Following Suits

Thu 26 Aug 2010 12:30 PM

I had meant to quickly write a follow up to my previous post on Bernard Suits' The Grasshopper, but my the ideas proved to be more tangled in the writing than they were in the thinking. Matt has pressed for the actual definition, so I should actually get to it even if I don't have anything definitive to say.

Suits defines a game in this way:*

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]. I also offer the following simpler and, so to speak, more portable version of the above: playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles. [p. 41, brackets in the original]

It is easiest to see how this works with a sport like basketball. The prelusory goal is having the ball go through the basket. As a matter of engineering, there are efficient ways to achieve this that might involve ladders or precisely-tuned catapults. The constitutive rules of basketball rule these out. Instead, a player must dribble up and shoot. The way of achieving the goal in the game is in that sense inefficient. Nevertheless, one accepts those constraints when playing basketball, and the activity so constrained constitutes playing basketball.

Most of the book is spent articulating and answering various worries one might have about the definition. I want to focus on the question of whether every game has a prelusory goal. If some games don't, then the definition is too narrow.

The prelusory goal is "a specific achievable state of affairs" [p. 36], where state of affairs is understood liberally to apply both to conditions at a time and to processes across time. It is prelusory (literally, before the game) because we can specify it independently of the game. This is important, because the game is supposedly constituted by voluntarily accepting limitations on what means can be used for attaining the goal.

For basketball and other sports, the objective is easy to specify because it involves the motion and interaction of physical components. The ball's going into the basket can be described independently of any game that the ball and basket figure into. Similarly for tabletop dexterity games: The goal of Jenga is to avoid knocking over the stack of blocks. Considered on its own, the goal is easy to achieve. One might simply stay clear of the stack or use a scaffold to keep it upright, but of course these ways of achieving the goal are prohibited by the constitutive rules of the game. Playing within the rules, at the risk of toppling the tower, is just what it is to play Jenga.

The case of poker is a bit more complicated. We might characterize the goal of an individual hand (to have the winning cards at the showdown), the goal of open ended poker (to leave with more chips than you bought in for), or the goal of a tournament (to be the last player left with chips). The latter goals in terms of chips or money can be specified easily. The former goal of having a high hand is not much more difficult. In order to play poker, you need a deck of cards. There are many different games you can play with a deck of cards, so the cards are what we might call prelusory components; they can be specified independently of the game. We specify various possible combinations of cards and define an ordering on them. The prelusory goal of poker is to reveal a hand of cards that is higher in the ordering than the hands revealed by any opponents.

One might worry that poker does not actually require physical cards. On-line poker lacks them but is nonetheless poker. Yet even on-line poker, if it is fair, requires tracking 52 tokens of something. The abstract token structure, instantiated as memory records in a computer, could be coded to play Pinochle. It is general purpose and thus prelusory. So the goal of poker can be characterized in terms of the deck structure.

This hasn't gotten as far as an objection, but I'll stop there for now.

* Two caveats. First, although the definition in the book is offered by the character of the Grasshopper rather than by the author, it is clear that Suits endorses the definition. Second, it's strictly speaking a definition of what it is to play a game. A definition of a game simpliciter would be something that can be played thusly.


from: Greg

Fri 27 Aug 2010 08:09 AM

Hi P.D. --

I'm happy to see you're blogging about this; I've always wanted to think through Suits' definition, but was always too lazy/ too busy. Now you can do all the hard work of thinking for me, and I can continue to be too lazy/ too busy. I did have a couple of questions about the poker case.

Q1. What would be the 'more efficient' way to win, that the rules preclude? Reaching over and picking up the other players' money? First, in a real-life game, that will only be 'more efficient' for me if I think I can get away with it -- if the other guy (or casino security) could overpower me, then that doesn't strike me as a terribly efficient way of picking up a few dollars. Second, in an online game, even reaching over is impossible.

Q2. I couldn't figure out why you thought one might worry about online poker not requiring physical cards. Is there anything in Suits' definition that suggests concrete objects are necessary for a game?

I have a final pedantic nit to pick, though: I don't think the goal of a single hand of poker should be to have the highest hand at showdown. For then the successful bluffer fails to meet that goal, even though we would want to say she succeeded at a round (of Hold 'em, say) in which her aggressive re-raise with 2-7 offsuit causes the player with 8-8 to fold before the flop. It seems like the goal has to be rather something like "to take the pot."

(To make things more complicated, in poker there's also the 'metagame': if I'm generally a conservative player, i.e. I usually bet only when I have a very strong hand, then I actually _do_ want to get caught bluffing a bit -- otherwise, all the other players will immediately fold every time they see me bet, and I'll never win a big pot. These metagame issues create no problem for the 'long-term' goals you described, viz. winning all the chips in a tournament or leaving with more money than you arrived with in a cash game.)

from: P.D.

Fri 27 Aug 2010 12:46 PM

Greg: Aha, but now I've got you thinking through Suits' definition! Philosophy is sneaky that way.

Re Q1: Even if I were the biggest guy in the room, reaching over and taking the other players' money would not be playing poker. I might be able to make more money by trading commodities and transferring them to other players in exchange for their chips - using a smartphone, I could do this without leaving the poker table - but it wouldn't count as a way of winning at poker.

Re Q2: My worry was that perhaps the elements of the computer program did not have the necessary content to count as cards prior to their inclusion in the entire game program. If they didn't, then the goal in terms of those elements could not be characterized apart from the game. So it couldn't serve as a prelusory goal.

Nit: The goal of a single hand of poker would have to be something more complicated. Perhaps a disjunction of having the best hand at the showdown, being the only player left in at some time before the showdown, or ...