In his Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstein famously argued that the word “game” defies definition. “Game”, for Wittgenstein, is used to describe a family of different human activities that have a certain family resemblance, but for which there are no definitive rules for including some activities and excluding others.
Nothing daunted, I’d like to offer a definition of game playing that I’ve found useful. Games are, for me, not so much things as activities, so I’ll define “game play”:
Game play is the pursuit of arbitrarily-assigned value.
This definition includes some contexts in which others would think that the word “game” was being used metaphorically.
For example, let’s say two teenage boys go to a school dance, competing with each other to see who can kiss the most girls – one point for each different girl kissed, with a two-point bonus for kissing one of the cheerleaders. Now, kissing a girl is, under the right circumstances, something that has inherent, non-arbitrary value for teenage boys. But the boys are not, or at least not primarily, kissing in pursuit of that value – they’re made a game out of kissing by agreeing that what counts is not the inherent value of the kiss, but the points scored.
If the girls are in it, and have freely chosen to participate, this may be a fun, harmless game. But if the girls are not in on the game, what the boys are doing is cruel and highly unethical. They’re undermining the genuine value of kissing by subordinating it to an arbitrary one. It’s situations like this that are usually being described when someone is described as “playing games” in a derogatory sense.
The interplay of real and arbitrary value is essential to good game play. Playing a game is liberating because it frees the player to act without worrying about difficult value decisions. You don’t have to worry about what you ought to be doing. If you’re playing a game, you know what you’re supposed to be doing – you’re supposed to be crossing the finish line first, taking the most tricks, or doing whatever it is that the rules of the game establish as the criteria for winning. So you are free to use all of your available resources – energy, strength, knowledge, courage, discipline, and cleverness – toward that end. In a good game, there is real, non-arbitrary value in the exercise of these abilities.
Soccer is not a good game because there is inherent value in kicking a ball into a net. Soccer is a good game because, by agreeing that the two teams will try (while observing quite a number of limiting rules) to kick a ball into a net, the players will get a chance to run hard, to make moves that are almost dancing, to show courage, and to outsmart each other. Playing soccer is, or at least can be, good in itself because it is good for players to do these things. And it gives those players a better opportunity to do them than they’d get outside the context of the game.
Game playing is a good thing, but only when the activity it inspires is itself good. Care needs to be taken to avoid conflict between real values and the arbitrary ones embraced for the purpose of playing the game. The fear that zealous pursuit of the arbitrary values of the game will impair real values has given rise to a set of high-level rules, applicable to any game, which are designed to ensure that game play does not impair real values. These high-level rules are collectively known as sportsmanship.
Sportsmanship is rather vaguely defined, drawing heavily on our understanding of what constitutes good behavior outside the context of any game. It’s thought to be more characteristic of some players than others, and more often observed in some games than others. Golf is known for high standards, but professional American football is not.
There is a common refrain that the virtues of sportsmanship are in decline, and perhaps thats true. It’s not hard to think of recent instances of flagrant poor sportsmanship that one is tempted to say simply wouldn’t have happened back in the good old days (whenever those were). But if so, the decline of sportsmanship is on a very long arc, as that decline seems to be a theme in the gaming literature of every era.