Bernard Suits – The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia

Title: The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia
Author: Bernard Suits
Year: 2005 (1978)

The truth is that Bernard Suits’ The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia is not only the first book I review this year, it’s also the first non-fiction, non-language book I read for quite some time (at least since last autumn). Of course, I maintain an avid interest in reading, it’s just that I have spent most of my time reading Chinese and that I have deliberately focused less on reading anything in any other language. However, I do realise that there are many books out there I would enjoy immensely and that would contribute significantly to my own personal development and understanding of myself and/or the world. Since games have always been an integral part of my life, so reading The Grasshopper seemed like a good first choice in what I hope will turn out to be an increased reading of non-fiction in English or Swedish.

In this book, Bernard Suits sets out to refute Wittgenstein’s claim that games (and anything else for that matter) are undefinable. Suits claims that not only are games definable, but that they also play an important role in the notion of the good life and utopia. Basically, The Grasshopper contains two parts: the first presents a definition of games and the defence of this definition; the second deals with games, life and utopia. Both these parts are written as dialogues between a grasshopper and his disciples (mostly one aptly named Skepticus). The style is lightweight, lucid and entertaining, which is very rare indeed (allegedly, it’s even more rare in the realm of philosophy, but I can’t really verify this claim since I haven’t read much). Following the dialogues between the insects and listening to the sometimes outrageous examples is almost as interesting as following the underlying arguments.

The first part, the one about games, is also the most interesting one. Here is Suits’ definition of what a game is (note that “lusory” is derived from the Latin word “ludus”, meaning “game, play”) (pp. 54-55):

To play a game is an attempt to achieve a specific state of affairs [prelusory goal], using only means permitted by rules [lusory means], where the rules prohibit use of more efficient in favour of less efficient means [constitutive rules], and where the rules are accepted just because they make possible such activity [lusory attitude].

He also offers a more colloquial version (p. 55):

Playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles

So, for instance, in a closed game like chess, the goal is to bring about a state of affairs in which the other player’s king is mated, doing so following the rules of the game, which prohibits some of the most efficient means of reaching that state of affairs (such as simply moving all the pieces to a mate position before your opponent can react). Furthermore, both players accept these rules simply because they want to make it possible to play chess. Open games, such as role-playing, works in a similar way, but here the goal is to maintain a state of affairs that is valid according to the rules of the game (dramatic or otherwise).

Of course, I do not intend to go through Suits’ defence of his definition in detail here, so I will let it suffice to say that it is very convincing and works for almost all games I can think of. Some needs a bit of squeezing to fit the definition (such as role-playing games), but the definition holds quite well. His definition might include things that are typically not games, but only things that are essentially games even if we’re not in the habit of calling them that (such as mountaineering and racing). However, I’m not too concerned with the philosophical goal of arriving at a a watertight definition of what a game is, I’m much more interested in the arguments and what the definition can teach us about games. In this area, The Grasshopper has lots to say. For those interested in how the definition applies to other examples of games and non-games, I suggest reading the book.

The second part of the book deals with utopia and is much less convincing than the first part. Briefly put, Suits argues that in utopia, the playing of games is the only desirable (indeed the only possible) activity. The argument goes something like this: only the way in which we go about doing something can be important in utopia, because in a perfect world, all products could be produced instantaneously. Other pursuits (such as art or scientific inquiry) can’t exist as we know them either, because there is no need for them (they are either driven by things not present in utopia or made irrelevant because utopia contains everything we want), even though they might turn up as games (i.e. doing research for the fun of it, even if the research is completely useless because we already know everything). This might be true if we accept his definition of utopia and follow his arguments, but for me, this fails to be either significant or interesting. I also fail to see how this has much bearing on life in general.

This discussion about utopia makes me think of Iain Banks (Look to Windward in particular). In many of his books, an utopian society called The Culture is an important element of the plot or a part of the setting. This is a society which is fairly close to the utopia Suits describes, but which differs in one important aspect. In Look to Windward there is a passage where a famous composer asks an intellectually vastly superior AI if the computer would be able to mimic the composer’s style and produce a piece which critics would believe was written by the composer. The AI answers yes, it would be possible, but continues that the argument is meaningless. It uses an analogy and says that climbing a mountain does not become meaningless just because you find that someone else has already reached the summit in a helicopter. It’s the game that matters. I find it quite interesting that mountain climbing and helicopters (or escalators) are part of one of the fundamental examples in The Grasshopper.

The reason I bring this up is because I agree so far, but not with Suits’ extension. All three of us (Suits, Banks and I) agree that it is the game that counts, but we disagree on how far to stretch this conclusion. In Look to Windward, the AI argues that it matters greatly how something was produced. A piece produced by a human instead of an AI would be much more appreciated by other humans, even if it is exactly the same piece of music. This is something Suits denies, a denial I find difficult to accept. To, me pressing a button to receive a ready-made house is vastly different from building it on my own, even if the end result is the same house. It’s not a matter of just enjoying the process, the difference lies in the knowledge that I’ve accomplished something difficult, i.e. that the knowledge of a game well played.

Thus, to conclude this review, I’d like to add this idea to the argument. I think that playing games can be said to be the only activity in utopia, but that the influence of games lasts beyond the playing of games. Building a house when there is no reason whatsoever to do so is certainly a game, but that doesn’t cease to be important just because the house is finished . Games are played for themselves, for their intrinsic value, but I see no reason why that value should disappear just because the game is over.

The Grasshopper is thought-provoking and quite interesting. I recommend it to anyone who has the slightest interest in games.

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