Suits reading

Bernard Suits, The Grasshopper: Games, Life, and Utopia (Buffalo, NY: University of Toronto Press, 1978).

‘Don’t say,’ Wittgenstein admonishes us, ‘ “there must be something common or they would not be called ‘games’ ” – but look and see whether there is anything common to all.’ This is unexceptionable advice. Unfortunately, Wittgenstein himself did not follow it. He looked, to be sure, but because he had decided beforehand that games are indefinable, his look was fleeting, and he saw very little. (X)

. . .

My task will be to persuade you that what I have called the lusory attitude is the element which unifies the other elements into a single formula which successfully states the necessary and sufficient conditions for any activity to be an instance of game playing. I propose, then, [36] that the elements of game are 1/ the goal, 2/ the means of achieving the goal, 3/ the rules, and 4/ the lusory attitude. I shall briefly discuss each of these in order.

The Goal We should notice first of all that there are three distinguishable goals involved in game playing. Thus, if we were to ask a long distance runner his purpose in entering a race, he might say anyone or all of three things, each of which would be accurate, appropriate, and consistent with the other two. He might reply 1/ that his purpose is to participate in a long-distance race, or 2/ that his purpose is to win the race, or 3/ that his purpose is to cross the finish line ahead of the other contestants.

It should be noted that these responses are not merely three different formulations of one and the same purpose. Thus, winning a race is not the same thing as crossing a finish line ahead of the other contestants, since it is possible to do the latter unfairly by, for example, cutting across the infield. Nor is participating in the race the same as either of these, since the contestant, while fully participating, may simply fail to cross the finish line first, either by fair means or foul.

. . .

The kind of goal at issue, then, is the kind illustrated by crossing a finish line first (but not necessarily fairly), having x number of tricks piled up before you on a bridge table (but not necessarily as a consequence of playing bridge), or getting a golf ball into a cup (but not necessarily by using a golf club). This kind of goal may be described generally as a specific achievable state of affairs. This description is, I believe, no more and no less than is required. By omitting to say how the state of affairs in question is to be brought about, it avoids confusion between this goal and the goal of winning. And because any achievable state of affairs whatever could, with sufficient ingenuity, be made the goal of a game, the description does not include too much.

I suggest that [37] this kind of goal be called the prelusory goal of a game, because it can be described before, or independently of, any game of which it may be, or come to be, a part. In contrast, winning can be described only in terms of the game in which it figures, and winning may accordingly be called the lusory goal of a game. Finally, the goal of participating in the game is not, strictly speaking, a part of the game at all. It is simply one of the goals that people have, such as wealth, glory, or security. As such it may be called a lusory goal, but a lusory goal of life rather than of games.

Means Just as we saw that reference to the goal of game playing admitted of three different (but proper and consistent) interpretations, so we shall find that the means in games can be of more than one kind– — two, in fact, depending upon whether we wish to refer to means for winning the game or for achieving the prelusory goal. Thus, an extremely effective way to achieve the prelusory goal in a boxing match — viz., the state of affairs consisting in your opponent being ‘down’ for the count often–is to shoot him through the head, but this is obviously not a means for winning the match. In games, of course, we are interested only in means which are permitted for winning, and we are now in a position to define that class of means, which we may call1usory means. Lusory means are means which are permitted (are legal or legitimate) in the attempt to achieve prelusory goals.

. . .

Rules As with goals and means, two kinds of rule figure in games, one kind associated with prelusory goals, the other with prelusory goals. The rules of a game are, in effect, proscriptions of certain means useful in achieving prelusory goals. Thus it is useful but proscribed to trip a competitor in a foot race. This kind of rule may be called constitutive of the game, since such rules together with specification of the prelusory goal set out all the conditions which must be met in playing the game (though not, of course, in playing the game skilfully). Let us call such rules constitutive rules. . . . .

