Do we need a definition of games?
Re-encounter with a philosophical classic and an epistemological controversy


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Henning Eichberg
University of Southern Denmark

Bernard Suits The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia 234 sidor, hft., ill. Peterbourough, ON: Broadview Press 2014 ISBN 978-1-55481-215-8

Bernard Suits
The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia
234 pages, paperback., ill.
Peterbourough, ON: Broadview Press 2014
ISBN 978-1-55481-215-8

Children like games of rhyme and dance, jumping and clapping – such as Ring around the Rosie, German Ringel Ringel Reihen, and Danish Andersine, Anders And og Rip Rap Rup. But are these really games? No, they are not – this is what the North American philosopher Bernard Suits argues. Because not all things which are called “games” are really games. As philosopher, one knows better, because one can construct a word class of “games” by the use of theoretical thinking and logical gedankenexperiment. People may call whatever they want “games” – but what the philosopher by definition has labelled as games, are games.

Suits, who was professor of philosophy at the University of Waterloo, has by his book Grasshopper from 1978 obtained a certain cult status among some American philosophers and sport theoreticians. The book has now been reedited into a third edition. The enthusiastic introduction by Thomas Hurka, professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto, labels the book as “one of the most remarkable philosophy books of the twentieth century”. While Aristotle “was wrong” in one or other idea, and Ludwig Wittgenstein has – contrary to Suits – with his arguments against definitions obtained philosophical reputation, Suits is “the real philosopher” (p. XV). This sounds impressive – or more like sales-speak? In any case, there is good reason for critical examination.

Games, construction, and Utopia

Suits’ book has indeed some qualities, which make it outstanding in a world of boring philosophical abstraction. It begins with the figure of the grasshopper, which is borrowed from the classical fable of Aesop, from the sixth century BC. While the grasshopper of the Greek fable, however, is a loser and dies in winter time because he has not collected food like the busy ant, Suits makes the grasshopper a player and philosopher of games who wins in wisdom over the ant. Games win over work – this is the point. The productivist logic of modern society is turned upside-down.

This message is unfolded in a narrative style with humorous – or wannabe humorous – stories, where strange figures argue with or against each other in a form, which calls to mind Platonic dialogues. The references to classical traditions of philosophy give the book a further value.

The moral of the book is that “game-play is the supreme human good”. This must make all play idealists rejoice.

And if we would live in Utopia, where labour is absent because of fully automated machines, and there is neither evil nor wrongdoings, no government, no interpersonal problems, no scarcity of time – then we would spend our time playing games. “Play is identical with the ideal of existence” (p. 182). Through the words of Suits, we hear the hippy of the 1970s, and this may again make us happy.

At the center of the book’s argument lies, however, the question of how a correct definition of play and games looks like. We get it in three versions:

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) (p. 43).

Or in a simpler version:

Playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles (p. 43).

Or in prolongation of Schopenhauer’s view of play as discharge of superfluous energy:

X is playing if and only if X has made a temporary reallocation to autotelic activities of resources primarily committed to instrumental purposes (p. 225).

Sportive mainstream – rules versus “merely” play

At a closer examination, however, these definitions imply some problems concerning the whole definition project. Why should the pleasure of play and game find its expression in a stiff language, which follows a quasi-bureaucratic rationality of exclusion and inclusion? Where does the definition of play and game come from? Does it come from the heaven of Platonic ideas, where the idea of games has waited through centuries, as long as until 1978, for an American philosopher to fetch it down to earth and down to English language? Has the definition its origin in God? And does God speak English?

In other words, the philosophy of games, which is unfolded in this book, is not as hippyish, as it seemed in the beginning. It is also, and to a large extent, mainstream, and in two separate senses: in terms of sport and of academic rationalism.

Suits’ definitions of games are, thus, evolutionistic in an old-fashioned way and deductively derived from modern mainstream sports.

