Books : reviews

Bernard Suits.
The Grasshopper: games, life, and utopia: 3rd edn.
Broadview Press. 2014

rating : 2 : great stuff
review : 20 June 2018

In the mid-twentieth century, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein famously asserted that games are indefinable; there are no common threads that link them all. “Nonsense,” said the sensible Bernard Suits: “playing a game is a voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.” The short book Suits wrote demonstrating precisely that is as playful as it is insightful, as stimulating as it is delightful. Through the jocular voice of Aesop’s Grasshopper, a “shiftless but thoughtful practitioner of applied entomology,” Suits not only argues that games can be meaningfully defined; he also suggests that playing games is a central part of the ideal of human existence, and so games belong at the heart of any vision of Utopia.

This new edition of The Grasshopper includes illustrations from Frank Newfeld created for the book’s original publication, as well as an introduction by Thomas Hurka, and a new appendix on the meaning of ‘play.’

There are two main components to this book: (i) a definition of what constitutes a game; (ii) an argument that, since in Utopia, playing games is the only thing worth doing, that playing games is the supreme good. Suits spends some of the time building the framework needed for the definition of a game, but most of the time then arguing that the definition is correct, and about the overriding value of games.

First, the definition of a game, both long form, and snappy:

[p43] To play a game is to 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]. I also offer the following simpler and so to speak more portable version of the above: playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.

The long form is just a more precise framing of the snappy version, which is short, clear, and to the point: the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles. There are no wasted words. A game must be voluntary, not compulsory (so much for those compulsory “games” in school then); it is an attempt to overcome, success is not required, trying is sufficient; there must be an obstacle, so it isn’t some trivial activity, but requires some effort; and that obstacle must be unnecessary, for it it were necessary, overcoming it would be a job, or for survival, or some other reason.

This definition seems very reasonable, and gets around Wittgenstein’s claim that there is no sufficient and necessary conditions for something to be a game, by moving up a level of abstraction. Suits spends time picking apart his definition, and showing how various activities do, and do not, fit, and that those activities are, and are not, games, respectively.

So far, so good. Suits’ second argument is about the role of games in Utopia. In Suits’ Utopia there is no need to work; there is abundance of goods, companionship, and sexual partners for all; there is no physical or mental illness. That is, there is no need for involuntary activity, and there are no necessary obstacles to overcome. So the only worthwhile thing left to do in Utopia is play games:

[p188] I believe that Utopia is intelligible and I believe that game playing is what makes Utopia intelligible. What we have shown thus far is that there does not appear to be any thing to do in Utopia, precisely because in Utopia all instrumental activities have been eliminated. There is nothing to strive for precisely because everything has already been achieved. What we need, therefore, is some activity in which what is instrumental is inseparably combined with what is intrinsically valuable, and where the activity is not itself an instrument for some further end. Games meet this requirement perfectly.

I’m not convinced there is nothing to do in this Utopia other than play games. What about learning to play a musical instrument? That doesn’t seem to be a game: it is (in Utopia, at least) voluntary, but where is the unnecessary obstacle? One might argue that one could get a machine to play the music: is requiring the music be produced by oneself an unnecessary requirement? Listening and performing is qualitatively different, however.

But there is a deeper problem: I am not convinced that this Utopia can exist. Even if we assume perfect mental health, so no-one coerces anyone to do anything against their will (everything is voluntary), this does not imply there will be someone else to engage in any particular activity with you. Suits claims that

[p183] Under present conditions, there is a short supply of willing sexual objects relative to demand. And it may be surmised that the reason for this is the prevalence of inhibitions in the seekers of such objects, in the objects themselves, or in both, so that great expenditures of instrumental effort are required in order to overcome them and thus get at the intrinsic object of desire. But with everyone enjoying superb mental health the necessity for all this hard work is removed and sexual partners are every bit as accessible as yachts and diamonds.

This totally misses the point: sexual partners (or even tennis partners) are not “objects” in anything like the same sense that yachts and diamonds are objects. They are people, with their own desires, which, even with their posited perfect mental health, need not overlap with yours.

But let us for the sake of argument agree that if such a Utopia were to exist, then the only worthwhile thing to do there is play games. Suits goes further, and has his narrator (the eponymous Grasshopper) make an extraordinary claim: that because games have this status of being the only worthwhile thing to do in Utopia, that they are the only worthwhile thing for him to do in this world; he will only play games, will do no work, and so will starve to death come winter. He won’t even do a little work in order to live longer and thereby play more games: doing so would be the death of his essence as the Grasshopper (although he seems quite willing to lecture his acolytes rather than play). This seems a little fanatical. However, he does say to his acolytes that:

[p9] I agree that the principles in question are worth dying for. But I must remind you that they are the principles of Grasshoppers. I am not here to persuade you to die for my principles, but to persuade you that I must.

Oh that all fanatical believers took such a view of their beliefs! But in a sense, this reinforces my view of Utopia: what if, instead of dying for his principles, the Grasshopper wanted to play a new game:

I agree that the game in question is worth playing. But I must remind you that this is a game of Grasshoppers. I am not here to persuade you to play my game, but to persuade you that I must.

But what if the game requires other players, and there are no other players wishing to play? One cannot require that Utopia be populated with other players for one’s own benefit. Robot players may not be sufficient: playing against another person may be an unnecessary obstacle, but if that’s part of the game…

I found this a fascinating and thought-provoking book. The definition of a game is excellent: compact enough to be memorable; simple enough to be applicable; abstract enough to show the virtue of abstraction. The consequences of the definition are not so apparent to me, but it is an interesting journey to follow the argument: in my Utopia, reading such books would be more worthwhile that playing games.