what do we do when we're not playing?

Von Julia Held

Pleasing the boss in order to set oneself in a good position before asking for a pay raise. Not messaging after the first date to arouse the other's interest. Keeping the bite on your plate you prefer most until the end instead of eating it first. Building a house by your own, learning the process and making mistakes instead of retaining a construction business.

In all these examples, and there are countless more, it seems like we engage in a rather inefficient way to accomplish our goals. We could ask our boss right away for increasing our salary as we easily could tell our crush that we like her and ask for a second date if we know we want one. We wouldn't need to keep our most preferred bit of food on the plate till the end and we could just have our house built instead of investing all the effort and time. There are easier ways to get what we desire, but it seems that we don't want to take them. Why is that? Why are we making things more complicated than they actually are? When thinking about that, it seemed to me like the reason for this is our enjoyment of the process of satisfying certain desires, the way to the goal. Just like what we do when we are engaged in playing games - maybe just everyday games.

After Wittgenstein famously asserted that there are certain activities which are indefinable, i.e. games, the philosopher Bernard Suits challenged this philosophical orthodoxy by coming up with a definition of games as

being the voluntary attempts to overcome unnecessary obstacles

which pretty much fits in what we are doing in life in a broader sense, i.e. voluntarily overcoming unnecessary obstacles on the ways to our goals. But is that really a sustainable position? Can we see life as a game? Or would that just lead to weird nihilistic thinking that somehow could make sense but in fact is just empty and far from our shared reality? So how can we make sense of the thought of life being a game? If it is a game, what then is its meaning? And ultimately, why should we see it as such?  

In order to get clear on this, let's first turn to the nature of games and the analogies we can find in consideration of the ways we live our lives.

interweaving  - games and life

One first analogy between games and actions in life are the reasons why we engage in both.

People play games as a way to vent an overkill of vitality, they use them as ways for relaxation as well as as a harmless method to discharge rather harmful tendencies. We also engage in games to just find a pleasant way for killing time or in order to become more acquainted with someone. Games can be an appliance to develop self-control or a valve for the urge to mess with others. What actions do we do for similar purposes but without considering us as playing games when being engaged in them? Everyday-stuff like going for a walk, meeting for drinks in a bar, getting oneself a dog or spending some days in a spa - these things are not games as such for us, but yet we seem to do them out of very similar reasons. Normally, there is no straight pragmatic reason for the decision to get oneself a pet or why we should go for a bar-hopping tour instead of meeting for drinks at home. Beyond, we don't have to go to exhibitions to see artworks, neither is using dating-apps our only possibility to meet new people. We also don't necessarily think of the attempt to quit smoking or the decision to read 100 books a year as being games for us. Still, it seems like the reasons why we engage in such things are rather of a playful, than of a pragmatic nature.

Another analogy is a playful activity you can find everyone of us engaging in every day is playing roles or in other words, acting.

Every player, i.e. everyone of us being a real agent in one's real life, plays certain roles. Playing different roles depending on the specific realm of life is a central technique when it comes to the art of playing the game of life. All of the roles one slips into on a regular basis are connected. They manage to show up in each situation when they are required and accurate. It even seems that we are in some sense dependent on this ability to adequately know when to "play" which role. It might sound a little odd to say that we do behave differently in the various situations, as it deprives us as persons and characters some form of authenticity. With it there comes a more constrained overtone as if we had to act in certain ways in the respective situation, as if we had to follow certain, yet notional rules. However, the compulsion to stick to the rules of a (life) game are not physical but rather the nature of morality. If we don't follow the rules, we are not playing the game. When we try to look at ourselves and others without passion and undimmed one sees that everyone does play a great number of roles. Because we have no choice - these roles are what makes the storyline of our all lives, of our interpersonal and social relationships, they make us who we are.

Also, the outcomes of most games have very much in common with the outcomes of some situations in life.