The examples that the Grasshopper-book uses for its argumentation are mostly taken from sports such as golf, foot race, and chess. These activities are competitive and determined by rules. Historically, sporting rules have their roots in modern competitive sports, and without the element of contest those rules would rarely make sense. Children’s games like Ring around the Rosie are in this perspective, as Suits remarks, “pastimes and not games at all”. Or they are “highly imperfect games”, where it is “never quite clear what counts as a successful, or even legitimate, move”. These forms of play are for instance “simply a kind of dance”. As these non-games are played by small children, “they display rather serious defects” since “goals, rules, strategies – all appear unclear and unfixed”. That is why the non-game play of children is “soon abandoned in favour of the unambiguous games that have succeeded in becoming established institutions: athletic games, board games, card games, and so on”. Children’s games are “merely” play, primitive precursors, and not real games (pp. 97-102, 200).

These arguments construct a hierarchy, which resembles the hierarchy that the colonial Western evolutionism has established between “low” cultures, which have play, and “high” cultures, which have sports that are characterized by competition, measured results, formal rules, and ruling bodies. Suits’ definitions of games are, thus, evolutionistic in an old-fashioned way and deductively derived from modern mainstream sports. They are too narrow to seize the broad phenomena of games and play. The author admits frankly, that “I know more about games than I do about play” (p. 220). And he eliminates “play” – except for “playing the game” – from his analysis, because “the word ‘play’ is highly ambiguous” and it would “pointless complicate our search”.

But isn’t life ambiguous and complicated? This leads from the sports bias to the rationalist bias.

Rationalist approach: Thought experiment instead of living case

The definitions of the book are determined by the procedures of academic rationalism. In the rationalist logic of The Grasshopper, all is about correctness, about whether arguments – of other philosophers – are “right” or “wrong” (p. 228). The philosopher appears as an expert wandering through the world of knowledge and distributing labels of “correct” and “incorrect” (p. 206). This philosophy is marked by a lack of empirical curiosity. There is no wondering about the paradoxes and inner contradictions of life.

Instead of studying living cases from the world of play and games, suits reasoning builds upon thought experiments. For instance, a professor Snooze has fallen asleep and is threatened by a man-eating plant, while the Grasshopper in order to save him cannot without further decision run over the grass because of a sign “Keep off the grass”. Another version is that professor Snooze is threatened by a murderer Dr. Threat, whom the Grasshopper may or may not hinder by the use of a revolver. Or: In a 200-metre race, the runner Smith gets to know that there is a time bomb planted at the finish line on the other side of the oval track, and he cannot cross the infield because it is an enclosure for man-eating tigers. Or: It is discussed what happens to the pleasure of climbing to the top of Mount Everest, if one uses an escalator. All this is construction and far from life. Suits’ reflection about Utopia has a similar character of artificial invention.

The book makes strong efforts not to talk about real human beings who play games. Instead, it exemplifies certain preconceived constructions about rules etc. in a top-down procedure. The figures are – as it is indirectly admitted – “less a real person than something invented to illustrate a principle in a treatise” (p. 118). The way is not from the living case upwards to theory, but from thought construction downwards to an “example”.

However, there is a funny contradiction included. The top-down thinker is the philosopher, who again and again argues that “It seems clear to me” (p. 200) and “I believe…” (p. 223). This explicit subjectivism is in striking disharmony with the intended rationalism of his argument.

Definition as a rationalist obsession – and a ritual coping with anxiety?

In this logical system, definition plays a central role. However, the procedure of definition is far from unproblematic.

(1.) One problem is related to the intellectual and analytical value of definition. Definition means that life could be captured in little boxes, which are neatly delimited by correct lines, Latin finis. Definitions have their roots in physics and mathematics, where they were needed for certain concrete operations, for measuring and testing. However, this is not the procedure of philosophy and of human studies more generally. Transferred to human and social studies, definition has become an end in itself, an academic exercise in the empty space of good-for-nothing. As a Selbstzweck and l’art pour l’art, it became an obsession of a certain form of rationalism.

This leads into some practical dilemmas of intellectual quest. The definition of games, which the book defends, consists – as quoted – of three different definitions. Each of these definitions opens questions towards further definitions:

    • What is a rule?
    • What is voluntary – and what is free will?
    • What is autotelic? What is purpose? What is human energy?

The process of defining thus becomes endless. What was intended to produce clearness and certainty by neatly limited little boxes becomes an endless chain of uncertainties. In this respect, definition appears as intellectually and analytically problematic.

