There’s a sweet spot at the end of the day between not being quite focused and energized enough for reading but still not quite ready to shut down for some mindless TV. I fill this some days by watching things like TedEd on YouTube. Recently, I came across John Green’s Crash Course channel: a wide-ranging short format educational video series. (Side note on Green: he writes bestselling books especially beloved by teenage girls, he is the leader of Nerdfighters, and is a huge Liverpool fan. A man of many talents and interests.)
I started watching Crash Course’s series on Games hosted by Andre Meadows. Its primary focus is on video games, but the introductory course starts with the question of “what is a game?” As a philosopher, I was really curious how they would approach this.
Meadows starts where many would start: the dictionary. I don’t like starting there. Dictionaries are great for capturing usage, but that’s not the same as defining the concept (see my introduction of Defining Sport for more of my thoughts on that). Nevertheless, the goal in this video is not necessarily the conceptual or philosophical definition, so I’ll grant Meadows some slack there.
The dictionary definition he quotes is: “a game is a construct that organizes play through a series of rules, for the purpose of achieving a set of goals, overcoming an obstacle, and/or obtaining an objective.”
As Meadows says, that’s a decent definition. Indeed, it looks a lot like Bernard Suits’ well-known definition: “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]” (The Grasshopper).
Suits’ definition is a standard in philosophy of sport (though it has some issues) and personally the philosophy nerd in me would have liked to see the Crash Course video engage more in some of the questions and issues raised both by Suits’ definition and Suits’ discussion of games. But that’s probably more than the course needed or wanted.
Meadows’ dictionary definition is missing a few key elements. Meadows notes this with his discussion of entertainment and its role in defining games. Now, depending on what he is getting at with entertainment, that might be captured by the placing of games in the genus of organized play. We can see that, I think, in his discussion of noted game developer Chris Crawford’s analysis of games as a kind of interaction with a ‘play thing.’ Crawford, as Meadows tells us, starts with the play thing: the object with which one interacts and entertains one’s self. Add goals, challenges, and a kind of conflict and you get a game. The core idea starts with the goal of entertaining one’s self through a kind of play. So, by making ‘game’ a species of organized play, the entertaining aspect seems already to be there.
I like that Meadows makes a point of explaining that play has to be voluntary. You have to want to play or it’s not play. However, he makes what I consider to be, an all too common, error when he says, “Voluntary participation is essential. Otherwise, it’s work.” Voluntary participation is essential to play and games, but it’s also essential to work: otherwise we are talking slavery. The Work/Play relationship and distinction is a fascinating one. I think it is often also a confused one. While it is true that work comes with obligations and restrictions we might not otherwise choose in isolation, we still are choosing them as part of the package of choosing to work (and what work and how we approach our work, etc.).
One key element that the video misses—though I think Meadows’ discussion implicitly is trying to get at—is the notion of the lusory attitude. The lusory attitude, as first set out by Suits, is our attitude of accepting the rules, challenges, goals, restrictions of the game. Namely, we accept these for the sake of the game itself – as opposed to accepting them for some other purpose external to the game. Here’s an example that comes up frequently in my classes. War has many features that might make it look like a game: there are goals, there are rules, there are challenges. I always have a few students who want to make the case that war is a kind of game. One of the reasons why this fails though is that participants are not accepting the goals or the rules of war in order for there to be a war. The war exists for the goals; while in games the goals exist for the game. In particular, the rules of war are accepted by the participants for the sake of something else such as morality or law. They are not accepted in order to make war possible: that would be really disturbing. In games, though, we accept the rules, the constraints on behavior, just in order to make the game happen. This is the lusory attitude. (This is why, in part, Katniss is not in a game in the Hunger Games, she is just trying to survivor a cruel and sadistic regime.)
Because we are talking about an attitude, this does make identification of games a little tricky. If you have the right attitude, war (or the Hunger Games) can be seen as and treated as a game. I see this as an advantage for the definition, however, since I think it better captures the reality of games. There are those who treat and engage in war or other activities as if they are games—and so, their actions and behaviors can be explained and understood in similar ways to those who are engage in more standard games. And when someone treats standard games as life and death, or as externally imposed, then it is harder to compare those participants’ actions and behaviors to normal game players. So it makes sense to put these under different conceptual headings at least in part because of the different attitudes.
The video ends with a discussion of value of games and game play. There is a lot good stuff here (maybe I’ll blog about that later), and the rest of the series is an informative and entertaining history of video games. I highly recommend it.