Whether to finish a game or go through a life-episode as winner or loser is highly dependent on a variety of rather random factors, advantageous conditions and either clumsy or extraordinary competitors. You can be a highly gifted chess player, always winning, never losing. But on the day of the tournament it just happens that you can't focus well enough - your opponent smells weird, a woman in the audience is annoying you or you're having the runs because you've had very spicy food the day before - and you lose. Likewise in life, it can happen that one puts all her effort in getting a job, is super qualified and wins the boss in the job interview and still gets rejected because the superior's daughter applies last-minute and gets preferred. But in fact, both in games and in life, for the real player it is not only about winning the game, but about playing in good condition, fair and with style. You can play a good chess match without winning and you one can still be competent in one's profession even if it doesn't work out with the job offer. Losing a game or not achieving the desired goal both is not necessarily make a good player a loser. Instead, for him being free of concern about winning can be the ultimate incitement for success, e.g. when some "failure" opens new doors to new possibilities,  as it sometimes anyway is essentially hard to define what success and what failure is.

Furthermore, rather superficially, but still analogous, subjective life can be seen as a more or less unique game court. As there are uncountable different games, there are uncountable different varieties, rules,  goals and means to achieve them. Similarly, there is 7,8 billions of different human lives, i.e. differently constructed realities, ideals, habitus. How one lives one's live is more or less different for everyone. For each it might about establishing different values and achievements and unique conditions. We attach importance to different things and present ourselves and others with different challenges - as games do, too. The same holds for rules: every games comes with different rules. For some games, there are fixed rules and dynamic rules which differ across global cultures or sub-cultures. Within your family it is perfectly fine when the youngest starts in Ludo, while my family would lynch anyone who starts to play dice before the oldest does, and yet we all play Ludo. Additionally, there are unwritten rules one follows for decency's or honor's sake - because one is a fair player. Sometimes it is okay to relax the rules and sometimes it seems legit to make up new ones. For in our lives, the rules guiding our behavior can be legislatively and morally. According to culture and the specific realm of life, the rules we live by differ a lot. There are various laws, social rules, customs, manners and moral rules which all contribute to make it more or less predictable which move (of ourselves or the others) will come next. You can't kill someone without getting legally sentenced and you can smack while eating in a chinese restaurant while smacking on the first dinner with your in laws might be judged from her petty-minded father.

On a somewhat deeper level, the analogy of life and games is made pretty clear by what Bernard Suits understands by games in his book The Grasshopper - Games, Life and Utopia. For Suits sees games as

engagement in a activity which is directed toward bringing out a certain state of affairs, using only means permitted by certain rules where the means permitted by the rules are more limited in scope than they were in absence of the rules and where the only reason for accepting such limitation of means is to make possible that activity

The desired state of affairs in a foot race is to cross the finish line before the other competitors. Driving a Ferrari or crossing the court straight through would be more effective means to cross the finish line before the others. But if you did so, you wouldn't compete in a foot race anymore. The only reason why you don't do so and try to be faster than the others by just running is because you want to compete in a foot race. Not seeking to achieve to cross the finish line as the fastest and using other means than just one's feet within the given route would make a person fail in playing the game of foot racing. A foot racer instead sees foot racing as an activity in which what is instrumental, i.e. the rules of only using one's feet and sticking to the route, as combined with what is intrinsically valuable, i.e. crossing the finish line before the others. For him, the activity is not itself an instrument for some further end but rather an activity which is done for its own sake. Games meet this requirement perfectly. For in games we must have obstacles which we can strive to overcome just so that we can possess the activity as a whole, namely, playing the game.

Having this in mind, let's take a look at life: If your aim is to build a house by your own, what you should do is exactly that, building a house by your own. Obviously you could call all of your friends and family to help you or just order a construction firm to build the house for you which both presumably would be more efficient means for bringing out the state of affairs. But if you really want to do it by your own, you accept the limited means, i.e. building a house only by your own, because this is the only way making possible that activity of building a house by one's own. Or think about you as having a garden whose lawn you want to mown. The most efficient way for doing so is taking a lawnmower. Unfortunately, it broke when you wanted to switch it on. As you are christian and it is Sunday, you don't dare to go ringing at one of your neighbors bells to borrow their lawnmower. But you are kind of neurotic and it is only Sunday which is mown-day. So what you do is taking scissors and cutting your lawn, centimeter by centimeter. You simply accept the limitation of means to make possible to have your lawn mown and still stick to your ideals.

