On Philosophy

November 26, 2007

Game Playing

Filed under: The Good Life — Peter @ 12:00 am

For most of us games are a form of relaxation and entertainment, which may make them seem like a complete waste of time, especially in light of what I have said previously about entertainment in general. I pointed out that entertainment was essentially a distraction, and that such distractions could prevent people from ever finding what is really valuable to them. Does that mean that we should never play games? I would say that it depends on the person. Obviously pursuing what is considered good is the most important task, and in some way everything must be in service of that. And finding the right psychological balance between sacrifices made for that long-term goal and feeling good in the present is important. Some people have the kind of will power that allows them to focus only on that one thing without breaking down, and obviously such people are able to lead the best lives, by their own standards (since they can better satisfy their desires than they would be if they were distracted by other things). But others are unable to have such a single minded focus, they need a number of smaller desires to be satisfied to keep them feeling good while they pursue their long term goals. Thus a small number of diversions may actually be appropriate for them, because they will pursue what is considered good better with them than without them.

But games don’t seem to be entertainment for everyone, there are people who play games in a way that might be described as “professional” in the amount of time they devote to them. Of course we must toss out from such considerations professional athletes, because it is clear that most of them are not really interested in the game, but in the money and the lifestyle. Because if the game was really that important to them then there would be no point in them continuing on after they had become too old to play (indeed it is extremely odd to focus your life on something you can only do for a short time). To really see the kind of people I am talking about we must turn our attention to those who don’t become rich or famous off playing their game well, such as professional chess players. Such professional players spend so much effort on playing that game well that they seem to basically ignore everything else, the kind of attitude that is consistent with what a good life is for them as being somehow tied to the game. This might make them seem crazy from our perspective, after all isn’t it just obvious that such games are merely entertainment, that they don’t really have any objective value whatsoever. And so such professional players must be deluded, pursuing some false conception of what is good.

Of course we might point out in their defense that many intellectual activities (which chess and other such games certainly are among) can be thought of as games. Mathematics, for example, might seem to be a game played with symbols with very complicated rules determining how one symbol string can be transformed into another. Of course the winning conditions in mathematics aren’t obvious, so perhaps the game is a kind of solitaire, with the player attempting to arrive at either a certain symbol string or that same string prefaced by a negation by using the allowed transformation rules. And if someone who spends all day playing solitaire with cards is deluded about what is good in life then certainly someone who is playing solitaire with symbol strings is equally deluded, even if they receive more praise and are held up as a great intellectual while the solitaire player is ignored. But it is possible to break this apparent symmetry by pointing out that mathematics, and many other intellectual exercises, can be put to other uses, while skills at playing solitaire cannot. And thus such intellectual exercises can be legitimately thought of as valuable, even if in intrinsic terms they are nothing more than complicated games. Whether the players of such intellectual games actually pursue them with such intensity because of the possible applications is something that I will leave unexamined for them moment, but it seems quite possible to me that most engaged in such activities do them for their own sake. And thus that even though they may have useful applications the people engaging them are as deluded as professional game players, if they are deluded, because they give no thought to the applications and thus would be equally happy were there no applications at all.

Let’s go back to the initial problem for a moment and take another look at it. The idea that professional game playing doesn’t make sense is founded on the assumption that being good at a games isn’t valuable. And that conclusion is supported by the observations that playing games doesn’t have any extrinsic effects that people would generally recognize as valuable, and that for most people playing games is a diversion from the good life rather than an essential part of it. Obviously the first observation doesn’t really support the conclusion, what is a good life has nothing to do with how other people benefit from it, the good life is determined by what the person truly finds valuable. And similarly the second observation isn’t sound basis for the conclusion either; what one person finds essential to their good life is probably a distraction to most other people. While reading philosophy papers is something I must do it is probably not something you have to, and might even be a waste of your valuable time. Thus we can’t pass judgment on professional game players so quickly, just because we find the way they are living bizarre.

Indeed I am tempted to say that our intuitions are almost completely wrong, that rather than being examples of how not to lead the good life the people who devote themselves to chess and its like are rather models of how to lead the good life, for the most part. First we can observe that, while individual games of chess are probably fun for the people who play professionally, the things they do in order to play professionally, such as study chess strategy, are probably not very enjoyable to anyone but a professional player. And that implies that their game playing is really something they desire, rather than a distraction that has consumed their life because of the immediate gratification it brings. Obviously anyone is fully capable of wasting their life on entertainment, but only real desires make things that don’t bring immediate gratification, and which would be by themselves rather boring, enjoyable. A second sign that game playing might really be part of the good life for them is that doing it well doesn’t bring any special benefits for most, most professional players aren’t made rich or famous by their skills. Since many people pursue money and fame tying those things to any activity often clouds whether it is really desired or simply a means to an end.

And game playing also has a number of other advantages that make it seem a suitable goal to pursue. Simply because it is basically an intellectual goal the professional game player is, for the most part, freed from any dependencies on other people. No one can stop them trying to be a better player, nor is it easy possible to frustrate their goal by withholding something from them. Another advantage of game playing is that there is always room to improve, because, assuming that the game is reasonably complex, there is no humanly accessible upper performance bound. And, because games have winners and losers, these improvements are relatively easily measured, which makes it easier for the person who desires to excel at playing the game to keep themselves on the path of constant improvement, in contrast to many other activities where it can be hard to tell if you are really getting any better at them in an objective way. Finally, it also has the advantage of being a creative kind of desire, since the game player is always trying to “create” new victories, new strategies, new solutions to certain problems within the game. Again, this is a sign that it is a desire with enough “depth” not to be exhausted within a person’s lifetime.

Those are the advantages that come simply from the nature of games themselves, but there are also psychological advantages stemming from the way people professionally play games and the attitude of the rest of the population. First of all we might note that, due to competitive pressures, people who want to be good have to devote a lot of time to the game. And this is a good thing because such a single-minded focus is helpful to making the most of life, assuming that one is able to handle it, as mentioned earlier. But, even more importantly, professionally playing games is generally looked down upon or simply not understood by the majority of the population. And that is good for the people who actually do decide to play games professionally, because it means that their choice to do so is actually motivated by their desires, and not by any side effects or the perception of other people that such activities are good. I think people are often diverted from what they really want to do because they allow their judgments about what is worth doing to be influenced by other people. But that is exactly the wrong way to decide what to pursue, because it simply doesn’t matter in this situation what other people find valuable. However, as with all things, nothing is perfect, and desiring to play games professionally also comes with a psychological downside as well, namely that it is intrinsically competitive. And, while it is perfectly acceptable to desire to be good at something, the desire to be best is itself undesirable. There can only be one best, and so most people with such a desire are just setting themselves up to fail in life, not to mention that they may be putting themselves through undue stress.

So, to conclude, while professional game playing may seem valueless to the rest of us it isn’t to the people playing, and that is what really matters. And, because it seems so pointless to the rest of us, those people may actually serve as models of what living the good life might be like.


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