DRMacIver's Notebook

Social reality as a game

Social reality as a game

We went out scrumping for drones earlier, and in the course of doing so I did something weird: I brought a mug of coffee with me.

This was weird not because I had coffee with me, that’s normal, but because it was a normal ceramic mug that I was just wandering through the streets holding.

If it had been a paper cup that would have been fine, obviously. Similarly, a travel mug wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow. But a normal ceramic mug? That’s weird.

Why was I carrying a mug? Well, I wasn’t going far - the drone tree was only about five minutes walk away - and I didn’t have a travel mug, but I’d just made coffee and I wanted to drink my coffee. Sure, I might drop it, but the solution to that was to not drop it (I didn’t drop it).

It was a perfectly reasonable practical solution, but ceramic mugs are a home item not a travel item, so it was weird.

Bernard Suits defines a game as “the voluntary attempt to overcome unecessary obstacles”, and I think about that a lot.

How voluntary does it have to be?

Clearly it’s still a game if you give in to social pressure to play it, right? The fact that your family will sulk at you if you don’t play doesn’t make Yahtzee suddenly not a game (admittedly I could argue that it’s not a game for other reasons, but it’s certainly a Suitsian game in the sense that you’re attempting to overcome your desire to die of boredom and the whole thing seems very unecessary. Also there are dice).

But who determines what’s necessary?

More properly, the above his portable definition. He actually defines a game as:

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].

He offers the example of mountain climbing: Your prelusory goal is to get to the top of the mountain, but the lusory means are that you have to climb it. If you could just take a helicopter up, you would not be playing the “game” of mountain climbing.

Here’s what I wonder: How much of our behaviour is governed by things that are, effectively, constitutive rules of a social game? I was certainly refusing to follow voluntarily adopted rules that prohibited me from using the more efficient means that I was currently employing. Those rules are, in some sense, accepted just because they make possible the activity of society.

In carrying a ceramic mug around with me outside was I, in small part, refusing to play a game in which everyone is implicitly participating in all the time? Maybe, but at least I got to drink my coffee.

We didn’t manage to scrump any drones, incidentally.