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From golf to Grand Theft Auto, why do we love playing games?

Philosopher Bernard Suits, author of The Grasshopper: Games, Life, and Utopia, thought successful game players were the purest example of the achievement that humans yearn for.

People around the world spent over $109bn (£83m) on video games in 2017. They also spent billions of hours playing video games, and similar amounts of time playing or watching football, Scrabble, golf, and more. We like games. What can philosophy tell us about them?

Ludwig Wittgenstein thought: not much. In a famous discussion, he said it’s a mistake to think there is a common “essence” to all games. There is only a looser set of “family resemblances”: what makes Tetris similar to football is different from what makes football similar to Scrabble, which is different from what makes Scrabble similar to golf. There is no shared “gaminess” to games.

A remarkable book by a much less famous philosopher shows that Wittgenstein gave up too quickly. Bernard Suits’s The Grasshopper: Games, Life, and Utopia is an affectionate parody of a Platonic dialogue, with the Grasshopper from Aesop’s fable taking on Socrates’ role and debating two insect friends. The Grasshopper has played games all summer and now, with winter coming, he faces starvation. Yet he won’t give up the activity he thinks is most valuable: to him, the ungamed life is not worth living. To explain why, he gives a three-part analysis of what it means to play a game.

First, a game has a goal that can be understood and achieved outside the game itself. In golf a ball goes into a hole in the ground, in chess the pieces end up in a checkmate pattern, in mountain climbing you stand atop a mountain.

Second, a game has rules, and what the rules do is forbid the most efficient means to reach its goal. In golf you can’t pick the ball up in your hand, walk down the fairway, and drop it in the hole. In chess you can’t make three moves to your opponent’s one, or move your pieces in ways that break the rules. In mountain climbing you can’t take a helicopter to the summit.

Third, all games involve a particular attitude. To play a game you must accept the restrictions its rules impose because you want to pursue the goal through the only means that the rules allow. Golfers don’t wish they could use their hands or chess players that they could move their rooks diagonally; a mountain climber would refuse a helicopter ride. More specifically, to be playing a game you must accept the rules because they make achieving the goal more difficult and you want to meet that challenge. In short, playing a game is “the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.”

There’s an immense variety of different games we can play, as Wittgenstein saw. But there’s also, underlying that, a basic unity that we may be dimly aware of. When the Grasshopper brings this unity to light, there’s an “Aha!” moment. 

His analysis does not exactly fit the English word “game.” It includes mountain climbing, which isn’t normally called a game, but not Ring-a-ring o’ Roses, which is. But if mountain climbing shares important features with golf and chess, it should be classified with them; if Ring-a-ring o’ Roses doesn’t, it shouldn’t. The Grasshopper calls the latter “a kind of dance to vocal accompaniment or a choreographed song. It is no more a game than Swan Lake is.”

The Grasshopper’s analysis does more than reveal games’ hidden essence. The Socratic dialogues typically open with a question like “Is this act pious?” or “Can virtue be taught?”, but Socrates says we can only answer it if we first know what piety or virtue is. The Grasshopper follows this Socratic line, using his analysis of what game-playing is to explain why he thinks it’s so valuable and why he’d rather die than give it up.

If we ask, “What’s the value in playing games?”, an obvious answer is that games are fun. But this can’t be the complete answer, because it doesn’t explain why we admire people who excel at certain games or why we think it worthwhile to spend hours and even years developing skill at them, both at an elite and an amateur level. It also doesn’t explain why we can feel proud of the way we played a game. The Grasshopper’s analysis gives us a clue.

The rules of a serious game, like golf or chess, make realising its goal not just more difficult than it would otherwise be, but difficult by absolute standards. It’s hard to break par on the golf course or win at Grand Master chess. Success in these games is an instance of the more general human good of achievement, where you set yourself a challenging goal and use skill, ingenuity, and effort to realise it. Such achievement is something we want and value in our lives: success in games is the purest illustration of it.

In many achievements, the goal that is realised is independently important, like the cure for some disease, a work of art, or justice in a formerly unjust society. That is the most obvious thing to value in these achievements: they each have an important result. But they also have, alongside that, the separate value of overcoming obstacles and succeeding at something difficult: it is even more admirable to cure a disease or create art if doing so is hard. And, fun aside, this type of achievement is the only one present in games.

In a game your goal is intrinsically trivial. There’s no intrinsic value in a ball rolling into a hole in the ground or a chess piece arranged in a particular pattern. So the only value in what you do, besides the fun, can be that of successfully meeting a challenge. It’s not the end you reach in a game that matters but how you reach it, or what you have to do to get there. The value is one of process not product, journey rather than destination. 

The Grasshopper defends the value of playing games in a striking way. He describes a utopia where people can get anything they want, instantaneously. A beautiful house, complete scientific understanding of the universe, an ideal sex partner – they just have to snap their fingers. What, he asks, will people do in this utopia? How, if they don’t have to work, will they spend their time?

Past a point, he argues, they will return to doing things the old-fashioned way, to give themselves a challenge. They will build houses using carpentry and bricklaying, because it requires skill. They will turn activities that for us are means to an end into games they choose for their own sakes. Their lives in utopia will consist mainly in pursuing ends by needlessly difficult means – that is, in playing games.

We are not in utopia, and there are independently important goals we need to pursue. Nor is achievement of any kind the only human good: there’s also pleasure, understanding, love, and more. But success at something difficult is one thing we can rightly care about. It’s present in a pure form in games, which can enrich our lives in a way that more passive forms of entertainment cannot.

Games are fun, but they are also something more. You can remember that when you next practise your golf swing or buy the latest version of Grand Theft Auto.

Thomas Hurka is the Jackman Distinguished Chair in philosophical studies at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Virtue, Vice, and Value and The Best Things in Life.

This article is part of the Agora series, a collaboration between the New Statesman and Aaron James Wendland. Aaron is assistant professor of philosophy at the Higher School of Economics and the co-editor of Wittgenstein and Heidegger and Heidegger on Technology. He tweets @ajwendland.