The academic homestead of Annika Waern

Bernard Suits’ “The Grasshopper”

"The Grasshopper" was re-published in 2005 by Broadview Press and is available from all on-line bookstores.

Getting a blog read is, I hear, about being first with news. Well then, this blog post won’t quite cut it.

I re-read Suits’ book “The Grasshopper: Games, life and utopia” while ill. Originally published in 1978, it must be the best philosophy book ever written on what constitutes a game. It is funny, witty, readable, well-written, and presents a very convincing argument. To be more precise, Suits defines what it means to play a game, and the back cover presents the non-technical version of his definition as ‘the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles’. I always quote Suits on my introductory lecture in game analysis.

I tend to get carried away by the rhetoric of good philosophy, believing every word of the text. So after re-reading Suits I took two steps back to try to hunt down his critics. Most of the debate spurred by ‘The grasshopper’ was published in the Journal of the philosophy of sport (there were not a lot of venues for game academics in the eighties), and came to deal with the tricky issue of distinguishing between game-play, play, and sport.

What I find missing in Suits’ book is its purpose. Why does Suit want to define game-play at all? You could choose to read it as a game in itself, that Suits is playing a game at defining game-play. I also think that he has set up a particular goal for this exercise: Suits wants to prove Wittgenstein wrong in arguing that games can’t be defined (Wittgenstein uses ‘game’ as his chief example of words that only have family resemblances). Suits wants to prove that game-play is definable. Hence, there is an implicit rule in Suits book: he must create a definition of game-play that the reader accepts as true, independent of its definitional context or the intended use of the definition. Suits never discusses why game-play takes the form he describes: it just is. Neither does he discuss the consequences it has for culture or society (an embryo of an argument is however present in the discussion of game-play and utopia), or how it can be used to distinguish between good and bad game designs.

I cannot help but wonder what would have happened if Suits had written his Grasshopper twenty years later, and the debate had been held in game studies? I believe that the simulative powers of computer games would have given Suits some problems. Suits shoe-horns role-playing games into his concept of games by classifying them as open games, by which he means games that have as their goal to keep going for as long as possible. The role-playing as such, he doesn’t consider important for them being games. But what role-playing games and computer games have in common is that they emphasise fictionality, the creative construction of fictional universes. Much of modern game studies has revolved around this mix of fictional universe and game-play (Juul, Tavinor, Bogost…), and as Larp researchers have begun to point out, the phenomena is not at all limited to computer games.

I think that Suits is mostly right (I’ll catch up on the game-play, game, and sport controversy some other time), but I think he is plain wrong in assuming that the only game-relevant stuff going on in role-play is a goal to keep the game going. This, I must write an article about some time.

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2 thoughts on “Bernard Suits’ “The Grasshopper”

  1. Staffan Björk on said:

    Hmm, my reading of your reading is that he’s focused on the activity of gaming. Games (as artifacts) can support than and other activities, e.g. playing and roleplay but don’t have to. The “gameness” of a roleplaying game comes from the game part, the roleplaying part shows that the artifact also supports roleplaying. (roleplaying groups quite often have to negotiate how much they should roleplay and how much they should game, although they typically call gaming for metagaming 🙂

  2. Waern on said:

    Staffan, an interesting variant of your argument is the way Grant Tavinor defines videogames as games OR interactive fiction (and this is not an exclusive or, he argues that most videogames are both). And Suits himself discusses that particular kind of metagaming negotiation, albeit in the context of children’s games!

    But Suits includes role-play as such in game playing, not just role-playing games. So your reading of my reading of Suits is not quite in line with Suits himself… Suits definition is rather inclusive, and covers stuff like rock climbing and agreed-upon fights to the death by any permissible means (although he excludes war).

    I think that the issue with role-play and some of the other examples Suits brings up is that their rules are fuzzy and/or incomplete. They are games because they have rules and goals just as Suits require, but they aren’t playable unless the rules are somehow completed by something else, some other guidance for player action (meta-rules or implicit rules, if you like).

    In rock climbing that restriction is physical, defined by gravity and the rock you are trying to climb, your equipment and your physical skills, etcetra. In role-play, the restriction is instead generated by the shared fantasy of an imaginary world, or sometimes an agreement on striving for e.g. drama (a desired collective aesthetics).

    If this is the role of fiction in role-play, then it cannot be separated out from game-play. The question then is if it has no role in systems with complete and clear rules, as in most TTP systems and in computer games. I think the role switches from crucial to supportive, but I think it fills basically the same role. There is a very clear design ideal for computer games and TTP systems to be ‘believable’, connecting their gameplay to their fictional dress and creating diegetic explanations for quirks in the gaming system. I believe that although a fully implemented ruleset can generate its own meaning, it is more satifying to players, creates a more coherent aesthetics, and actually makes gameplay more meaningful when gameplay and fiction fit well together.

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