The Incompleat Gamester
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Or is the game playing us?
by David Parlett
The city of Utrecht hosts Impakt, an annual festival for "idiosyncratic and innovative media art". As part of the festival in 2007 Wilfried Hou Je Bek, founder and webmaster of Crystalpunk, "the Invisible Khmer of Turriphilia", organised a session on "psycholudology" involving a talk by each of three speakers, namely Christian Freeling, Alex de Voogt, and me. The session was subtitled "Are we playing the game or is the game playing us?", so I took that as my theme and expanded on it as follows.

Some years ago a substantial exhibition of Asian games was mounted in New York. For its catalogue I was invited to write an introductory article on games and play in general. In that article I mentioned play as a form of exploration and discovery, as when, for example, physicists "play" with elementary particles, or mathematicians with numbers, especially those playful numbers known as primes. And because of the maddening elusiveness of primes I posed the question "Do mathematicians play with numbers, or numbers with mathematicians?"

So it was with a sense of déjà vu that I found on the Crystalpunk website the question "Are we playing the game or is the game playing us?", and decided to take it as the topic of my talk today (April 1st). And I want to warn you in advance that what I am about to reveal to you is nothing less than a sinister plot on the part of games to take over the world through the medium of playing you...

Beware! The invasion of the body-snatchers begins with Snakes & Ladders and Noughts & Crosses.

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Attention - a tension - we all fall down

At first sight it seems obvious that there is a sense in which a game is playing us, and that lies in the way it tends to totally absorb our attention. In any such game you are always pitting your wits against two factors. One is the abstract challenge of the game itself - of what you can do in this, that or the other position in order to turn it to your advantage and devise a winning strategy. The mechanics of the game itself force you to think and to plan, and make increasing demands on your attention. This creates what you might call a sense of mechanical tension.

The other is the psychological challenge of your opponent or opponents. Will they correctly divine the significance of your subtle strategic move? Will you correctly divine theirs? You may know what the game is likely to force you to do, but you don't know what inescapable corner your opponent may force you to occupy. It's no use saying that this shouldn't happen with a game of perfect information like Chess. No matter how open and above board the game may be, there is always the element of uncertainty attaching to your opponent's plans and intentions, or even to how his play is going to be affected by his current state of health or nerves. So there is also an element of personal or psychological tension. Put these together and you have such a strain on your attention that the game may be said to hold you fast in its grip.

And this ability of a game to seize hold of you to the exclusion of all else is not confined to any particular time when you may be playing it. For the professional player, or even the gifted amateur, it is quite capable of taking over and manipulating the whole of his life and personality. Such is the subject of Kawabata's novel The Master of Go, based on a true tournament that took place in Tokyo in 1938. I have read and enjoyed it, but for brevity will quote what it says on the book jacket:

The challenger - young, aggressive, gregarious - faces the Master, frail, aged, solitary. It is a duel between the Master's classical remote style and the ferocious attack of his young challenger. But the confrontation symbolises a far wider conflict, a clash between modes, between generations, and ultimately between life and death.

It's a not uncommon theme in fiction. Another example, but with an opposite outcome, is that of The Cincinnati Kid, a film in which the young Poker player played by Steve McQueen takes on but is ultimately beaten by Edward G Robinson's reigning champion.

If you want to be pedantic about it, you may object that what I am talking about is not the game itself holding you in its grip so much as the experience of playing the game. Is there a difference? What exactly is a game if not the playing of it? Perhaps the simplest thing would be to say that a game is the conjunction of a set of gaming equipment, a set of rules for manipulating that equipment, and, in particular, a rule that tells you what constitutes the winning of the game.

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Physicality and magic

So, apart from being gripped by the tension of playing a game, is there a sense in which you can be said to be gripped or manipulated or played by the equipment? Yes: there certainly is in physical games, or sports. Consider a fundamental difference between chess and football. In chess, you move pieces around a board. You can do this without actually being there, for example by playing postal chess, or playing chess on-line. You can't do this with football, because in football you yourself are one of the pieces being moved around on the board, or field. In other words, you become a physical part of the game itself, not merely a disembodied mind. In tennis, you play by gripping and manipulating a tennis racquet. You may say that you have the racquet in your grip, but might you not equally well say the racquet simultaneously holds you in its grip? You don't want to let go of it, and you certainly wouldn't want it to let go of you.