(2.) A further problem appears if one asks for which purpose a definition should be useful. The question of what purpose definitions should serve remains normally undiscussed. While definitions may be useful for procedures of measuring in physics and mathematics, this is less evident in humanist studies, maybe with the exception of use in statistic quantification. But in social and cultural studies, definition seems generally to be regarded as an end in itself. A definition seems to be useful if it is combined with understanding. However, understanding and defining are two different intellectual procedures. Understanding is not related to the construction of separating lines, fines.

(3.) If definitions in humanist research is neither meaningful nor useful, but nevertheless is a widespread practice, there must be complex reasons. What makes it so attractive for the academic system to promote definition as a “must” at the start of a study? Here we are on the level of psychology and institutional power. It seems that definition functions as an exercise for disciplining students towards obedience. Before the student is allowed to enter into his or her own empirical study, academic custom demands a definition, which forces the scholar to follow certain academic authorities, who previously have delivered an authoritative definition, which now should be applied. The process of defining has, thus, features of authoritarian disciplining.

(4.) And still one step deeper, there may be a psycho-dynamic working for the promotion of the definition race: Definition helps to battle the structural anxiety, which otherwise troubles the scholar of behavioral science. In contrast to physics and mathematics, human studies move in a field of flowing identities. This lack of clear lines produces uncertainty – and anxiety (Devereux, 1998). With definition, one may feel to be on firm ground. By definition, the researcher believes to be in control. In this connection, definition is a ritual of coping with anxiety.

The difference between definition and phenomenology

The problem of definition, thus, does not only concern the case of play. It goes epistemologically deeper. And it touches the question whether we by strict limits can describe what is historically changing, socio-culturally specific or linguistically different.

Phenomena of human life are in scholarly discourse always mediated through language.

The first – the definition of what is historical – was already doubted by Friedrich Nietzsche in his Genealogy of morality (1887, part 2: paragraph 13): “Only something which has no history can be defined.” Indeed, the definition in physics and mathematics concerns phenomena, which can be measured or counted and have no history. But in the field of human studies, we meet historical processes of change which make it problematic to talk about finis, the neat separating line drawn by de-fin-ition. Play for instance has always a history, and is thus outside the field of definition. Sport, which has historical roots in some non-sport games, displays, and competitions, cannot be defined or delineated either. And yet, play and sport are important phenomena among human activities – they call for phenomenological understanding, but not for definition.

The second – the definition of what is socio-culturally specific – concerns for instance the differences of social class, gender, and ethnic belonging. But cultural diversity cannot by definitions be sorted into little boxes. And the attempts to do so have led to the impossibilities – and ethical problems – of gender testing (in sport) and of racialist classifications.

The third problem is the definition of what is expressed by language and what is different in languages. Phenomena of human life are in scholarly discourse always mediated through language. On the basis of the philosophy of language, Ludwig Wittgenstein (2001) has shown that a definition of play is not possible, and that we only find Familienähnlichkeit, family resemblance, which is marked by fundamental fuzziness, Unschärfe. And language means always languages in plural. One may try, in English, to define “game” against “play”, as the Grasshopper-book does, but German Spiel does not make any difference between the two words, nor does French le jeu. Other languages have more than two different terms for play, for instance Korean, where one talks about nori (spontaneous play), gyunggi (from Chinese: rule-bound and competitive games), and game (from the West: fun games). And in a monumental Illustrated Book of Traditional Chinese Sport (2015), one will find not only images of play and games, but also classical paintings of the meridians of the body, of deep breathing, meditation, and treatment of eye disease, of bathing, brushing teeth, and defecating on the toilet. One sees a mother playing with her baby – and women dancing, admiring flowers, and watching lanterns – and people watching the moon. Sport?

The historical, socio-cultural, and linguistic relativity of human life, thus, exclude the use of definition as a universal norm of scholarly work. There are fundamental differences between the two procedures of defining a certain phenomenon on the one hand – and identifying or understanding phenomena and their differences in a phenomenological way on the other.

And yet, the attempt to “define” phenomena of human practice continues, also for the case of “play” (Henricks, 2015). There must be deeper reasons for this than just “reason”.