Obviously, cutting your lawn with a scissor and building a house by your own are not necessarily seen as games. But the point is that according to Suits' very elaborated definition they can be, iff one decides to see such activities as a game.

the game of life

Okay, there are certain things we do in our lives which could count as games if we considered them as being games. But what does that have to do with the bigger concept, with life itself? One way to put life as a whole in the picture of games is by assuming that everyone's ultimate goal in life is to experience maximal pleasure.

For each player (i.e. each living person) tries to maximize her own pleasure and does so with limitation of means to pursue this end. That is, in seeking to increase one's pleasure, one must not decrease the pleasure of any other player. If the sole reason for accepting such a rule is for the sake of participating in the activity such accepting makes possible, I would say that such an activity is game playing. The players are playing a game unconsciously and therefore not correctly participating in the game of life, if they are ignorant for the rule which forbids them to increase their own pleasure by decreasing someone else's.

When it happens that someone is being unaware of the rules as being the rules of the game of life we usually consider that person as having failed in some sense. Consider moral rules: Acting according to moral rules and hence accepting these is not required in order to play the game in which they are rules (life). They are rules whose acceptance is required categorically or strategically, e.g. if decreasing another's pleasure would lead to the other one decreasing your pleasure, too. If you want to participate in the game of life, by taking it serious and therefore, accepting its rules, i.e. moral rules, you don't fail in life in a moral sense. And similar to game rules, moral rules are notoriously hard to justify not because there is a wrong-headedness in the attempt of moral rules themselves, but because they are just rules in a game. The attempt to justify them then is not logically impossible, but psychologically improbable.

Take e.g. fairness - the principle of fairness can be translated into a moral imperative "You shall play fair!". It is not really explicable, but rather just there by intuition which would dismiss life as being a genuine game as it had to be a rule if life should be a game. When looking closer, we see that fairness is indeed no rule but rather the precondition for taking part in the game, for playing it. Fairness for example therefore, is the requirement for making the maximization of pleasure the end of the game. If one wishes to play the game correctly, one accepts the rule as one has to exact fairness from oneself and others in order to play the game.

life revised

Why is it useful to see life as a game? Interpreting life, i.e. living as just being a game or game playing, might disclose unimagined sources of human action and stimulate unexpected feats of human invention. The newly conscious players might apply themselves with greater zest and ingenuity to a game whose rules they for the first time really understand and whose very existence they for the first time permitted themselves  to cherish. Someone who discovered that life is a game might choose to terminate his participation in life. Also, someone who is depressed or in another miserable situation in life, might find calm in the fact that life, although gloomy, is at least a gloomy game. Still, there might be difficulties in seeing things as such: Games seem important while we are engaged in them and yet they are ultimately trivial. But because living our lives is the only thing we do, we can't really see it that way. Games are trivial pastimes even relative to the long-run triviality of life as a whole. We can not live the doctrine that life is insignificant. We must at least act as though our lives mattered. And we should do so in order to be able to both value life and at the same time accept the eventual annihilation of everything - just in that we see life as a game:

a game where everyone does his own play, resulting in an interacting game.

For the haters:

I see the objection that when it comes to a game, e.g. chess, if I agree to play chess, it would not be chess for me to give up half way through or to break the rules and refuse to accept the consequences as specified in the laws of chess. I therefore could avoid having to keep the rules, by the simple expedient of not playing. But this expedient is supposed not to be available when it comes to the game of life. As an objection to this, I would say that it is not holding for life, as everyone does play some game as long as one has some guiding principles coordinating one's life. A player whose life is lacking guiding principles is therefore not genuinely playing the game and additionally, does not have the chance to exit as a winner.