The Games We Play

Things we do early are of great interest. Where we show a natural propensity to do something – if we seem, so to speak, programmed to do it – the inference is that the behaviour is both ancient (to have become so ingrained) and important (to have persisted so long). The obvious example here is speech, though I think ‘expression’ would be a more accurate description of that instinct.

A less obvious one is playing games. Not all play amounts to a game, but there is a large area of overlap; the game, if you like, is the complete expression of play. We shall come to a definition of ‘game’ presently.

There is a considerable obstacle to seeing game-playing as an activity of fundamental importance: though tolerated, even encouraged to some degree in children, in adult life it is permitted only as ‘recreation or sport’. Notwithstanding the fact that it can be pursued professionally (and there it is a form of entertainment for a mass audience) – it is regarded as essentially pointless, frivolous, unserious. In adult form it tends to be codified and regulated and exhibits great variety, from field sports such as the various forms of football, cricket and golf to board games such as chess and draughts and nowadays that interesting development, computer games.

(Indeed, such is the variety of the things we call ‘games’ that Wittgenstein doubted if they were capable of a common definition in terms of characteristics which they all shared, and suggested instead that they might resemble one another as members of a family do, some alike in this respect, others in that; a gentle grenade lobbed into an apple-cart that philosophers had been trundling since Aristotle’s day, the notion that whatever had the same name shared the same essence or set of defining characteristics that made it what it was and distinguished it from what it was not; but that is by the way)

I think that games are at their most interesting and revealing in their primitive form, when they are nearest to being a natural, instinctive behaviour, and there I think we can identify common characteristics, not so much in the content of the game as in the behaviour it involves.

Although games are regarded as frivolous, idle, fundamentally unserious, ‘just for fun’, the most striking thing about children is how seriously they play: what they do is done in earnest, and adults who join in but do not show the appropriate commitment will be reproved for ‘not playing properly.’

This earnestness shows chiefly in the degree of absorption in the activity: the child will be described as ‘in a world of his own’ ‘lost in the game’ and so on. The utter solemnity with which children conduct themselves in play can strike adults as amusing (though it can also wring the heart) and it is worth asking why that should be so. The answers are often given in terms of a contrast with ‘real life’ – the child can (briefly) enjoy the pleasures of play, but all too soon he will learn that ‘life isn’t like that’ and the time will come, as St Paul has it, ‘to put away childish things’.

We will come back to the relation between the world of play and ‘real life’ presently. In the meantime, I would like to consider what I think are three fundamental characteristics of playing games as a natural or instinctive activity. All three are related, and could indeed be seen as different aspects of the same thing, but I will separate them for ease of consideration.

One is that the game occupies its own space, not just physically, but as a plane of existence. There may well be actual boundaries – ‘a field of play’, if you like – but these are the embodiment of an idea, the idea that ‘in the game’ identifies a space or plane of existence where things happen differently than outside  or ‘not in the game’.

Within this space, objects and actions are invested with a significance which they do not have elsewhere. For instance, when children play indoors, they will often commandeer the furniture to play some part in their game: a line of kitchen chairs can be a train, for instance; the space under the table, a cave; a rug can be a raft on the carpet sea, an armchair a ship, and so on. The child is perfectly able to distinguish between what any of these objects is in itself and what it is ‘in the game’ – there is no confusion or delusion, a point to which we shall return.

The final feature, alongside having its own space and investing objects or actions in that space with significance, is the idea of giving oneself a rule to follow. The game consists in doing things in a particular way. The thing to grasp here is that this rule is self-imposed, which is a kind of paradox: you are free to do it any way you like, but you act as if you have to do it this particular way. There is no concept of cheating in this primitive stage, for the simple reason that the game is to follow the rule; ‘winning’ (insofar as the concept can be applied) is following the rule successfully; not following the rule is, literally, ‘not playing the game’. (Again, adults who join in and make a false move will be told ‘you can’t do that’).

Trying but failing to follow the rule may be attended by penalties, but again these are self-imposed, and operate ‘in the game’. So, bears will eat you if you step on the cracks in the pavement; if you fall in the carpet  sea, or down the chasm that you were trying to leap across, you will die – but only in the game; and in the game you may have several lives, which permit you to start again. (If the rule proves either too difficult or too easy, it will be adjusted, which again shows an implicit understanding of the dual worlds of ‘in the game’  and outside it, and the dual role that implies – the child is both the game-maker and the game player.)

The language that is used is interesting. In the case of a game that evolves spontaneously, a group of children may be milling around, each doing his own thing, but as their activities begin to converge, someone might say ‘let’s make it that you have to -‘ and will add some activity that then becomes the game. ‘Let’s make it’ casts the players in the role of legislators, defining what has to be done; ‘that you have to’ brings out the sense of agreeing to be bound by the self-imposed rule.