What is the nature of the restrictions which constitutive rules impose on the means for reaching a prelusory goal? I invite you . . . to think of any game at random. Now identify its prelusory goal: [crossing a line], felling an opponent, or whatever. I think you will agree that the simplest, easiest, and most direct approach to achieving such a goal is always ruled out in favour of a more complex, more difficult, and more indirect approach. Thus, it is not uncommon for players of a new and difficult game to agree among themselves to ‘ease up’ on the rules, that is, to allow themselves a greater degree of latitude than the official rules permit. This means removing some of the obstacles or, in terms of means, permitting certain means which the rules do not really permit. On the other hand, players may find some game too easy and may choose to tighten up the rules, that is, to heighten the difficulties they are required to overcome.

We may therefore define constitutive rules as rules which prohibit use of the most efficient means for reaching a prelusory goal.

Lusory attitude The attitude of the game player must be an element in game playing because there has to be an explanation of that curious state of affairs wherein one adopts rules which require one to employ worse rather than better means for reaching an end. Normally the acceptance of prohibitory rules is justified on the grounds that the means ruled out, although they are more efficient than the permitted means, have further undesirable consequences from the viewpoint of the agent [39] involved. . . .

But in games although more efficient means are — and must be — ruled out, the reason for doing so is quite different from the reasons for avoiding nuclear weaponry and self-decapitation. Foot racers do not refrain from cutting across the infield because the infield holds dangers for them, as would be the case if, for example, infields were frequently sown with land mines. Cutting across the infield in shunned solely because there is a rule against it. But in ordinary life this is usually — and rightly – -regarded as the worst possible kind of justification one could give for avoiding a course of action. . . .

. . . [G]ames are, I believe, essentially different from the ordinary activities of life, as perhaps the following exchange between Smith and Jones will illustrate. Smith knows nothing of games, but he does know that he wants to travel from A to C, and he also knows that making the trip by way of B is the most efficient means for getting to his destination. He is then told authoritatively that he may not go by way of B. ‘Why not?’ he asks. ‘Are there dragons at B?’ ‘No,’ is the reply. ‘B is perfectly safe in every respect. It is just that there is a rule against going to B if you are [40] on your way to C.’ ‘Very well,’ grumbles Smith, ‘if you insist. But if I have to go from A to c very often I shall certainly try very hard to get that rule revoked.’ True to his word, Smith approaches Jones, who is also setting out for c from A. He asks Jones to sign a petition requesting the revocation of the rule which forbids travellers from A to C to go through B. Jones replies that he is very much opposed to revoking the rule, which very much puzzles Smith.

SMITH: But if you want to get to C, why on earth do you support a rule which prevents your taking the fastest and most convenient route?

JONES: Ah, but you see I have no particular interest in being at C. That is not my goal, except in a subordinate way. My overriding goal is more complex. It is ‘to get from A to C without going through B.’ And I can’t very well achieve that goal if I go through B, can I?

S: But why do you want to do that?

J: I want to do it before Robinson does, you see?

S: No, I don’t. That explains nothing. Why should Robinson, whoever he may be, want to do it? I presume you will tell me that he, like you, has only a subordinate interest in being at C at all.

J: That is so.

S: Well, if neither of you really wants to be at C, then what possible difference can it make which of you gets there first? And why, for God’s sake, should you avoid B?

J: Let me ask you a question. Why do you want to get to C?

S: Because there is a good concert at C, and I want to hear it.

J: Why?

S: Because I like concerts, of course. Isn’t that a good reason?

J: It’s one of the best there is. And I like, among other things, trying to get from A to C without going through B before Robinson does.

S: Well, I don’t. So why should they tell me I can’t go through B?

J: Oh, I see. They must have thought you were in the race.

S: The what?

I believe that we are now in a position to define lusory attitude: the acceptance of constitutive rules just so the activity made possible by such acceptance can occur.

The definition

Let me conclude by restating the definition together with an indication of where the elements that we have now defined fit into the statement. [41]

To play a game is to attempt to achieve a specific state of affairs [prelusory goal], using only means permitted by rules [lusory means], where the rules prohibit use of more efficient in favour of less efficient means [constitutive rules], and where the rules are accepted just because they make possible such activity [lusory attitude]. I also offer the following simpler and, so to speak, more portable version of the above: playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.