Posted by: thealienist | October 14, 2014

The Game(s) of Life

I have been interested in games and game theory for a long time.  I think that play is an important part of life.  I also think that I see our modern western culture trying (ironically) to squeeze play out of the average person’s life while trying to get more and more people to play their particular type of game.  I have read with interest the works of many authors who emphasize the role of play in human experience, but I have found no agreement among them as to what constitutes “play” or what the essential components of a “game” are.

I am going to use this category to explore (perhaps only for myself) what constitutes “play” and how much of our lives are taken up by games – either intentional or unintentional.  In addition to defining these abstract terms, I plan to comment on and analyze (to the extent of my ability and aided by any who would like to help) how the idea of “games” enriches or impoverishes our lives.  I expect that the posts in this category will be more rambling than usual and may take me (us?) down some blind alleys.  Overall, however, I hope that in our wanderings we will see interesting, beautiful, and revealing sights.

As I look around, I see games everywhere.  Economics, literature, science, philosophy and religion are games.  Politics is a very disturbing game.  For many people, work is a game.  War seems to me to be the ultimate game.  But when I say that I see games everywhere, what do I mean by that?  What is a game?  Does it trivialize life to see most of its activities as games?  Is everything a game (and if it is, then what is the use of calling anything a game)?

When I look for a game, I look for some activity that takes place using arbitrary rules.  Of course there may be essential rules involved in the game, but do not usually need to be specified.  The arbitrary rules define how the game is played, what kinds of limitations are placed on behavior, what it means to “win” the game, and what behaviors, items, and outcomes are considered important.  For example, in baseball we are told that we must use a regulation baseball, that the ball can only be struck with the bat, that first base will be 90 feet from home plate, that there will only be 9 players on each team, that players will bat in order, what an “out” is, how one scores a “run,” etc.  The fact that these rules are arbitrary is obvious.  You could play the game with a tennis ball.  You could hit the ball with a golf club.  First base could be the tree stump that just happens to be 61.7 feet from the hubcap that counts as home.  The number of players on each team may depend on how close to dinner time it is.  The batting order might be changed if one team really needed a hit.  “Outs” and “runs” might be subject to a vote of one’s team-mates.  Of course, if you play like this, you are not playing real baseball — you are playing something more like Calvinball (see Calvin and Hobbes for those of you not familiar with this sport).

How much of our life is spent following arbitrary rules?  How do we know if the rules are good rules or if they are simply the expression of one person’s (or group’s) power over another?  Is it really better to play real baseball (or real football, soccer, basketball, citizen, doctor, professor, employee, employer, Christian, Muslim, Jew, etc.) than to play Calvinball?  And how do we play together if we are all playing our own games?  These are some of the things I want to think about as I post to this category.  You are very welcome to come along and contribute if you like.


  1. Life is a game “all the way down,” so to speak, if one believes that morality is ultimately arbitrary in the sense of not being handed down by a supernatural authority. As you point out, arbitrary is not the same as meaningless; many conventions, from baseball to matrimony, are deeply meaningful. If the Golden Rule, or the Ten Commandments, or Kant’s Categorical Imperative, or utilitarian principles or whatever are finally matters of human consensus rather than being divinely or logically ordained, then this consensus arguably is arrived at through game-playing. But games are unfairly associated with triviality, since some are deadly serious.


    • I agree with much of what you posted. Still, I wonder (and will likely address in my next post) how games differ in their value and their meaningfulness. I am also not yet convinced that life is a game “all the way down.” It certainly may be possible for this to be true, and the existentialists might be very inclined to agree with it. Yet I continue to suspect that there may be something underneath it all that is necessary, not contingent. This is one of the things I want to explore.

      Thanks for the post. It is always good to hear from you.


  2. Yes, although it could be that what is necessary is that there are matters of ultimate concern to us at all (at least for the non-psychopaths among us, to refer back to an earlier exchange). This may be a matter more of form than of content. At the deepest level each of us partakes of a game, one of the rules of which is that we must not believe that it is merely a game.

    Thanks for the thoughtful posts as always.


  3. For me life is how we create it, the way we think, the way we decide on situations giving solutions to problems and even creating the problems. It’s all in our thoughts and mind.


    • I agree, but it seems to me that it is also more than in our mind. Some of it is in our mind, some of it is in our shared culture. And some of it is in objective reality.


  4. What you call a game and what you don’t call a game can well be a question of perspective I’d say. You can view about anything as a game, but you can also choose to view things as if it weren’t games. In this blog post I argue against a too wide definition of “game”:


    • I can see where people in other disciplines will have special definitions of the word “game.” I am not using it strictly in the way that mathematicians and game theorists would. I am using it in a more general way that a psychodynamic psychologist would use it. In this sense, a game would be an interaction that takes place in a transitional space where the significance of objects, the rules of interaction, and the goals sought are at least partially arbitrary.


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