9/15/2014

Are video games counter-examples to Suits' definition of 'game'?

Many readers are familiar with Bernard Suits' definition of 'game' in The Grasshopper. For those of you who aren't, Suits offers this definition of playing a game: "engaging in an activity directed towards bringing about a specific state of affairs, using only means permitted by rules, where the rules prohibit more efficient in favour of less efficient means, and where such rules are accepted just because they make possible such activity" (pp. 48-9).

I'm wondering whether video games are a counter-examples, because of the condition "the rules prohibit more efficient in favour of less efficient means." This makes sense for most games: in golf, it would be more efficient to just carry the ball by hand and put it into the hole; in poker, it would be more efficient to just reach across the table and take all your opponents' chips/cash. But what is the analogue of these 'more efficient' ways in a video game?

One might point to cheat codes, but even if a cheat code does satisfy this condition of Suits' definition, we can at least imagine a video game that doesn't have cheat codes.

23 comments:

felipe morales said...

I don't think video game cheat codes are a counterexample to the definition. There are two classes of rules to consider when considering a video game: the explicit rules, and the program constraints. To use a cheat code is within the program constraints, but not within the explicit rules. If one takes the explicit rules as constitutive of a specific game, then the same program constraints can allow for several games. It is not the same game to play without using cheat codes and using them, but both are related (and using cheat codes doesn't preclude the "play" to still be a game, it only makes it easier (or harder)). Same goes for the use of program glitches. A problem with this approach is to define identity conditions for games, and to explain ordinary language expressions like "he won that Super Mario Bros level using a gameshark code", but it doesn't seem unsurmountable.

P.D. Magnus said...

I think that video games are probably counterexamples. The formal framework that makes the goal even possible to specify also constitutes the structure of the game. So there is no way to specify what Suits calls a prelusory goal. I blogged about this year ago and tried to argue that some boardgames fail to have presulory goals for this same reason.

In Suit's defense, though, one might appeal to the way that you explain a videogame to someone who is learning it: The goal is to get to the top platform without getting hit by a barrel. The goal is to shoot all of the aliens before they reach the bottom of the screen. And so on.

The game play is then learning how to attain those outcomes. Even if there is not a cheat code, there is always a conceivable cheat code.

P.D. Magnus said...

Thinking a bit more about this, it is partly a matter of the ontology of virtual objects. For example: Does the alien on the screen exist as a thing which I can specify needs to be destroyed, apart from its needing to be destroyed? The answer has to be yes in order to be able to specify that the prelusory goal is to destroy the alien, with the limitation of only using my ship's lasers and a limited amount of laser blasts.

Greg Frost-Arnold said...

Hi P.D. --

You wrote:
"For example: Does the alien on the screen exist as a thing which I can specify needs to be destroyed, apart from its needing to be destroyed?"

To be honest, I wasn't sure what you meant by that. Was it something like/ Could it be fairly paraphrased as "... as a thing which I can specify needs to be destroyed simpliciter, apart from its needing to be destroyed by particular means A or B or... [e.g. 10 laser blasts, or 3 bombs, or ...]"?

If that paraphrase is (basically) what you mean, I'm not seeing how that affects my worry, which was that in a video game, no 'more efficient means' of accomplishing the ultimate goal exists (at least if there are no cheat codes).

Also, thinking more about your previous response ("there is always a conceivable cheat code"), I wonder whether that could be resisted as follows: the rules of what the game allows are like the (meta)physical laws in the real world, which specify which states of affairs are possible, and which ones aren't. If that's the case, then I'm not sure your objection works.

Why? For (a weird) example: suppose I try to create a game, Bolf, which differs from golf in that you are allowed to use the most efficient physically possible means to get the little ball in the hole. I'm guessing that Suits would say Bolf does not meet his definition of a game. "But!" I might counter, "You can't get the ball in the hole by teleporting it there using only the power of your thoughts -- and that is a more efficient (and conceivable) way to get the ball in the hole. So it *is* a game."

So I'm wondering whether 'there is always a conceivable cheat code' may be analogous to 'there is always a conceivable violation of the laws of nature that, if actual, would provide a more efficient means of achieving the goal.'

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