This question of physical presence also applies to purely gambling games. Suppose you're playing a simple dice game like Shut the Box, or a totally non-strategic game like Snakes & Ladders. Theoretically, you could say that these resemble chess, in that you don't need to be there because you are not part of the equipment and could equally well play by post or on-line. The fact of the matter is that you wouldn't. Even where no skill is involved, gamblers have a psychological need to do their own dice-rolling or stick-throwing. They actually make themselves part of the equipment, and to that extent become an essential part of the game. This point is well brought out by Dennis Tedlock in his introduction to a reprint of Stewart Culin's book on native American Indian games. Quote:

We might call it a "game of chance," which is what Culin calls similar games in this book, but that expresses the point of view of an observer. Meanwhile, the participants constantly think in terms of strategy, pitting their wishes against chance in momentary acts of magic, which is what we all find ourselves doing when we throw dice... [A] paradox of the Zuñi game of wooden dice is that, technically, it is not what Culin calls a "game of dexterity", and yet the players do try slightly different ways of handling the sticks, as if they could influence the outcome of a throw. [...] So if there is any dexterity here, it must remain on the side of magic...

Games of chance involving dice or other lots are therefore, in practice, largely physical games, requiring the active participation of the player for social, psychological and "magical" reasons rather than by their nature. Magic, or at least superstition, is not far removed from the mentality of the dedicated gambler. And nothing can be more said to hold you in its thrall, to be playing you as if you were a part of the game being manipulated by fate, than a belief in magic.

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Regulation and control

If you are not being gripped by, or becoming part of, the gaming equipment, what about the actual rules of the game?

Here I need to remind you of a fundamental paradox of playing games. It's one that is well brought out in English because we can make several useful distinctions between the words "play" and "game". The word "play" implies repetitive movement, as when you play a piano, and also freedom of movement, as when an element in a piece of machinery may be said to have a certain amount of play. Freedom itself implies free will, and it is an undeniable fact that people play games because they want to, not because they have to. As Huizinga says, "the need for play is only urgent to the extent that the enjoyment of it makes it a need". The same thought is more pithily expressed by theologian James Carse in a provocative book called Infinite Games: "Whoever must play, cannot [really] play".

But, like marriage, a game is a honey trap. You and the other player may both enter it freely, but by so doing you voluntarily enter into a tacit agreement to play by the rules of the game. You only have freedom of play within certain well-defined restrictions. This paradoxical behaviour appears to be a peculiarly human characteristic, as suggested by the following paragraph from Sniderman's internet essay The Unwritten Rules:

[There was] a group of scientists who attempted to teach dolphins to play water polo. Although the dolphins were able to learn how to put the ball in the net (and seemed to derive pleasure from doing so), when the trainers tried to get them to stop the other team from "scoring," the dolphins launched an all-out war on the other team's players, using methods that no person steeped in the concepts of sportspeopleship would ever use. After this experience, the trainers gave up their effort, apparently concluding that their task was hopeless, that dolphins couldn't be taught to play the sport. My guess is that they assumed that all the dolphins needed to be taught were the recorded rules of water polo and the creatures would be able to play the game like adult human beings. These scientists evidently did not realize how much of our knowledge of proper game behaviour precedes the learning of the statable constraints of a particular sport.

So whenever we sit down to play a game we do not merely allow ourselves to be bound by the rules, we actually are forced to do so, because there is no other meaningful way of exercising our freedom to play. In devising our strategic plans we follow our own wills to a certain extent, but in so far as our freedom is restricted by the constraints of the rules of the game there is a sense in which it is controlling us. It has to play us in order to realise itself, to justify its existence as a playable game.

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There goes that meme again

I was going to point out that games are memes, or meme complexes, even before I looked at the Crystalpunk website and discovered a lot of references to this fact. Just in case anyone has forgotten, a meme is a unit of cultural information that can be transferred from one mind to another. The word was coined by Richard Dawkins in 1976 and he gave as examples of memes such things as tunes, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Meme is derived from a Greek word meaning to imitate, and Dawkins deliberately chose it because of its resemblance to the word gene. Just as a gene is a unit of genetic information, so a meme is a unit of cultural information. Genes are passed on through succeeding generations of bodies, memes through succeeding generations of minds.

