defining “games”

I am reading Josh Lerner’s Making Democracy Fun: How Game Design Can Empower Citizens and Transform Politics because it makes an important argument. Games are fun for specific reasons; most political processes fail to be fun because they lack those elements; and we could make politics more fun without sacrificing serious purposes if we learned from game design. That’s the great value of the book, but here is a philosopher’s digression ….

Lerner (p. 29) defines games as “systems where players engage in artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in measurable outcomes.” My ears perk up at any definition of “games” because Ludwig Wittgenstein famously avoids defining that word in his Philosophical Investigations. There he observes that games come in many different forms and asserts that no single feature defines them all. Games constitute a family of cases, each of which resembles several others even though they are not all alike in any particular respect. We know how to use (and teach) the word “game” even though we cannot define it in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions. This observation is important for Wittgenstein because he believes that language is a heterogeneous set of games. And we think in language. Thus our thought is a set of practices that lack a common feature, yet we can learn to think and communicate.

Lerner offers a definition. He emphasizes relevant and important features of many practices that we call “games”–features that we should heed when we design political processes, which is Lerner’s interest. One wouldn’t need his definition to understand the word “game”: I have been playing games for almost half a century without thinking in Lerner’s terms. His doesn’t exactly work as a literal definition, because, for instance, a business competition could easily be an “artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in measurable outcomes” such as profit and loss. If that competition is devoid of fun, we wouldn’t call it a “game,” except metaphorically. Also, if you showed Lerner’s definition to someone who had never played a range of games, it wouldn’t communicate what he has in mind. This person might think of standardized tests, duels, court cases, and other artificial conflicts that we don’t usually call “games.”

This is not a criticism of Lerner. I think his definition plays its intended role in his book. He presumes some real world experience with games and provides many vivid examples to expand one’s store of cases. His definition points to general tendencies in those examples that are important in a different context, politics. That is a typical and appropriate way to advance an argument. But I am left thinking that Wittgenstein was right about the indefinability of the word “game.”

(As a digression on this digression: Wittgenstein wrote in German, and the word “Spiel” means both “game” and “play.” For Lerner, the differences between the English words “game” and “play” are important; to make politics more game-like is different from making it more playful. Does Wittgenstein fail to see a common denominator to all “Spiele” because that word encompasses play as well as games? I don’t think so: all of his examples are actually “games” in the English sense. His argument works perfectly well when translated.)

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.