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Games: Necessary Non-Obstacles

One of game studies' fundamental gaps is the lack of a solid theory of meaning. That is, how games can mean, represent, signify, etc., anything at all. This problem is immediately apparent in Jane McGonigal's new book, "Reality is Broken." Early in the book McGonigal adopts Bernard Suits' definition of a game as "the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles." While I am only through the second chapter, so far the book has relied heavily on this definition. However, as this post aims to demonstrate, this definition of "game" is both fundamentally flawed and illustrates the kinds of problems that arise because we do not understand how games can mean.

McGonigal cites several examples of games that fit this definition, notably golf (which is one of Suits' examples). Indeed, sports seem to fit Suits' definition extremely well, as every sport I can think of is about adhering to arbitrary rules in order to accomplish some ordinary feat. In golf the unnecessary obstacles are the various rules that prevent us from merely walking to the green and dropping the ball into the hole. Similarly, ice hockey would be much easier if players could pick up the puck and throw it into the net. Everyone would be an expert player of darts if they were allowed to walk up to the board and simply push their darts into the sixty-point segment. In these cases it is true that players are choosing to try and overcome obstacles that seem quite unnecessary, if your goal really is to arrange particular objects in a particular state.

However, this definition does not make much sense when we apply it outside of sports. While McGonigal makes an effective argument for its application to Scrabble, I would like to apply Suits' definition to Monopoly. In Monopoly the goal is to be the last player in the game, which happens when you have money and your opponents do not. The necessary question that arises here is: what does it mean to "have money?" How does a Monopoly player have money, and what distinguishes her from the other players that do not have money? One answer might be location: players typically signify their possession of game money by placing paper slips in front of themselves. Seen through the lens of Suits' definition, one might argue that the goal of Monopoly is to place the paper money in front of yourself, while preventing others from doing so; the "unnecessary obstacle" in this case is the game itself, the processes one must undertake before being "allowed" to put the money in front of oneself.

I hope I am not alone in finding this phrasing deeply unsatisfying. When explaining Monopoly to a new player, would you ever tell them that the goal is to put the money in front of yourself? Rather, the goal is a particular configuration of the game state. The physical aspects of Monopoly--the board, pieces, money--are mnemonic devices that allow players to keep track of the state. To "have money" in Monopoly is not to position it in a certain way (like positioning a golf ball), but rather to perform a series of processes that then give meaning to the money and define its state. These processes create the meaning of the money. Without them, Monopoly money really is just slips of paper; its physical location is meaningless. Thus the game is the opposite of "unnecessary:" it is entirely necessary in creating the meaning required to satisfy the goal. Without the game the money has no meaning.

I would argue, then, that in this sense games are not obstacles at all. The OED defines an obstacle as "something that stands in the way or that obstructs progress; a hindrance, impediment, or obstruction." If your goal is to "have money," then the game is the opposite of an obstacle: it is the enabler of that progress, that goal. Without the game that goal does not exist and cannot be fulfilled. As an analogy, games can be thought of as modern, highly technical modes of transportation, such as a car. Cars, like games, are complex to operate and handle. They require some degree of learning before they can be used effectively. However, they are often necessary to reach our destination (goal). It makes little sense to refer to a car as an obstacle when we so often depend on it to reach an end state. The car, like the game, is needed to reach the goal.

If we think in terms of the goal, as both Suits and McGonigal do, then the game is the opposite of an unnecessary obstacle.


On March 29, 2011 at 1:28 PM, charles.joseph.pratt Author Profile Page said:

I believe there was someone writing in the field of the Philosophy of Sport that actually made a similar argument against Suits' definition.

The basic problem, which you point out, is that 'necessary' doesn't have any meaning outside established rules of the game. Is moving a pawn in a particular way and 'unnecessary' obstacle to eventually capturing the queen? Not really in the since that Suits uses the word, because it isn't unnecessary unless the rules of chess are already established!

On April 5, 2011 at 11:49 PM, adam.holroyd.parker Author Profile Page said:

Thanks for the post. A couple points in response...

