April 07, 2012

Play vs. Random

Games are as old as time, come in various forms, are everywhere and touch everyone. They are therefore worth the time to better understand.  Wittgenstein's fundamental question about games was: “What is the difference between playing the game and aimlessly moving the pieces?” Or, what is the difference between play and random?

We all know a game when we see one and there is much that we can distill from our everyday experience:

o   There are ‘players’ and there are ‘spectators’.  

o   The players are further divided into competing ‘teams’.

o   Games are finite, ending with a ‘winner’ and ‘loser(s)’.

o   Normal standards are suspended during games (think of fighting in hockey).

o   Except perhaps for the ‘game of life’, teams live to play another day so victors can’t rest on their laurels and losers have another shot at glory.

There may be more but this is enough to suggest something like the following definition:

Games are organized play where competing units make choices under the constraints of rules and chance with a view to win (at the expense of the others).

Let’s unpack. Games are characterised by moves according to rules that do not merely tell us how to play but exhaust just what the game is.  Acting by the rules is playing the game, maybe not always well, but playing all the same.

In this sense, the rules create their own special purpose game world.  Being able to throw a ball into a small hole perched high at a distance is not noteworthy, except in the context of a basketball game for instance.  “Why did you push her?”, he asked, “So I could get the ball into the basket” was the response.  That’s answer enough.

Games are also characterized by chance.  There are countless opportunities for chance to muck about with performance and impact outcomes.

Why does this all matter? Imagine being at a house party and seeing a guest playing air guitar.  Now, I gave it away to describe the behaviour but imagine that you did not know that he was playing air guitar.  It would make for a very awkward moment.  Minimally, you would misinterpret his actions as random (if not offensive).  

Plato thought that games were great educational and socializing tools: "our children must take part in games that are more law-abiding right from the start, since, if their games become lawless and the children follow suit, isn't it impossible for them to grow up into excellent and law-abiding men?". This is just one example of their usefulness.

The point is that games are purposeful play. Therefore, being able to tell the difference between play and random is critical to proper communications and effective social interactions (and all of what these support).

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