The fascinating implication behind all this is that memes have a mind of their own, or at least a life of their own, and that they evolve by a process of natural selection. On the analogy of Darwinian natural selection, some memes may become extinct, while others survive, spread and mutate through modification. A successful meme is one that seizes hold of the human mind and inhabits it like a virus. A typical ludic meme (sometimes referred to as a ludeme) is that of a board game in which you roll the dice, move as many spaces as indicated by the number generated, and follow the instructions printed on the space you land on. In the realm of card games, another fundamental meme is that of a trump suit. As you can see, successful memes do not restrict themselves to a single game: they maximise their chances of survival by spreading through as many different game realisations as possible.

A good example of how a game meme evolves is provided by the history of Monopoly. Everybody knows that Monopoly is the ultimate capitalist game which you win by gradually forcing everyone else out of the game through exhausting their resources of money and property. The curious thing about Monopoly is that its original inventor, Lizzie Magie, actually designed it to be not a capitalist but an anti-capitalist game whose purpose was to spread the message that the only fair tax was one levied on undeveloped land. In the first two decades of its existence the game was used as a teaching tool in economics classes. But throughout this period it underwent a shift of emphasis at the hands of all those who played it, until eventually, when published by Parker Brothers in 1935, its whole nature had changed. One might say it was inevitable, given the economic history of the 20th century, that a game extolling the virtues of business enterprise was bound to make a hit. But what has always intrigued me is why such a game did not appear in a single spontaneous act of creation but actually evolved from something created from a morally opposite viewpoint.

My answer to this conundrum is that its success had less to do with the theme of the game than with its mechanics of play. As I already said, there's nothing novel about rolling dice and moving the requisite number of spaces. This meme, or ludeme, is in fact the defining feature of what we classify as race games. But Lizzie Magie came up with a novel variation on this pattern. In most race games, such as backgammon, landing on a space occupied by another player's piece forces them back to the beginning, or in some games forces your own piece back to the beginning. Lizzie Magie's novel concept lay in enabling a player to purchase a square in the race game and thereby to exercise control over another player who lands on it even if its possessor's piece lies elsewhere on the board. So what has happened here is that the age-old meme of conflict between two pieces landing on the same space has undergone a modification. It has become a new and exciting meme. The game that first embodied it had something that no other game previously had. It was something that seized the imagination, that needed to take over the minds of players in order to be brought to its full potential. The game had to play the players before it could evolve into the success that we now know as Monopoly.

And of course, in so doing, this innovative meme has spread itself into other games. Monopoly has become not just a game but a template for other games based on the same mechanism. Good ludemes survive and propagate by giving rise to spin-offs. Dungeons & Dragons gives rise to a variety of other role-playing fantasy games. Trivial Pursuit spawns dozens of other games that can't consider themselves complete without a thousand quiz cards.

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The people games play

Games have a habit of asserting their independence, even their superiority, over normal and natural human desires. Take games that consider themselves superior to all others, like Chess and Bridge. I play Bridge from time to time, not because I think it's the greatest game in the world, but because I enjoy all card games that require a degree of intelligence. But my enjoyment of the game has been considerably spoilt by the few experiences I have had of playing at a Bridge club. Few people are ruder and more arrogant than monomaniac Bridge-players. This is because so many of them don't play it because they are game enthusiasts - they do so because Bridge is a social accomplishment: it the sort of game that people of an upper sort of class feel they have to play because it enhances their social worth. Bridge, like Chess, can take people over and make them fanatics. Chess can have an opposite but equally drastic effect. Many of the world's greatest Chess masters are not only not sociable but virtually sociopathic, if not actually psychopaths. (Would you want to be shipwrecked on an island with no one but Paul Morphy or... [name deleted for fear of litigation])?

At the opposite extreme, how is it that so trivial a game as Three-in-a-Row is so widespread through the world and has lasted for so many centuries if not millennia? It is because it's the best way the gaming bug has come up with of getting children into the habit when they're too young to know any better. If a game can't get you one way, it will get you another. One of the most successful ways in which playing-cards have battled against a bad press in a western world dominated by the anti-gambling Protestant work ethic is by turning themselves into tile games like Mah Jong and Rummikub.

I am told that in India there are some traditions of arranged marriages that insist that the bride and groom must play a game of Pachisi before being allowed to initiate the definitive enjoyment of their marital status. If that isn't an example of a game playing the players, what is?

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Stalked by the Big Game

Man is a games-playing animal, hence the title of Huizinga's book Homo ludens. (There is, of course, a sense in which animals can be said to play games, at least to the extent that the more intelligent ones indulge in playful activity for the obvious fun of it. However, as Sniderman's anecdote about dolphins points out, they do not play formal games governed by an articulated set of rules.) The whole concept of play, of games - of what I propose to call "The Big Game" - is hardwired into the human psyche. This is the starting-point of Huizinga's book, which is subtitled "A study of the play element of culture". His argument (which not everyone agrees with) is that some form of play underlies and gives rise to all the activities of human culture. His chapter titles include "The play concept as expressed in language", "Play and Law", "Forms of play in philosophy", and so on.