1) My feeling is that any one theoretical description of games will necessarily be insufficent. Each possible means of slicing games shows inadequacies that require another theory to handle, which in turn throws up a need for new theory. A hermeneutic spiral is perhaps a better way to see this - a scaffold of inter-related theories that triangulate around the area. This is my objection to how Salen and Zimmerman handled things in Rules of Play. In my own classes, I outline about 12 different models and show how they inter-relate. It still doesn't suffice, though... Check out John Kelly's classic book on sociology of leisure (Freedom to Be) for a great introductory chapter that does this for leisure studies.

2) If we are to talk about theory of meaning, in relation to an artifact in a medium, without any reference to critical theory, then we lose a valuable line of attack. A Derridean approach would start by slicing straight through the binary, major/minor construction that here surrounds the binary pair of necessary/unnecessary. This would render much of the discussion unnecessary. Some questions would thus arise: Is there really just one goal? Could it be that our goals in a game are neither necessary nor unnecessary? What about players warping the rules and playing for new outcomes? Must we feel that meaningin games has to be stable?



Thanks for the response. Do you happen to have any idea who it was that made the similar argument? I am not well-read in the philosophy of sport, unfortunately.


Thanks to you as well. In response:

1) I agree that a constellation of theories is necessary. However, I think that some will naturally prove useful, others will not. This post is meant to show the problem with Suits/McGonigal's definition in that it simply does not work. This is unfortunate for McGonigal as the first two chapters of her book (at the very least) rely on this definition.

2) I would agree that meaning is not (for the most part) stable, but there is always some level of stable meaning attached to the game state. You can't dispute the location of the rook at any given point. It may potentially move, but it is always somewhere.

Additionally, I think my argument above transcends questions of goals and rules. Regardless of your goal in a game, whether the game provided it or you came up with it, as long as you are playing by some kind of rules (official or house), it is the processes you follow that enable you to achieve your goal. This is true even if those processes involve changing the rules as you go.

From a philosophical standpoint, I also don't think that approaching these questions without critical theory is a loss. If one person asks questions through that lens, and another does not, then we have two different perspectives. As you yourself noted, no one theory will be adequate and a multitude of them is preferable.

On April 8, 2011 at 3:52 AM, adam.holroyd.parker Author Profile Page said:

Hi Jason,

Thanks for the clarifications. Agreed, the Suits/McGonigal is broken. Hence my suggestion for an alternate.

Agreed, there is stability, but stability is necessarily temporary... I am also not sure about this automatic linking of stability in empirical world configuration with meaning per se. I do not see how the position of the rook as a spatio-temporal phenomenon necesssarily implies a meaning structure with stable terms. It appears to conflate existence with meaning in an unsatisfactory fashion.

I'd personally question whether considering the nature of a goal in this fashion implies a privileging of the self in this enquiry.

But of course, in all these critiques I am not doubting the position you take from its own internal reference frame, but rather looking beyond the reasonable boundaries you have drawn around your current position from my own perspective. We can't go everywhere and solve everything. So please take these comments as what they are - the thought challenges that you've gifted to me. Thanks.

Also agreed that critical theory is not necessary - although a worthwhile perspective. I'm Deleuze-influenced philosophical myself - Derrida was an example, and not my own practice. So I was proposing something I wouldn't normally do myself - a challenge to me as much as to you, therefore! (The same goes for the Kelly reference)



Hi Adam,

As always, thanks for the insightful comments :-)

With respect to stability, I should have been clearer. To be more precise, if two people are playing Chess using the same rules (a reasonable assumption, I think), the position of a rook in-game has a certain base of stable meaning rooted in the rules. It occupies a definition position, and as a result it is threatened by some pieces and threatens others. The current game state is, in a very basic way, stable meaning. The rook can be thought of as a sign that has meaning under the code of the rules.

Of course, as I said above, you don't necessarily need the Chess board and pieces to play Chess - they're just mnemonic devices designed to aid the players. Certainly helpful but definitely unnecessary.

Obviously this overlooks all the other meaning that a rook becomes saturated with: its culturally-based second-order associations, the role it plays in the game tree as a combination of present and future states, and so on.

It also begs the interesting question of what a rook means when placed randomly on a board along with other pieces - not as part of an actual game. It's hard to perceive that constellation of objects outside the code of the rules (assuming you know them).

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