The Grasshopper: Defining Games

One of the greatest things about not studying is that I’m not pressured to read any particular books. It’s a great opportunity to catch up on all the things I’ve missed out on, and also to expand out further into different areas. One of the things I’m getting into more is books about video games – a contentious set of books that no doubt provoke only more debate and argumentation within the community. Nevertheless, I’ve been reading them, and now I’m talking to you about them, reader. Let me introduce you to Bernard Suits’ The Grasshopper: Games, Life, and Utopia

Suits was a late 20th century philosopher who wrote this book as a response to Wittgenstein’s blah blah blah – we don’t care about all that right now. What’s important to me is that this book has a pretty kick-ass definition of games – and that’s what we’re talking about today. Suits isn’t interested in video games, probably because his book came out in 1978, but that really only makes his definition more important: he’s looking at games irrespective of these questions about medium or form. If he’s got useful information about the definition of games, which I think he does, he can help us clarify our own thinking about games. The purpose here is not to draw boundaries and segregate the different types of digital media – it’s a side effect, sure, but more importantly a good definition sets us up to think about games in a productive way. Let’s dig in.

In a nutshell, Suits suggests that playing a game is “the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles“. That definition is presented as the “more portable version“, so don’t assume that’s the entirety of his argument – it’s just a really nice take-home summary. There’s a longer version of the definition on the Wikipedia page, which I won’t really go into – if you want the product proper, I’d just recommend his book. It’s infinitely readable and very funny – yeah, it’s formal philosophy, but he’s a good writer who’s clearly having a laugh on the side. Plus the book’s only like 160 pages.

Briefly, then, the argument is that if you’re playing a game, you’re trying to achieve a goal. You’ve got a specific set of rules that set out how you’re allowed to achieve that goal, and those rules prohibit certain ways of doing things – just so that you’re forced to achieve the goal according to these relatively arbitrary rules. There’s a great example about racing cars: the goal is to get to the finish line before anybody else, and if you think about it, it’s technically quicker to go off the track and straight across the infield. However, racers don’t do that, because there’s a rule that says you have to race down the track like everybody else – it’s less efficient, as a method, but that’s fine – the point of the rule that says “You can’t cut across the field” is to make the race around the track possible in the first place.

Similarly, if you’re in a boxing match, your job is to put your opponent on the ground. The most efficient way to do that is by shooting your opponent in the face – but the rules say no, you have to beat them down with your fists. It’s an arbitrarily imposed rule that you follow for the sake of getting to the goal in the predetermined way – that is, for the sake of playing the game. So there’s a degree of the arbitrary to games: you’re doing something in an arbitrarily difficult way just for the sake of doing it that way. When you decide to walk down the street and not step on any cracks, that’s a game. You don’t need to do it; it’s not the most efficient way to get to the barber’s; but you’re doing it because that’s the game.

One thing to note is that this definition isn’t limited to single or multi-player games. In each case, there’s a specific goal that the players are trying to achieve – in some cases, those goals are mutually exclusive, and that’s fine. The key points are a) having a goal and b) trying to get there. The game ends when somebody gets there, but it’s not important that everybody gets there. Suits also makes a point about zero-sum games (that is, games where it doesn’t matter what the outcome is). Unless you’re playing professionally, most video games are probably zero-sum, in the sense that if you lose you’re not going to get sacrificed to the sun god. You could argue that maintaining a position on a leaderboard makes a game ‘not zero-sum’, but I guess that depends on whether or not you care about your position on the leaderboard. At the risk of repeating myself, these sorts of points are more interesting as a way of getting a set definition of video games and their nature. I don’t have an immediate answer to the question of ‘Why is it important whether games are zero-sum or not?’, beyond the more general point that this kind of stuff helps us to think more clearly about video games as a whole.

So: given this definition, I think it’s pretty easy to lay out a description of the sort of video games that we chat about here. First and foremost, they’re games  – Monaco, Assassin’s Creed, Dark Souls, whatever. There’s a layer of narrative and fiction set over the top of that game-structure, but fundamentally, these are all games first and stories second (we’ll talk about the exceptions (Proteus, Dear Esther, etc) in a couple weeks). Even though that hierarchy exists, I’m still particularly interested in stories, and there’s nothing wrong with analysing games in terms of how the game aspects impact the narrative, or how they combine with other more traditional aesthethic forms like written word and cinematography. Not all games are especially interested in story, and even fewer games are any good at it, but for my part, it’s just something I’m committed to thinking about. I think games have a cool ability to tell stories in a new way, and also I just really like them. Next week we’ll chat about the difference between games as such and digital environments, which – yeah, we’ll leave it for next week.



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