Rule-Governed Games

Rule-Governed Games June 13, 2014

Bernard Suits (The Grasshopper, 24) begins his effort to define the nature of games by distinguishing games and play from work, defined as technical activity that aims to achieve an end in the most efficient way possible. Distinguishing the two is more difficult that it might appear, and Suits argues for the surprising but compelling conclusion that games are more not less rule-governed than work:

“seem to stand in a peculiar relation to ends. The end in poker is not simply to gain money, or in golf simply to get a ball into a hole, but to do these things in prescribed (or, perhaps more accurately, not to do them in proscribed) ways; that is, to do them only in accordance with rules. Rules in games thus seem to be in some sense inseparable from ends, for to break a game rule is to render impossible the attainment of an end. Thus, although you may receive the trophy by lying about your golf score, you have certainly not won the game. But in what we have called technical activity it is possible to gain an end by breaking a rule; for example, gaining a trophy by lying about your golf score. So while it is possible in a technical action to break a rule without destroying the original end of the action, in games the reverse appears to be the case. If the rules are broken the original end becomes impossible of attainment, since one cannot (really) win the game unless one plays it, and one cannot (really) play the game unless one obeys the rules of the game.”

In short, “In a game I cannot disjoin the end, winning, from the rules in terms of which winning possesses its meaning.”

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