‘Acting as if’ goes to the heart of playing games and it is a concept worth examining in detail because it sheds light on our curious reluctance to accept this ancient instinctive behaviour as serious and important, our insistence on classing it as frivolous.

The adult observer of a child at play may say things like ‘it’s as if she’s in another world’ or ‘it’s as if he really believes he’s driving a bus – he’ll talk to the passengers, take their fares, then drive off to the next stop.’ We may picture the child as being assisted in this by various props – the sofa may be the bus, with the driver’s seat a kitchen chair at one end; the passengers might be various toys.

‘As if’ carries an implication of pretence, that what is deemed to be happening is not actually happening, is not real. it is worth examining the viewpoints involved in this, though it can become difficult, because we may find language working against us.

The first thing to say is that the judgement about what is real matters much more to the adult than it does to the child. Some adults worry themselves quite seriously about the status of ‘imaginary friends’ because they seem so vivid to their child; they may engage in conversations to lead them to the view that Mr Wotsit ‘isn’t really there (like mummy and Daddy are’ that he is ‘just pretend’ and ‘just in the game’ – to which the child will probably assent quite happily, if only to reassure their anxious parent.

Play does not involve delusion – believing something to be other than it is – and I think the difference is easily demonstrated; but the root of the problem is that the adult’s conceptual framework lacks the flexibility to describe the child’s behaviour accurately.

If we consider the theatre – one area where ‘make believe’ is allowed in adult life – at no time in the performance of Hamlet does the audience actually believe itself to be in the royal court of Denmark, nor that David Tennant (or better still Maxine Peake) has ceased to exist and has become, for the time, the eponymous melancholy Dane; nor for that matter does Peake or Tennant think this either. Notwithstanding, people will say things like ‘Maxine Peake is Hamlet’ and ‘for three hours, we were transported to Elsinore’ – but these are just attempts to express the power of the performance,  not factual descriptions.

There is a type of confidence trick that employs a similar set up to the theatre – there is a set to be dressed (perhaps a vacant country house) a cast of players (in character, perhaps in costume) and action (a party, perhaps, where the rich and famous discuss matters of high finance and good investments). The difference is that (for the con to work) the intended audience – the ‘mark’ – must take what he sees at face value, must believe it genuine; in other words, he must be deluded, in a way that the theatre audience is not.

It is worth examining the two different kinds of belief  we encounter here. There is ‘believing something to be the case’ which we encounter in the con: the mark believes the party etc. to be genuine, while in reality it is a set-up. That defines ‘delusion’ – believing something to be other than it is.

But the child does not believe himself to be a bus-driver in this sense, nor his toys to be passengers, any more than David Tennant or Maxine Peake believe themselves to be Hamlet. People will talk of ‘belief’ and ‘believing’ here, but it is in a subtly different sense.

Wittgenstein somewhere observes, in discussing scepticism, that if you want to know what a man believes, you should observe what he does, rather than heed what he says – he may profess doubt as to the reality of the world of appearance, yet he will still sit in chairs without a qualm,  cross floors without fear of plummeting into some abyss, go through doors in the expectation of finding himself in the next room and so on; in other words, he behaves as if the world exists, even if he claims to doubt it.

‘Behaving as if’ is at the heart of play whether it is playing Hamlet or playing at being a bus driver. It is the sincerity of Maxine Peake’s performance that brings Hamlet to life, just as it is the earnestness of the child’s play that makes the adult say ‘he really believes he’s a bus-driver.’ Peake’s performance is done with conscious skill, though I think it draws on the same natural instinct that the child demonstrates; the one is a studied and refined version of the other. It is worth considering them side by side.

As I have remarked elsewhere, there is a deep-rooted ambivalence in our attitude to Art in almost all its forms, illustrated by our use of the same language to describe telling stories and telling lies. Art seems indistinguishable from lying, since both involve representing something as other than it is. It is a problem that has troubled philosophers since Plato’s day; and indeed it surfaces in Hamlet, in respect of the counterfeiting of emotions that acting seems to involve:

Is it not monstrous that this player here,
But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
Could force his soul so to his own conceit
That from her working all his visage wann’d,
Tears in his eyes, distraction in’s aspect,
A broken voice, and his whole function suiting
With forms to his conceit? and all for nothing!
For Hecuba!
What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,
That he should weep for her?

No-one would accuse the child of insincerity or counterfeiting when he is playing at being a bus-driver, yet the same child may well counterfeit emotions if he thinks he can get his own way by it, so the distinction exists even at that level – and it shows our confusion that such behaviour  – crying to get sweets, say – may well be described by the parent as ‘just play-acting,’ meaning that it is insincere.

How is this puzzle to be resolved?

I think we need to consider two things that we have already touched on: our notion of being ‘in the game’, that the game is on a separate plane of existence, and the nature of belief. In the theatre, as in the bus-driver game, the planes of existence are separate and distinct. What happens on the stage, with the actors in costume, may occupy the same space as the set and messrs Tennant or Peake and the rest of the cast inside their costumes, but the action of Hamlet is understood to happen in Elsinore and to involve Hamlet, Horatio and the rest, not the actors who play them. Likewise the bus-game occupies the same space as the living room furniture, but in a different plane, where the sofa is a bus and the assortment of soft toys are passengers.

