What’s in a game?

Games are older than history. They are literally fascinating. The ancient Greeks took their sports seriously, calling them the Olympic games. Board games, card games, and children’s games have structured play throughout the ages. Such recreations continue to be important today, especially in online or computer gaming. They underline the paradoxical seriousness of play and the many dimensions of the concept of game. These include competition, cooperation, entertainment and fun, gratuity, chance and certainty, pride at winning and a sense of accomplishment. Besides the agonistic aspect of sports, armies play war games and economists use game theory. The broad psychological significance of the game as a cognitive metaphor begs wider recognition of how the notion mediates experience and structures thought. The mechanist metaphor that still dominates science and society is grounded in the general idea of system, which is roughly equivalent to the notion of game. Both apply to how we think of social organization. The game serves as a powerful metaphor for daily living: “the games people play.” It is no wonder so many people are taken by literal gaming online, and by activities (such as business and war) that have the attributes of competitive games.

While games are old, machines are relatively new. A machine is a physical version of a system, and thus has much in common with a game. The elements of the machine parallel those of the game, because each embodies a well-defined system. While the ancient Greeks loved their games, they were also enchanted by the challenges of clearly defining and systematizing things. Hence, their historical eminence in Western philosophy, music theory, and mathematics. Euclid generalized and formalized relationships discovered through land measurement into an abstract system—plane geometry. Pythagoras systematized the harmonics of vibrating strings. Today we call such endeavors formalization. We recognize Euclid’s geometry as the prototype of a ‘formal axiomatic system’, which in essence is a game. Conversely, a game is essentially a formal system, with well-defined elements, actions and rules. So is a machine and a social or political system. As concepts, they all bear a similar appeal, because they are clear and definite in a world that is inherently ambiguous.

The machine age began in earnest with the Industrial Revolution. Already Newton had conceived the universe as a machine (his “System of the World”). Descartes and La Mettrie had conceived the human and animal body as a machine. Steam power inspired the concepts of thermodynamics, which extended from physics to other domains such as psychology. (Freud introduced libido on the model of fluid dynamics.) The computer is the dominant metaphor of our age—the ultimate, abstract, and fully generalized universal machine, with its ‘operating system’. Using a computer, like writing a program, is a sort of game. We now understand the brain as an extremely complex computer and the genetic code as a natural program for developing an organism. Even the whole universe is conceived by some as a computer, the laws of physics its program. These are contemporary metaphors with ancient precedents in the ubiquitous game.

Like a formal system, a game consists of a conceptual space in which action is well-defined. This could be the literal board of a board game or the playing field of a sport. There are playing pieces, such as chess pieces or the members of a soccer or football team. There are rules for moving them in the space (such as the ways chess pieces can move on the board). And there is a starting point from which the play begins. There is a goal and a way to know if it has been reached (winning is defined). A game has a beginning and an end.

A formal system has the elements of a game. In the case of geometry or abstract algebra, the defined space is an abstraction of physical space. The playing pieces are symbols or basic elements such as “point,” “straight line,” “angle,” “set”, “group,” etc. There are rules for manipulating and combining these elements legitimately, (i.e., “logically”). And there are starting points (axioms), which are strings of symbols already accepted as legitimate. The goal is to form new strings (propositions), derived from the initial ones by means of the accepted moves (deduction). To prove a statement is to derive it from statements already taken on faith. This corresponds to lawful moves in a game.

Geometry is a game of solitaire insofar as there is no opponent. Yet, the point of proof is to justify propositions to other thinkers as well as to one’s own mind, by using legitimate moves. One arrives at certainty, by carefully following unquestioned rules and assumptions. The goal is to expand the realm of certainty by leading from a familiar truth to a new one. It’s a shared game insofar as other thinkers share that goal and accept the rules, assumptions, and structure; it’s competitive insofar as others may try to prove the same thing, or disprove it, or dispute the assumptions and conventions.

Geometry and algebra were “played” for a long time before they were fully formalized. Formalization occurred over the last few centuries, through trying to make mathematics more rigorous, that is to become more consistent and explicitly well-defined. The concept of system, formalized or not, is the basis of algorithms such as computer programs, operating systems, and business plans. Machines, laws, rituals, blueprints—even books and DNA—are systems that can potentially be expressed as algorithms, which are instructions to do something. They involve the same elements as a game: goal, rules, playing pieces, operations, field of action, starting and ending point.

Game playing offers a kind of security, insofar as everything is clearly defined. Every society has its generally understood rules and customs, its structured spaces such as cities and public squares and its institutions and social systems. Within that context, there are psychological and social games that people play, such as politics, business, consumption, and status seeking. There are strategies in personal negotiation, in legal proceedings, in finance, and in war. These are games in which one (or one’s team) plays against opponents. The economy is sometimes thought of as a zero-sum game, and game theory was first devised in economic analysis to study strategies.

Yet, economic pursuit itself—“earning a living,” “doing business,” “making” money, “getting ahead”—serves also as a universal game plan for human activity. The economy is a playing field with rules and goals and tokens (such as money) to play with. In business or in government, a bureaucracy is a system that is semi-formalized, with elements and rules and a literal playing field, the office. The game is a way to structure activity, time, experience and thought. It serves a mediating cognitive function for each individual and for society at large. Conversely, cognition (and mind generally) can be thought of as a game whose goal is to make sense of experience, to structure behavior, and to win in the contest to survive.

The game metaphor is apt for social intercourse, a way to think of human affairs, especially the in-grouping of “us” versus “them.” It is unsurprising that systems theory, digital computation, and game theory arose around the same time, since all involve formalizing common intuitive notions. Human laws are formulas that prescribe behavior, while the laws of nature are algorithms that describe observed patterns in the natural world. The task of making such laws is itself a game with its own rules—the law-maker’s rules of parliamentary procedure and jurisprudence, or the scientist’s experimental method and theoretical protocol. Just as the game can be thought of as active or static, science and law can be thought of as human activities or as bodies of established knowledge. Aside from its social or cognitive functions, a game can be viewed as a gratuitous creation in its own right, an entertainment. It can be either a process or a thing. A board game comes in a box. But when you play it, you enter a world.

Thinking of one’s own behavior as game-playing invites one to ask useful questions: what is my goal? What are the rules? What is at stake? What moves do I take for granted as permissible? How is my thinking limited by the structuring imposed by this game? Is this game really fun or worthwhile? With whom am I playing? What constitutes winning or losing? How does this game define me? What different or more important game could I be playing?

Every metaphor has it limits. The game metaphor is a tool for reflection, which can then be applied to shed light on thought itself as a sort of game. Creating and applying metaphors too is a kind of game.