The Game Theory

by Peter Wells

My mother believed that games were good for you. Her faith was unshaken by the occasions when my brothers and I returned from our outdoor games with a grievance between us, or by the times the Monopoly board was overturned in anger during the winter months. She considered that games were a preparation for life. I think she underestimated them.

Games require two complementary faculties that are extremely difficult to maintain in tandem at full strength. The first is the ability to take a game absolutely seriously. While it is in progress, it matters. The rules must be obeyed, but participants are encouraged to use their ingenuity to exploit the rules, as well as every facet of their mental and/or physical ability, in order to win. The aim is not primarily skill development, or increased fitness, or social interaction, it is victory, and victory over an enemy doing their best. As soon as we know our opponents are not trying, the game disintegrates. Children quickly learn to spot when their parents are letting them win, and they don’t like it. They would rather suffer repeated defeats than such condescension.

The second faculty is the ability to keep the game self-contained, and not allow it to spill over into the players’ non-game lives, or be vulnerable to their personal character flaws or relationship issues. If the desire to win causes the participants to cheat, become angry, or bear a grudge after defeat, or even to be triumphalist and scornful in victory, the game is ruined. Because it is, after all, ‘a game.’ Note, I did not say ‘only.’

With these two faculties poised in balance and tension, human beings are able to delight themselves and each other with the activity we call playing. This practice seems to be universal across human cultures. Evidence of indoor and outdoor games is found in the earliest periods of human history. Very young children are able to play simple games with their parents, such as pretending to hide. Malnourished youngsters in the poorest countries can be seen playing games enthusiastically with makeshift equipment, as indeed prisoners of war in the harshest of concentration camps have also been known to do. “Our basest beggars Are in the poorest thing superfluous,” (King Lear 2.iv.261). Even animals play. Dogs, for example, will engage in lengthy play fights with every appearance of enjoyment, chasing each other in circles and biting each other harmlessly according to unwritten – or, rather, unbarked – rules.

Games are notoriously difficult to define; Wittgenstein pointed out that they are a family of activities in which not all criteria are exhibited by all its members. For example, they are not all competitive; they may be indoor or outdoor, mainly physical or mainly mental; they do not all involve more than one person; equipment is not always necessary, and the element of chance involved varies widely. However, Wittgenstein did eventually seem to accept that they were all rule-governed, for of course he thought that language was a sort of game, and language is certainly rule-governed. Games thus stand alongside activities such as poetry-writing and music-making, unless these are also to be counted as games, for they create a world detached from the quotidian, in which the characteristic activities gain meaning and purpose from the restrictions imposed on them, and even rule-breaking delights only because of the continued existence of the rules. The fact that we watch ‘plays’, and ‘play’ music, says it all.

So games could be defined as rule-governed activities that have no value except to give pleasure. But this definition seems to be a contradiction in terms. That which delights cannot be without value. The nature and status of games demand that they be taken seriously as a mode of living, not as a mere adjunct. Educationists have often expressed awe at the manner in which young children play, but have rarely followed this insight to its logical conclusion. Generally, games have been viewed in a utilitarian light – they give people exercise and thus improve their health and the well-being of the nation; they create communal bonds and enhance neighbourliness; they relieve stress; they prepare us, as my mother believed, to negotiate the disappointments and conflicts we will find in life, and so on. In other words, they directly or indirectly help us to eat, earn, avoid harm, and extend our lifespan. But the purpose of life cannot be just to continue to live, any more than the purpose of driving is driving.

What if the purpose of life is to play? What if we work, and eat, and maintain our health, in order to enjoy interesting and exciting activities, with pattern, structure, development, fun and beauty, rather than the other way round? What if life is a game? This may sound callous, in view of the situation of some of the participants. Are bereaved parents, abused wives or children, citizens of failed states, victims of racial oppression, or people suffering from serious mental or physical disabilities, supposed to shrug off their problems with a stoical grin? I would not wish to minimise the grief and pain that people experience. One day, I’m going to experience some myself, if I have not already. What I’m doing, rather, is elevating the status of ‘game’ from ‘trivial’ to ‘central.’

Anguish is anguish. Try telling athletes who spent years preparing for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics that their grief isn’t real. Or a finalist who has seen victory lost by the flicker of a video-assisted review. I have suddenly realised that the much-mocked Victorian poets who sang the praises of games may have been on to something. Let’s take another look at them, filtering out, if possible, their colonial presuppositions and male bias. The most famous in that genre is Kipling’s ‘If,’ which suggests that you will be ‘a man’ if, among other things, “you can make one heap of all your winnings, And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss, And lose, and start again at your beginnings And never breathe a word about your loss.” (I’m wondering if the Game Theory can help me to see gambling in a more positive light than I have done – after all, life is a constant gamble.) In ‘Vitai Lampada,’ Henry Newbolt compares a cricket match to a bloody conflict in the desert, and links them with the refrain: “Play up! play up! and play the game!” (for war, too is a game, with its own rules). In the twentieth century, the American sportswriter Grantland Rice wrote, “For when the one great Scorer comes to write against your name, He marks not that you won or lost, but how you played the game.