The con, on the other hand, whether it is counterfeit tears for sweets or a grand scam involving a dressed set and a cast of players, succeeds when it is thought to be taking place in the same plane as the observer: i.e. he thinks this is an actual country house party, that this is genuine grief and real tears.

There is an implication here that is not immediately obvious but is profoundly important: the planes of existence are equal. Whether they are equally real or equally fictitious is unimportant, no more than a manner of speaking. To put it another way: there is not one game being played here, but two; but one of the games – ‘the game of Real Life’ – is accorded special status. If you want to be the only game in town, you dissociate yourself from all the rest and either ban them or banish them to some lowly status. So it is part of the Game of Life that it is not regarded as a game, and that the concepts of ‘being real’ and ‘existing’ are restricted exclusively to it and are not allowed in any other game.

So the ‘bus’ is really a sofa, the ‘passengers’ are really soft toys and the ‘bus-driver’ is really a wee boy called Hamish who is nearly 3. It is at this point that Language becomes a serious obstacle, for the good reason that Language is instrumental in giving the Game of Life its special status. However, let us make the attempt.

The argument I am trying to construct can be illustrated again with reference to Hamlet, where there is at one point a play within the play. In regarding Hamish at his bus-driver game, we think ourselves like the audience in the theatre, and his game the action on stage; but I am saying that we are actually the players on stage, and his game the play within the play. The question then becomes what is the third thing, the reality in which these two games are played, the equivalent (in our illustration) of the theatre?

We can come at it by an oblique route. As I have discussed elsewhere, the distinction we customarily make between ‘imaginary’ and ‘real’ is that favourite term of the philosophy student, a false dichotomy. Most of what we consider ‘real’ are works of the imagination. If you look around you, how much do you see that does not owe its existence to having passed through the human imagination? I can see trees and a hill that might be exempted, though the trees are still where someone chose to put them (and may even have been bred by some human effort) while the hill has certainly been shaped by human thought. But the houses, indeed the whole city in between, with its infrastructure of roads and railways, water supply and drains, all that – real as it is – was first an idea in some human mind.

The succinct way of putting this is that you can have the plans without the house, but not the house without the plans. What we call ‘reality’ is in most cases a degree of embodiment: the architect’s vision, the detailed plans he draws and the completed building are different versions of the same thing.

We have imposed our imagination on this planet to an extraordinary degree: quite apart from the physical embodiment of our ideas in various forms, there is the map we have overlaid on the planet, dividing it into various territories, and within those territories a highly complex structure of custom, law, industry and so on. While the general inclination might be to suppose that the child playing with model figures on the landscape of the floor is imitating these larger entities – ‘the real world’ – I would suggest that the reverse is nearer the truth: the great world we have built around us is a development of the same imaginary powers that have their first expression in creating other worlds on the floor, in the living room or in the garden. The difference is in scale and degree of realisation, not in kind.

The ‘third thing’, our actual situation, the default position if you like, is immediate experience. Again, language is an obstacle here, because it mediates experience, interposing a picture of objective reality and ourselves as detached observers who exist in that world objectively, as individuals. But our immediate experience is subjective and involved: we find ourselves here (wherever ‘here’ is and whatever ‘ourselves’ are) and the rest is invention – a word which, neatly, can mean both ‘making what was not there before’ and ‘discovering’.

On the matter of belief, we need to distinguish between the common but rather narrow sense of ‘believing something to be the case’ and the wider sense of ‘having confidence or trust in’. The injunction ‘do it with belief‘ (which we hear as advice to performers of various sorts – singers, actors, even footballers) relates to the second kind of belief, not the first. To do it ‘as if you really believe in it’ is not an injunction to counterfeiting and hypocrisy, which it seems to be if we understand ‘belief’ in the first sense, since ‘as if’ implies that we do not actually believe it to be the case; rather it is to do it seriously and earnestly, to recapture the commitment of the child to his game, to do it properly, as if it matters.

And that is the secret: by doing it as if it matters, we make it matter: we invest it with importance and meaning. Ritual has no intrinsic value or meaning; that is conferred on it by our performing it meaningfully, seriously, as if it matters.

This sheds an interesting sidelight on Existentialism,  which was first explained to me in Sixth Year, when we were reading Camus’ L’Etranger: ‘Life has no meaning save what we bring to it,’we were told. It seemed to me then a grim and depressing philosophy; now I find it a hopeful one. I still think L’Etranger a bit grim, but Beckett makes me laugh and gives me hope. I rather like the idea that our participation is necessary to give life meaning, that we invest life with meaning by living it earnestly, wholeheartedly, as if it matters – by becoming, indeed, like little children.