What is a ‘game’?

Ciarán asked:

I found your page through your 2013 blog post here:

I have been searching for a succinct and elegant definition of the word ‘game’ for a few years, that covers all of the common usages of the term. I have read much of Wittgenstein, and found his responses unsatisfactory. But since you have also entertained the question, I wanted to ask you directly. What is a ‘game’?…

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I would like to expand on the answer I gave before, which referenced the real difference between a ‘heap’ and a ‘pile’, even though both terms have a vague application. A heap of books is different from a pile of books. But you could also have a disorderly jumble of books partially heaped and partially piled. Crucially, as I remarked in my previous answer, we have physical theories that account for the properties of heaps and of piles.

In the case of ‘games’, the first point to make is that a ‘game’ is something that one or more persons ‘play’. However, not all playing is ‘playing a game’. And therein lies one clue. For example, out of boredom I might twist a paperclip until it breaks in two. I am playing with the paper clip, but my play only becomes ‘playing a game’ when something is added. For example, looking to see if I can break the paperclip while holding my breath, or in an even number of twists, or faster than you can, etc.

Animals play. Do they ‘play games’? One can sometimes describe what your pet is doing as ‘playing a game’ but arguably the ‘game’ aspect is something you have added to what you observe. A game is only a game for the subject playing when that player has the capacity to form certain intentions. What these are, again, is vague.

The crucial point, however, is that, as in the case of heaps and piles, there is room for a theory of play. And I don’t mean ‘game theory’ although the fact that there is such a thing as game theory is related to this. Vegetables don’t play. Insects don’t play. But cats, dogs, monkeys etc. do. Why? What is the point (from an evolutionary perspective) of a monkey ‘playing’, as opposed to gathering food, exercising, competing for a mate etc.? One plausible answer is that, instinctively, members of the species, especially the young, ‘play’ at actions that later on will become ‘serious’ and more closely connected with survival. Mock fighting would be one example.

Again there is ‘theory’ about what it means for a human being to ‘play a game’. Game playing is a remarkable phenomenon. It’s something we do, that has a less direct connection to survival than other actions. Conceivably, there could be intelligent beings — AIs or Martians, perhaps — that completely lacked the concept of a ‘game’, or the capacity to understand what humans are doing when they ‘play games’.

None of the above could be used to provide logically ‘necessary and sufficient conditions’ for something’s being a game. This seems to me sufficient to meet Wittgenstein’s point. Yes, the concept of a ‘game’, like many concepts, has vague boundaries. There will be plenty of cases where we cannot say for sure that something is, or is not a ‘game’ (or ‘mere game’). But that is consistent with saying that we humans do have a grasp of the point of a game, or game playng. The word has a useful, indeed vital, function in the language, and anyone who understands English, say, will have a reasonable degree of confidence in how to use that word.

Earlier, I referenced ‘game theory’. As with many concepts, there are some things humans do that can be explained or described by game theory which are not, in fact, what we would call ‘games’. In these cases, the use of the word ‘game’ is understood through a metaphorical extension from its base meaning. You can play a nuclear ‘war game’, but that is different from conducting an actual nuclear war, even though both activities can be explained by, or are governed by, ‘game theory’ — as in the 1983 movie ‘War Games’. Wittgenstein’s highly original and fecund notion of ‘language games’ is a similar case of metaphorical extension. There are games we can literally play with words, like Scrabble, but this answer is not intended as a play or move in some game, although for Wittgenstein it is a ‘language game’ — or part of a language game — as are all cases of language usage.

2 thoughts on “What is a ‘game’?

    1. The point is about the generality of the question. What you wrote is a contribution to the theory of ‘playing games’. I was making the case that ‘giving a theory’ is a more accurate way — indeed the only way — of delineating many concepts. Although I didn’t mention this, it also supports Quine’s scepticism about the analytic/ synthetic distinction. Giving logically ‘necessary and sufficient conditions’ would be ‘analytic’ if that could be done. These days philosophers in the English speaking tradition talk much more about ‘theories’ than about ‘analyses’ of concepts.

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