The theory that life is a game has helped me to solve mysteries that have long intrigued me. Take for example, the famously grumpy tennis star Andy Murray. He has often been mocked for moaning, in television interviews, about the tribulations of his life. As far as most people can see, he has little to moan about. He is paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for playing his favourite game, something that the rest of us have to pay for, when we get a spare minute from our work. But let us imagine that playing tennis is as much a vocation, as much worth doing, as running a prison or cleaning sewers – jobs that their exponents might wish to moan about, if they got a few minutes’ airtime. Let us imagine that it is worth suffering the relentless training, the fitness regimes, the surgical procedures, the harm to family life, and the stress of constant media exposure and criticism, so that tennis should be played, and played as well as possible. And that its exponents would still feel the same way if there were few spectators and little money (as indeed is the case with track and field athletes).

Games interestingly reflect life, and people’s attitudes to it. Do you think life is like Snakes and Ladders (a game entirely based on luck)? Or Chess (where if you lose it is definitely your fault)? Or Scrabble – a game involving a good deal of chance, but in which intelligence and application will on the whole bring victory (which is my choice)? Does your favourite game reveal your take on existence? In cricket for example, batters might face only one ball, or bat for more than a whole day. Their innings may be an attractive cameo in a losing cause, a match-winning blaze of glory, or a long patient plod as the game meanders to a draw. How like life (in my view)! The best batter can be out next ball, just as any one of us could be dead tomorrow. Cricket, as well as being fascinating to play or watch, is also a memento mori. Like life, it is prone to being rained off!

Like many people, I’m fascinated by the paraphernalia of sports and games: the reverent atmosphere as snooker balls trundle smoothly over the baize, the ritualistic movements of white-clad cricketers moving to their places at the end of an over, the majesty of a chess set on the attack, the awesome surge of a rugby pack going forward. Consider the unique beauties of a shot in baseball, cricket, and golf, or the special flavours of each type of football across the globe. Don’t we love the accoutrements of archers, the Transformers’ armour (armor!) of American footballers, shops where you can buy everything golf or badminton requires, books of rules with their small print and sub-sub-sections, the games-within-games of coaching and commentating careers, the business games played by owners, the overflowing sports sections of bookshops with their endless autobiographies, the histories, the in-jokes, the records and statistics, the weird one-off occurrences, the arguments in the pub about who should be picked. Should so many billions be blown on kicking a ball around (etc.), when so many in the world are unfed? “Allow not nature more than nature needs, Man’s life’s as cheap as beast’s” (King Lear, loc. cit.)

Can philosophers learn from the Game Theory? Whether we’re debating realism versus idealism, or trying to convince someone that there’s no good argument for racism, it may do us no good to take it too seriously, to let our personal feelings take over in our desire to win. Yes, we want to win – we believe that, as in adversarial court systems, the best way to arrive at the truth is by a public gladiatorial combat between highly trained representatives of the opposing sides. But we have to do it fairly. No invented statistics, no argumentum ad hominem, no rhetorical tricks, no emotional blackmail, no bluff. If liberals score a victory by foul means, it isn’t a victory: it’s a defeat. I once argued for two hours with a conservative Christian about the status of women. At the end, ‘bloodied but unbowed,’ (yes, I guess boxing is a game, though I’ve never appreciated it) we called it quits. Not once did he come within a million miles of calling me evil or insane, as evangelicals are often inclined to do to their ideological opponents. Nor did he repeat himself. A doughty, determined opponent, full of facts, ideas, wit and (believe it) humanity. Whew! Good game.

I invite readers to consider in what other parts of their lives the Game Theory could be life-enhancing, giving sparkle, structure and meaning to what otherwise could be little more than a grim struggle for survival on the way to the grave. Such a move, it seems to me, should be a great reliever of stress.

For myself, I’m going to conclude by considering the implications of the Game Theory for ethics. The Euthyphro Dilemma does not go away if you abolish God; rather, it merely re-emerges in different words. Either things are wrong because they’re just wrong (in which case, who says?) or they’re wrong because we say they are (in which case, how do we know that we are right?). Suppose, instead,  that morality is the set of rules humans have devised for playing the game of life as, once, my children, aged two and four, devised, an impromptu wide game in an airport departure lounge, involving any other kids that wanted to join in, with an aim and a set of rules that mystified me, but which they all knew.

To play the game of life satisfactorily, so that it gives delight to us and everybody else, we have by consensus developed rules that make it work: basically, don’t cheat; don’t foul your opponent; don’t lose your temper; don’t crow when you’ve won. And we keep on tinkering with them to get the game just right, so that there’s a ‘level playing field.’ These rules are not ‘right’ (or ‘wrong’); they’re just the rules we have invented, as a language works by the rules its speakers corporately invent. This is, roughly, the burden of the seminal work by JL Mackie ‘Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong,’ which you now don’t have to read, as long as you know the title and the opening line: “There are no objective values.”

Well, yes, JL, except probably that games are great.

So, is the Game Theory about attitude (let’s treat life as a game) or fact (life IS a game)? I’m not sure that there’s much difference. Aren’t things what you make them? What do you think?