A colonial background?

If definition is not aware of history, does not pay attention to linguistic diversity, and is a procedure beyond cultural relativity, this opens up for questions of a cultural-political character. Is it by accident that this philosophy comes from North America? (Though Canada with its recognition of ethnic, cultural, and linguistic diversity – French Quebec, Inuit Nunavut – is a special case.) It has a background in a colonial history, which laid the foundation of todays North America, where the indigenous First Nations have been exterminated or send into reservations. Especially the history of anthropology makes visible how the need for definitions was linked to colonial and neocolonial patterns of positivist thinking, while relativistic approaches could meet indigenous cultures without the stress of definitions (Eichberg, 2015). The deep colonial roots can make us understand how a certain lack of historical depth, of recognition of linguistic otherness and of cultural relativity may favor an abstract approach to human practice.

One can read the critique, whether it is with this colonial thinking in mind or just with a smile, which the Grasshopper book directs at Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Schiller, and Georg Simmel: that these thinkers “were addressing themselves primarily to ‘play’ rather than to games” and that they made no “important distinction between playing and playing games” (p. 100). Indeed, it may be difficult for an American scholar to understand that Kant, Schiller, and Simmel did not write in English, and that the German language relates to play in a different way. And that there is no linguistic differentiation between play and game in German Spiel.

The cultural relativity of the Grasshopper philosophy is also visible by some further peculiarities. In the invented gedankenexperimental stories, the grasshopper appears with a revolver. This may make the Nordic reader wonder. But for a culture in which the gun is regarded as a fundamental right of man, the revolver in the “hand” of an insect has its particular logic. Furthermore, the philosophy of the Grasshopper presents a gallery of characters: a murderer, a boy scout, a cop chasing a robber, a business man, a spy, a bank robber, and a psychiatrist – all classicmAmerican B-movie stereotypes. And utopia is characterized by sex, yachts, racing cars, and diamonds (p. 183).

Philosophy as a practice of asking – and of playing?

Philosophy does not happen in a social or intellectual vacuum. It is a discourse in space and time, in linguistic and cultural frames. The philosophical discourse is about the understanding of life in all its diversity and relativity – while definitions postulate a universal truth.

If philosophy is liberated from the stress of definitions – as Wittgenstein did and Suits rejects – it is revealed as not being a discourse of the know-all, but rather as a way of asking. Or, to phrase it as a question: Does philosophy produce the truth about the world and human beings – or is it asking and qualifying questions?

Of course, the historical world of philosophy is inhabited by thinkers who again and again have told people that they knew better, and that people should accept their logical findings as the real truth. There is the tradition of Hegel, Heidegger, and Habermas… The Grasshopper falls into this line. But at the origins of European philosophy, we see Sokrates standing in the market places of Athens and asking people strange, skeptical questions. He didn’t write books, nor did he present a system of knowledge about the world. He just asked. Did he play? Is philosophy maybe play?

Seen in this perspective, Suits earns his fame by the playful elements of his writing, indeed. And it may even annoy school philosophy if this is (self-) understood as an academic discipline of correctness and examination. But at the same time, The Grasshopper demonstrates know-all tendencies, as it tries to deliver “correct” definitions. And it shows that there is an interesting – maybe surprising – difference between utopian thinking and critical philosophy. Is this the difference between the logical construction of correct perfect life on one hand – and dancing Ring around the Rosie (or casting dice, hitting the drum, kicking the ball…) on the other?

Copyright © Henning Eichberg 2016


Devereux, Georges (1998): Angst und Methode in den Verhaltenswissenschaften. Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 4th ed.
Eichberg, Henning (2015). “Can play be defined? Colonial and relativistic approaches to the cultural anthropology of play.” In: EAST – East Asian Sport Thoughts, 4: 45-82.
Henricks, T. S. (2015). Play and the Human Condition. Urbana, Chicago, Springfield: University of Illinois Press.
Illustrated Book of Traditional Chinese Sport (2015)
Nietzsche, Friedrich (1887). Zur Genealogie der Moral. Leipzig, Germany: Naumann. English: http://www.inp.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig (2001). Philosophische Untersuchungen. Frankfurt/Main: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.
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