Playing well: Wittgenstein’s language- games and the ethics of discourse
Let me begin by drawing some distinctions. Games are a special case of play. Invariably, we ‘play’ games, but not all play consists of games. The most obvious difference between games and non-game play is that games are constituted and governed by a more or less rigid and explicit set of rules. John R. Searle (1969: 33f.) draws a distinction between constitutive and regulative rules: constitutive rules set up the institution and then the regulative rules lay out what one may, must, or must not do within that institution.1 For instance, the constitutive rules of football tell us the dimensions of a pitch, the number of players on a team, the aim of the sport, and so on. Outside the institution of football, a football pitch is just a patch of grass and a player is just a person: the constitutive rules establish what Johan Huizinga (1995: 11) calls the ‘magic circle’ within which the patch of grass becomes a football pitch and the person becomes the player. Regulative rules, on the other hand, place restrictions upon how players can pursue the aim of the game: only the goalkeeper can legitimately handle the ball, for instance, and only within his or her own penalty area. This notion of placing restrictions upon players is one part of a tripartite deﬁnition presented in Bernard Suits’ charming book-length analysis of games, entitled The Grasshopper: Games, Life, and Utopia. According to Suits, games involve (1) a prelusory goal: an aim that can be deﬁned independent of the regulative rules, whether it be to cross the ﬁnish line before everyone else, to
checkmate the king, or to get the ball into the net more often than the other team; (2) lusory means: restrictions on how players can achieve this goal, whether it be that one must stay within one’s lane, move pieces only according to certain rules, or not touch the ball with one’s hands; and (3) a lusory attitude: the game is played for the sake of the game itself, and not due to some outside compulsion. Or, in his pithy summation, ‘playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles’ (Suits 2005: 55). Suits (and others) take this deﬁnition to stand as a knockdown refutation to Wittgenstein’s claim that we cannot provide necessary and sufﬁcient conditions for calling something a game. Responding to this challenge directly is not the aim of this chapter: for the moment I want to use Suits’ deﬁnition simply to draw out the distinction between games and non-game play. Non-game play is not unstructured – even the sort of child’s play described as ‘unstructured play’ can have a surprisingly ﬁnicky structure – but this structure is never made explicit, and it is more ﬂuid. Consider the ‘platform and tilt’ approach to improvised story-telling discussed by Keith Johnstone (1999: 89-100), one of the great developers and acknowledged masters of improvisational theatre. A story evolves by establishing a platform – a relatively stable world, cast of characters, trajectory, and so on – and then tilting this platform: introducing a new element or twist that disrupts the platform. This tilt then stabilizes into a new platform, which can then be tilted, and so on. A platform without tilts quickly becomes boring, and a series of tilts without any established platforms is disorienting, and also weakens each individual tilt because the tilt has nothing to disrupt. The art of establishing a clear and compelling platform and ﬁnding a surprising but appropriate tilt is tremendously complex, and no ﬁxed rules dictate how one must proceed.2 This sort of play lacks the constitutive or regulative rules of games, sharing with games only what Stanley Cavell (1979: 305) calls principles and maxims of good play.3 The principles and maxims of improvisation do not direct players towards an already speciﬁed prelusory goal, but rather towards the more elusive aesthetic goals of good storytelling. Not all play has as substantial a narrative element as improvisational theatre, but all play has a rhythm of a sort whose structure bears some resemblance to Johnstone’s platforms and tilts. Children’s play may shift rapidly in its focus (it may tilt), but at any given moment the children are fully invested in a particular structured activity (it has a platform). The themes and variations of improvising musicians also bear close resemblance to this structure of platform and tilt. To the extent that a platform has structure, it would presumably be possible for an observer to formulate rules that deﬁne the platform, but these rules do not explicitly guide the players, and so the observer could never be certain to have characterized the rules accurately. More importantly, no rules guide the direction of tilts. Some tilts may be habitual or predictable, but the creativity of play derives from the freedom players have not only to play within a given platform but to tilt it. The only restrictions guiding tilts is whether a tilt is taken up by the players and does not bring the play to a halt. The capacity for a tilt to perpetuate
play depends as much on the players as it does on the particular tilt. One distinction between games and non-game play is that the rules of a game provide a stable platform – and one that is often explicitly formulated – while the platforms of play are constantly changing through unregulated tilts.