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The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia

Last updated Nov 7, 2021 Edit Source

“It is the attempt to discover and formulate a definition, and to follow the implications of that discovery even when they lead in surprisingly, and sometimes disconcerting, directions.”

# The Grasshopper

A fun Platonic dialogue poised as a tale between insects. The grasshopper, about to die for winter, leaves his disciples with a few riddles. Within these tales, the grasshopper details his philosophy of “refusing to work and insisting upon devoting himself exclusively to play”. Of course, his disciples challenge him about this, leading to a journey of defining what games are, attitudes toward playing games, and the role of games in utopias.

(When talking about why the author chose to write the book as a Platonic dialogue) “His refusal to express himself in a plain expository style is perhaps no different in principle from someone’s setting out to write an entire book without using the letter e

Utopia and Scarcity

“For one cannot help reflecting that if there were no winters to guard against, then the Grasshopper would not get his come-uppance nor the ant his shabby victory. The life of the grasshopper would be vindicated and that of the ant absurd”

“Thus, although time is a finite quantity for everyone, it is not a limited resource for everyone. For a bored person time is a burden; for a person on the rack it is agony. And when time is a resource for someone it is not always a limited resource. For a person with very few goals there is always enough time to accomplish all of them.”

Play is necessary but not sufficient adequately to account for the ideal of existence”

# A post-work society

Let us imagine that all of the instrumental activities of human beings have been eliminated. All of the things ordinarily called work are now done by wholly automated machines which are activated solely by mental telepathy, so that not even a minimum staff is necessary for the housekeeping chores of society.

“You talk as though there were but two possible alternatives: either a life devoted exclusively to play or a life devoted exclusively to work. But most of us realize that our labour is valuable because it permits us to play, and we are presumably seeking to achieve some kind of balance between work input and play output. People are not, and do not want to be, wholly grasshoppers or wholly ants, but a combination of the two; people are and want to be (if you will forgive a regrettably vulgar but spooneristically inevitable construction) asshoppers or grants. We can, of course, all cease to work, but if we do then we cannot play for long either, for we will shortly die.”

# Art and Pursuit of Knowledge

Art has a subject matter which consists in the actions and passions of humanity: with human aspirations and frustrations, hopes and fears, triumphs and tragedies, with flaws of character, moral dilemmas, joy and sorrow. But it would seem that none of these necessary ingredients of art could exist in Utopia, thus there are no artists of any sort in Utopia.

The acquisition of knowledge, just like the acquisition of anything else, is an instrumental process; that is acquisition is instrumental to possession, no matter what it is. We must therefore assume that all Utopians have acquired all the knowledge there is. Thus, there are no scientists, philosophers, or any other intellectual investigators.

We can call this state of affairs the Alexandrian Condition of Man, after Alexander the Great. When there are no more worlds to conquer, we are not filled with satisfaction but with despair.

Thus in Utopia, we need therefore is some activity in which what is instrumental is inseparably combined with what is intrinsically valuable, and where the activity is not itself is not itself an instrument for some further end: games. Games have obstacles which we can strive to overcome just so that we can possess the activity as a whole (playing the game).

The counter-argument though, is the existence of individuals value the means as much as the ends themselves, if not more. Once a scientist or philosopher after great effort solves a major problem he is very let down, and far from rejoicing in the possession of his solution or discovery, he cannot wait to be engaged once more in the quest. Success is something to shoot at, not to live with. This seems to dismantle the previous argument dismissing art and pursuit of knowledge as important in a post-work society.

The resolution to this appears to be the fact that activities which from one point of view be seen as instrumentally valuable can, from another point of view, be intrinsically valuable. For example, we can agree that carpentry is an instrumental activity; that is, instrumental to the existence of houses. But to a person who enjoys building for its own sake, that otherwise instrumental activity has intrinsic value as well. The same could be true of anyone who really enjoys their work, whatever that work might be. I then posit this type of work as game playing so thus can exist in Utopia.

Even in a purely abundant world, one can create scarcity for themselves through imposing constraints [constitutive rules]. The dedicated puzzle solver will say, “Don’t tell me the answer; let me work it out for myself.” Even if other means for coming to know the answer are readily available, he voluntarily rejects these means so that he will have something to do. This is definition of game playing.

Whereas our own culture is based on various kinds of scarcity – economic, moral, scientific, erotic – the culture of Utopia will be based on plentitude and abundance. A utopic society would not study economics but rather agalmics.

# Games

Definitions:

  1. “Let us say that games are goal-directed activities in which inefficient means are intentionally chosen.”
  2. “A game is an activity in which observance of rules is part of the end of the activity, and where such rules are non-ultimate; that is, where other rules can always supersede. the game rules; that is, where the player can always stop playing the game”

Then, to play a game is to attempt to achieve a specific state of affairs [prelusory goals], using only means permitted by rules [lusory means], where the rules prohibit the use of more efficient in favour of less efficient means [constitutive rules], and where the rules are accepted just because they make possible such activity possible [lusory attitude] (this is to say that rules are sufficient to make possible a game but not required). Simplified, playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.

“Rules in games thus seem to be in some sense inseparable from ends, for to break a game rule (a means) is to render impossible the attainment of an end.”

“In anything but a game the gratuitous introduction of unnecessary obstacles to the achievement of an end is regarded as a decidedly irrational thing to do, whereas in games it appears to be an absolutely essential thing to do.”

Games which are competitive (read: telic) involve winning and losing – that is the aim or end of the game in the first place. The win of one implies the loss of another, a zero sum world. Playing, though, are the means which are ends themselves; the act of playing is enough and paratelic in nature. Thus, someone who plays games as an end is autotelic.

Do you like the act of climbing the mountain or just being at the top? Because the latter doesn’t require the first.

Games, simply put, reverse the ends and means of other activities. In Kant’s Critique of Aesthetic Judgment, he likens aesthetic experience to play as a kind of ‘purposiveness without purpose’

# Open and Closed Games

Disagreement in games then, usually comes from the disagreement over whether a certain game is open or closed.

“We might expect societies which place a high value on success through co-operation to be more inclined to emphasize open games”

# Distinction between rules and goals

It is possible to follow the rules of chess [the institution] without playing chess [the game]. On the contrary, one cannot play chess without following the rules (to do so is to be a cheat).

# Terminology

# Lusory Attitude – the game attitude

The element which unifies the other elements into a single formula which successfully states the necessary and sufficient conditions for any activity to be an instance of game playing. The elements of game are

  1. The goal
  2. The means of achieving the goal
  3. The rules
  4. The lusory attitude

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