share the following three features:

Prelusory Goal: Some state of affairs in the world that is sensible and definable apart from the rules of the game and that determines the point of the game (i.e. that determines the score or outcome of the game).
Constitutive Rules: The rules that constitute the game and that place unnecessary obstacles between the player and the prelusory goal.
Lusory Attitude: The willingness on the part of the player to accept the unnecessary obstacles.

Take a game like basketball. Here, the prelusory goal is to put the ball in the net. Doing this more times than your opponent determines the outcome of the game. The constitutive rules are just the rules of basketball itself. You are not allowed to kick the ball into the net. You must throw or dunk it from within a pre-defined space (the court). You have to contend with other players in the process. These players may try to block or steal the ball from you. You cannot simply run with the ball from one end of the court to the other; you have to bounce it. And so on. Each of these rules places an obstacle between you and the prelusory goal. They force you to achieve the prelusory goal in an inefficient manner. But you are willing to accept those inefficiencies because you want to play the game (i.e. because you have the lusory attitude).

This analysis of games is justly famous. It seems to account for most of what we group under that label. Philosophers of language and sport have pored over its ramifications for decades. In doing so, they have sometimes neglected or ignored the fact that the Grasshopper pushes a rather extreme view of games. It argues — to the extent that a dialogue can have a clear line of argument — that games are the highest good of human life. In other words, if we were to build a utopia, we would build a world in which we did nothing but play games. Let’s call this view ‘Ludic Utopianism’.

I mentioned Ludic Utopianism in a previous post about Suits’s work, but I never really considered the argument in its favour. In this post, I want to make up for that omission. I want to look at something I will call the ‘Reductio’ Argument for Ludic Utopianism and then address some criticisms of that argument.

1. The Reductio Argument for Ludic Utopianism
Suits’s main argument for Ludic Utopianism comes via a thought experiment. We are asked to imagine a seemingly utopian world - a world in which all human wants and needs can be met with a minimum of effort. Imagine a future of technological perfection where machines are waiting to feed you when you are hungry, cure you when you are sick, and clothe you when you are cold. Imagine a future where there is no deprivation or lack. Every moral problem has been solved (poverty, inequality, war, social conflict etc.), every scientific theory has been formulated, every itch has been scratched.

In short imagine a world where every problem that currently preoccupies your mind, including problems of the mind, can be solved at the flick of a switch (or, more outlandishly, simply by wishing that it be solved — Suits’s goes to this more outlandish possibility in his book by imagining that telepathic communication with the machines is possible).

Maybe a world of this sort is physically impossible. Maybe it is metaphysically impossible. Ignore those complications for now. Just try to imagine yourself in this world.

What would you do? So much of our lives are spent addressing personal, social and intellectual problems. We pour our collective energies into them. What would happen if we didn’t have to address them anymore? Well, supposing we don’t simply wish for an end to it all, the only thing we would have left to do is play games.

Why so? Because any activity in this utopian future would be a game. Remember you can get everything you want or need by simply flicking a switch or wishing that it be so. You never need to do anything ever again. So it follows, by necessity, that any action you do perform involves the voluntary assumption of unnecessary obstacles.

Suppose you want a house. Given the nature of utopia, you could just wish a house into a existence. Houses are available, in all shapes and sizes, to cater to every whim and preference, at the flick of a switch. No effort, no blood, no sweat. But you don’t want to just flick the switch. You want to build the house with your own bare hands. You want to draw up the blueprints, source the materials, lay the foundations, pour the concrete, cement the bricks, tile the floors, all by yourself. You want to do it the old fashioned way. In short, you want to turn house-building into a game in which the prelusory goal (the construction of the house) is achieved by overcoming voluntarily imposed obstacles (constitutive rules).

