Saturday, September 24, 2005
eripsa on games
As an aside, it might be worth saying something, briefly, about the project of coming up with a definition here. I'm certainly not a fan of the methodology of conceptual analysis and neither, I think, is eripsa. So neither of us thinks that there is, in some strong objective sense, a right answer to the question of what a game must be. There is, however, a widespread social practice of playing games, a practice that is connected in certain deep ways to issues that both eripsa and I are interested in. In eripsa's case, this interest seems to stem from a somewhat idiosyncratic understanding of the Turing Test mixed with a preoccupation with the question of the possibility of machine consciousness. For myself, the interest lies in the fact that the practice of playing games is normatively rich in ways that seem to shed light on the nature of moral reasoning. The hope is that getting straight about the content of the practice will help clarify other things we wish to say.
The introduction of the play requirement is welcome, from my point of view, in part because it gives voice to the intuition that rote rule followers aren't really participants in games. The paradigmatic example here is the computer which follows a rigid procedure in such a way that the computer's behavior could conceivably mirror that of a game player. Whatever we say about more advanced machines, I would like to be able to say that the rigid machine is not a game player.
A more compelling argument for the play requirement, however, would go beyond my intuitions in what are, admittedly, disputed cases. Such an argument might begin with the thought that the play requirement allows us to narrow a definition which would otherwise be overly broad. It seems, for example, that assembling a piece of furniture from IKEA is a rule governed activity, but we would not wish to say that it is a game. Similarly, a rigid computer follows rules when executing any program, and whatever we say about the case where that computer behaves in a game player like fashion, we won't want to say that the rigid computer is always playing a game.
It remains somewhat unclear, to me at least, what the status of the conditions eripsa articulates is meant to be. If he means them to be sufficient as well as necessary, then activities like driving and filing taxes are problematic, since each seems to satisfy the play condition. Eripsa downplays this consequence, writing that "the creative accountant, the skilled driver, can take these constrainted activities and play within their bounds." This seems to suggest that such activities are only sometimes games. But, first, driving seems to be an activity that always requires play in the relevant sense. And, second, the proposed condition made reference to "leaving room for play" and if one can sometimes play, then room must have been left.
One way to respond here is to go with the Grasshopper in saying that all human activities are games. It seems, though, that even if the Grasshopper's thesis is true, this should come as some sort of surprise and require considerable argument, rather than falling out of our definition of games. Another possible response is to admit that the conditions offered are necessary but not sufficient. This response is not incorrect, but clearly leaves work to be done. eripsa will either need to provide another condition which completes the definitional project or explain why understanding the play requirement as a merely sufficient condition is adequate for his purposes.
1 Since play requires that the agent act with "an eye towards the end", I think it's fair to say that the definition endorsed by eripsa is compatible with both of the requirements for justification-within-a-game which I articulated a few days ago.