What Does it Mean to Play a Game?

“And now up to bat is Some Lazy Fucker!”

One of the main ways that anti-work advocates sometimes envision an alternative world is the broadening of games. Why so? Largely because games are by definition voluntary, done for their own sake and involve the active and enthusiastic participation of all involved. The consequences are sometimes (though not always) trivial and thus more flexibility can be had with how these games are performed than the current jobs we’ve come to hate.

But all of this begs the question: What are games?

In my research for my collection I discovered a paper by Thomas Hurka and John Tasioulas called The Games and the Good which I in turn discovered through John Danaher’s The Philosophy of Games and the Postwork Utopia.

I’ll be dedicating the conclusion of my collection to these two pieces but I thought I’d give y’all a snippet of what that’s going to look like. To do that that I’ll be asking more focused and basic questions instead of the broader and deeper ones I’ll be looking at in the collection. My main objective in this post is to merely explore the concept of a game itself and perhaps add include a few remarks that this concept has for an anti-work future.

The definition Hurka gives us to work with is delightfully straightforward:

The voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles. (p. 2)

Hurka didn’t come up with this definition but rather took it from Bernard Suit’s The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia which posits that games are not only an intrinsic good but also the supreme good in life. And as such Suit believes that games would be the activity that would make up most of our lives in an actual utopian world.

While writing that out something occurred to me: This is exactly why novels like Looking Backward are more dystopian than utopian. Everyone may be sharing in the (compulsory) work according to the wishes of a (heavily centralized) institution but they are sharing equally in perpetual misery. If the work we have to do not only exists but is shared then no one really gets different sorts of misery which can at least make life a little more bearable.

But instead of simply abolishing work the “utopia” of Looking Backward tries to obtain the liberal notion of full employment which is just another way of saying universalized misery. There’s no real dignity or worth in trying to equalize the amount of drudgery or non-essential/bullshit jobs that we have to do now, we should abolish them!

If we go deeper we’ll see that Suit had three components of a game which Danaher helpfully summarizes:

Prelusory Goals: These are outcomes or changes in the world that are intelligible apart from the game itself.

Constitutive Rules: These are the rules that determine how the prelusory goal is to be attained. According to Suits, these rules set up artificial obstacles that prevent the players from achieving the prelusory goal in the most straightforward and efficient manner.

Lusory Attitude: This is the psychological orientation of the game players to the game itself. In order for a game to work, the players have to accept the constraints imposed by the constitutive rules.

To bring all of this together, let’s imagine a game of basketball.

Players are voluntarily deciding to get a basket through a net by their hands alone. This is obviously unnecessary (why not use a ladder?) and it’s something you could do outside the game itself (people throw paper in baskets all of the time). But part of what makes it interesting and fun is that the constitutive rules set in place (only using their hands) helps “determine how the prelusory goal is to be attained” which if accept belie the lusory attitude the players have.

There are important distinctions to make here however.

For example, if someone is using inefficient tools to overcome a given obstacle they still may not be engaging in a game. Consider the example Hurka gives of a farmer who engages in his field with inadequate technology but only does so because they have insufficient funds to do anything better. Certainly there are prelusory goals and some rules in place but the lusory attitude is heavily impaired if not there altogether.

Or, to put things more plainly, this “game” is missing it’s component of voluntariness

Children in the schoolyard can be very similar with their concept of “games”. If they forced young Timmy into a game of hop scotch but Timmy had no interest, we would hardly say Timmy is playing a game. Timmy may be accepting the constitutive rules and there are prelusory goals as usual but his own consent has been undermined.

This is a point that Bob Black makes in his classic The Abolition of Work:

That doesn’t mean we have to stop doing things. It does mean creating a new way of life based on play; in other words, a ludic revolution. By “play” I mean also festivity, creativity, conviviality, commensality, and maybe even art. There is more to play than child’s play, as worthy as that is. I call for a collective adventure in generalized joy and freely interdependent exuberance.

Play is always voluntary. What might otherwise be play is work if it’s forced. This is axiomatic.

Bernie de Koven has defined play as the “suspension of consequences.” This is unacceptable if it implies that play is inconsequential. The point is not that play is without consequences. Playing and giving are closely related, they are the behavioral and transactional facets of the same impulse, the play-instinct. They share an aristocratic disdain for results. The player gets something out of playing; that’s why he plays. But the core reward is the experience of the activity itself (whatever it is).

I think that second part of this quote is the most interesting because we often conceive of play as trivial. But there are all sorts of benefits that we get out of play such as exercise and social bonding. These are things children are encouraged to do more than adults and I suspect due to the way children are often looked down upon, play is looked down upon as well.

But I don’t think this should be the case given the plentiful benefits of play (see here for a good roundup) in both children and adults which is so heavily emphasized when it comes to youth but sorely de-emphasized later on. Play helps us imagine, create and break rules so we can have a better enjoyment of ourselves and our activities. Enhancing our creativity and embracing it may also help us tackle other problems more flexibly as well.

What does all of this have to do with anti-work though?

Briefly, I’d say that game-making is likely how a post-work / anti-work society is going to function. Many of the formerly “productive” activities we engaged in that aren’t automated can be “gamified” and made creative and fun endeavors. Perhaps there are some activities that simply can’t be gamified or automated but to the extent that neither is possible you could always try to combine these approaches or simply share in the work to make it less burdensome.

It’s true that I said earlier that sharing in drudgery isn’t much of a solution. But I think this is less pertinent when the society you live in isn’t overflowing with boring and harmful activities. In a society where our autonomy is respected and we’re able to move around rather freely I thnik that sharing the labors we have can account for much more.

There’s no perfect solution to any of this but I think games and play can help us theorize the anti-work futures we want to see and still retain consequences while also sustaining the ludic life we deserve.

Workers of the World, play ball!


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