Anything you do that avoids the mental telepathy/switch-flipping that is at your disposal has the same character. It follows then that in this utopian world, every activity is a game. This suggests to Suits that game-playing is the highest ideal of human existence. Why? Well it makes sense for us to create technologies that will address all our wants and needs in an efficient manner. The general arc of human history suggests that this is a widely-shared goal. We don’t want there to be any deprivation or lack. But if we succeed in creating technologies that address our wants and needs in the most efficient manner possible, we will have created a world akin to the utopia he asked us to imagine. All that will be left for us in that world will be games. But since we should want to create that world, it follows that a life filled with games would be our highest ideal.

Let’s try to craft this line of reasoning into an argument:

  • (1) A game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.
  • (2) A utopian world is one in which all needs and wants can be addressed by the most efficient possible means (flicking a switch; telepathic wishing).
  • (3) Any activity in a utopian world would involve avoiding the most efficient possible means to achieving what you want or need.
  • (4) Avoiding the most efficient possible means to achieving what you want or need is to voluntarily impose unnecessary obstacles on yourself.
  • (5) Therefore, all activities in a utopian world are games.
  • (6) Living in a utopian world is the highest ideal of human existence.
  • (7) Therefore, playing games is the highest ideal of human existence.

2. Objections and Replies
So that’s the reductio argument. Should we accept it? Obviously, there are some problematic assumptions within its premises and these can form the basis for some objections to the argument. Holowchak (2007) identifies two objections in particular: the incoherence objection and the stipulation objection.

The incoherence objection argues that games are impossible in the utopia that Suits asks us to imagine. Proponents of this objection are effectively arguing that Suits’s three-part definition of a game is missing something essential. One suggestion is that it is ignoring the need for failure in games. It is no fun playing a game if you can win, with ease, every time. But in Suits’s imagined utopia failure is never possible: if anything goes wrong, you can simply wish for the desired outcome. Similarly, Holowchak himself argues that Suits’s analysis ignores the need for contention or competition in successful games. In other words, there needs to be some psychological desire to beat yourself or beat your opponent in order for there to be a game. But, again, in Suits’s imagined utopia there is no real contention or competition. He supposes that any psychological desire for contention or competition can be cured through our perfected technology.

I have to say that neither of these versions of the incoherence objection seems plausible to me. If they were essential requirements for games, then games themselves would be impossible. They are both suggesting that we cannot fake the possibility of failure or the desire for competition/contention. But clearly we can do this. Think about it. There is no possibility of failure and no real contention/competition in the games we currently play. Not really anyway. It is all facade and artifice. It is only by accepting the constitutive rules that failure and contention enter the fray. When I play golf, I can, if I like, pick my ball up and just drop it in the hole. I need never fail to achieve the prelusory goal in an efficient manner. But of course I don’t do that because I accept the constitutive rules. I go along with the facade of needing to use clubs to manipulate the ball through the air and over the ground. Accepting these constraints doesn’t make my eventual triumph in getting the ball into the hole any less authentic or real.

A more interesting objection is take issue with the way in which Suits defines what utopia is (or ought to be). Proponents of this objection suggest that Suits hasn’t really argued that games are the highest ideal of human life at all; he has simply stipulated that it is. He has defined utopia in such a way that games are the only possibility, but we don’t have to accept that definition of utopia. Indeed, I am sure that some people objected to it when I first set it out.

Look back to premise (2) of the argument. It claims that a utopian world is one in which all wants and needs can be addressed by the flick of a switch. Is that really a utopian world? I think some people would balk at the notion. For them a utopian world might be one in which we constantly get better and push and strive towards new goals — towards that which is always just out of reach. We shouldn’t try to solve all problems, deprivation or lack; we should always be searching for the new frontier of problems.

But if that’s your view of utopia, it raises some prickly questions. After all, the Suitsian view makes a certain degree of sense. If constantly seeking out the new frontier is what’s best, then how different is that from what we already currently have? Does it imply, as per Leibniz, that we already live in the best of all possible worlds, despite its problems? Or does it just cast the whole notion of utopia into doubt? Can there really be a best state of existence? Are we doomed to forever feel unsatisfied with what we have?

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