Bernard Suits’ “The Grasshopper”
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.