Trying on old Suits

Sun 22 Aug 2010 12:34 PM

Late in the last century, on Ryan Hickerson's recommendation, I read Bernard Suit's The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia. The core of the book is Suit's definition of 'game.' Although the definition was originally laid out in a 1967 article in the journal Philosophy of Science, the topic is not really philosophy of science. Moreover, the book itself is written as a hodge-podge of dialogue, self-aware narrative, and direct argument. In a late chapter, the characters muse that the author may have adopted the rhetorical structure simply so as to make the book amusing and earn it a wider audience.

So, although it is at once a good read and a nice piece of philosophy, I didn't think much about the matter after finishing the book. Recently, however, the book has enjoyed a resurgence. Thomas Hurka calls Suit's definition "a perfectly persuasive analysis." Mohan Matthen [here] calls it the "classic refutation" of Wittgenstein's claim that 'game' is undefinable. So I decided to reread Grasshopper.

When I first read it, a bit over ten years ago, I was playing mostly tabletop role-playing games (RPGs).* So my natural interest was whether Suit's definition would count RPGs as games. I expected that it would not. He wrote the book in 1978, without any knowledge of RPGs. Although Dungeons&Dragons had first been released in 1974, the original D&D was a tactical miniatures game.** The distillation of the role-playing essence was accomplished only later and by other games than D&D.

Suits does not pose the question of whether RPGs are games, because 'RPG' is not one of his words. Nevertheless, he does consider games of make believe, like Cops&Robbers or Cowboys&Indians. In a series of chapters, he articulates how such games can be understood as fitting his definition of 'game'. He articulates the idea of an open game, which has as its goal the continuation of a dynamic process rather than the attainment of a static condition.***

As he points out, an open game need not be dramatic. He gives the example of attempting to maintain a ping-pong volley for as long as possible while otherwise following the rules of ping-pong. An open game may be dramatic, however, with the aim to be maintaining an intense dramatic back-and-forth. The goal of such a dramatic game is to tell a good story and to keep the narrative going.

Of course, Cops&Robbers usually fails as such a game. The reason, Suits says, is that some kids say 'bang bang' in order to simply defeat the other kids. They are treating the make believe as a closed game, the objective of which is to triumph. When those kids get in arguments with kids who are playing it as an open game, only 'missed me', 'did not', and similar misery can result.

This same problem arose with classic D&D. Some players saw the goal of the game to be beating monsters, gathering treasure, and leveling up. The Dungeon Master (DM) who took the role of the monsters and traps was thus just an adversary. On such a conception, the only thing that keeps the DM from killing the player's characters outright is the rules of the game.

The novelty of a role-playing game, though, is that the DM isn't trying to destroy the characters. Rather, the DM's aim is to challenge the players and help make interesting things happen. It's an open game about telling the character's stories. This difference was not well articulated in RPG rule books until well into the 1980s.

It is tempting to say that Suits invented the RPG. He articulated the idea of such a thing more clearly than anyone in the gaming community could have done. Yet Suits just discusses storytelling games in the abstract. He never proposes one as an entertainment that adults might play. So he did not actually invent the RPG.****

So, when I read it years ago, I was at once impressed and disappointed by Grasshopper. On the one hand, Suits articulates a definition of 'game' which is ahead of its time in making room for storytelling RPGs. On the other hand, the discussion was too abstract to lead to any insights about the RPGs I was actually playing.

More recently, I have been playing boardgames rather than RPGs. Rereading the book has made me think about games that I've been playing, but that's the topic for another post.

* The term 'role-playing game' is somewhat vexed, because it originally picked out a face-to-face game. RPG-inspired computer games like Ultima were 'adventure games.' Now computer games have the upper hand, and 'RPG' without any qualifier means a computer adventure game. The central activity of such an RPG (both the classic tabletop variety and the computer kind) is persistent characters going on a series of quests. The canonical quest is a dungeon, a maze of puzzles and combats with prizes for resolving them.

** An example: Original D&D gave weapon ranges in map inches, which meant different things indoors and outdoors because the scale of indoor and outdoor maps was different. This was abandoned in 3rd edition (2000), but reversed when the publisher began selling miniatures. The 4th edition (2008) is a boardgame adaption of on-line computer RPGs.

*** An open game is 'open' in a different sense than an open concept.

**** It is a bit like Thomas Reid's invention (and not) of non-euclidean geometry. Considering visual experience, Thomas Reid described the geometrical structure of visible figure. In it, Reid realized, parallel lines converged. We recognize the structure he described as a spherical geometry. Yet, for Reid, it was always just the visible appearance of a euclidean world. There was a crucial extra step which Reid didn't make.


from: Matt Brown

Tue 24 Aug 2010 08:53 PM

Interesting stuff! But what's the actual definition?

Suit's open/closed distinction reminds me of a strange little book by Carse, "Finite and Infinite Games." But that one goes well beyond "game" in any ordinary sense.

from: P.D.

Wed 25 Aug 2010 05:41 AM

"But what's the actual definition?"

That's for the next post, because this one had already spiraled out of control.