Agree with him or not, you can hardly deny that The Big Game exerts a powerful influence on our language and hence on our perceptions of experience. In the world of commerce we ask who are the major players in the market. From the world of chess we speak of somebody as being a pawn in somebody else's sinister scheme, we say that their progress has been checked, or that two adversaries have reached stalemate. From the world of Bridge, marketing men speak of advertising as "below the line" and public relations as "above the line activities", and politicians who want people to forget their embarrassing indiscretions will talk of drawing a line under something and moving on. In English, when we have to tear up our plans and start all over again, we say "Right, then, it's back to Square One".

The Big Game also asserts itself in the realm of law. There are rules of play governing law courts no less than tennis courts. I wonder if anyone remembers a scene in the film Twelve Angry Men, where Henry Fonda, as the only dissenting juror, tears up the piece of paper on which two fellow jurors are playing Tic-tac-toe and angrily shouts at them "This isn't a game". But of course it is a game! Like a game it takes place in a specially designed area comparable to a game board. The players in this area are the prosecution and the defence, and each is trying to win his game within the constraints of strict laws and procedures enforced by the judge or referee. A great deal of role play goes on as well: the lawyers wear costumes specially designed for the purpose, and once the principal players leave the courtroom they may well cease to be adversaries and show themselves friendly in real life. Even legal language sports ludic references. The word jeopardy derives from French jeu parti meaning an evenly balanced game.

The Big Game passes from tennis courts to law courts, from law courts to the courts of love. The concept of courtly love, as elaborated by the 12th-century troubadours of Provence and elsewhere, demands the exercise of behaviour governed by strict rules of play. Its key work, by "Andrew the Chaplain", expounds the rules of the game of love and details cases and decisions in the courts of love attributed to Marie de France (Countess of Champagne) and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Sexual congress is referred to in Sanskrit literature as "the jewel of games" and in Shakespearian English as "playing at the beast with two backs".

But when all's said and done, The Big Game is bigger than any of the trivial games we play. In the Mahabharata the world itself is conceived as a game of dice which Shiva plays with his queen. The main action hinges on a particular game of dice - indeed, it devotes a whole chapter to the describing the erection of the dicing hall, which itself is holy ground. A similar thought is expressed in the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, one of which is translated by Edward Fitzgerald as:

'Tis all a chequerboard of nights and days
Where Destiny with men for pieces plays:
Hither and thither moves, and mates and slays,
And one by one back in the closet lays.
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Carry on playing

In all the foregoing we have considered play as a peculiarly human activity, which is the viewpoint adopted by Huizinga when he asserts that "In acknowledging play you acknowledge mind, for whatever else play is, it is not matter". But consider the opening words of The Laws of the Game - How the Principles of Nature govern Chance, by Manfred Eigen and Ruthild Winkler (1975, English translation 1983):

Play is a natural phenomenon that has guided the course of the world from its beginnings. It is evident in the shaping of matter, in the organisation of matter into living structures, and in the social behaviour of human beings... The history of play goes back to the beginnings of time. The energy released in the "big bang" set everything in motion, set matter whirling in a maelstrom of activity that would never cease. The forces of order sought to bring this process under control, to tame chance. The result was not the rigid order of a crystal but the order of life. From the outset, chance has been the essential counterpart of the ordering forces. Chance and rules are the elements that underlie games and play. Play began among the elementary particles, atoms, and molecules, and now our brain cells carry it on. Human beings did not invent play, but it is "play and only play that makes man complete." [Schiller].

Winning or losing is not the be-all and end-all of game-playing. To be concerned only with winning may be socially life-enhancing but it is spiritually deadening. If winning an individual game is your only concern then The Big Game has won. It has seized you in its grasp and is playing you for all you're worth - or for all your worth, which may not be much. As James Carse says, the aim of the finite player is to win the game: the aim of the infinite player is to carry on playing. (I paraphrase.) To be able to carry on playing you must always be prepared to change the rules when it looks as if a win-loss position is inevitable. Only in that way can you hope to stay one step ahead of The Big Game that is permanently out to get you.

Copyright 2007–