What Good is Play?

Play, Ethics & Values.

Questor asks what play is in relation to value.


Questor: What about in terms of value, values, or ethics? What is play?

Arbiter: That's a pretty broad question. We may have to ask it again before we're through. Let us, for now, narrow the question a bit. Starting with the basics: What is play good for?

Q: Fair enough. Onward!

A: Play can be good in a number of ways. Let's consider gameful play.

Q: Gameful play? That's where you adopt an arbitrary end in order to pursue that end by some means?

A: That's more or less it, yes. We should expand on that definition a little, following the thinking of Bernard Suits. More specifically, the means that we adopt to pursue our arbitrary ends are harder than they need to be.

Q: Like, I could just take a golf ball and put it in the hole with my hand, but instead I use a club and whack at the ball from a hundred meters away?

A: Exactly right. The rules of golf make getting the ball into the hole harder than it needs to be.

Q: So what is the "value" of that?

A: There are several. There are aesthetic goods obtained through gameful play, and there also what might be called "goods of moral exercise".

Q: Aesthetic goods? Like the way the golf ball looks? Or the golf course?

A: Well, sure. But not just that. You could, after all, take a photo of golf ball or a paint a landscape of the golf course, or, just visit the golf course and get that kind of aesthetic good without playing golf.

Q: Oh, so you're saying there are aesthetic goods that are peculiar to playing the game itself?

A: Yes. One of the most obvious is "harmony" or "balance". Like in music, some tones harmonize, producing an experience that transcends any of the tones sounding in isolation . What's important about harmony is that we like it, we respond to it. It is similar with games. Instead of harmony of notes, it is a harmony of agency and difficulty. A golf course is satisfying for the player if that player's skill level is just right for that course -- if the course offers the right kind of challenge: not too easy, not too difficult. A sign of a harmonious game is that the player and the observers can sense a kind of tension in the play -- a sense that the player is balancing on the edge of a cliff over a chasm of failure without ever dropping off into it.

Q: Oh I see - but why is harmony good?

A: Ah well. This is a stickier and more challenging question. And the answer to it depends quite a bit on who you happen to be. For example, if you cannot hear, then musical harmony would not be, on the face of it, valuable to you. But even then you might, for example, develop an appreciation for the mathematics of harmony - that, however, would not the same as the aesthetic experience of harmony as it is ordinarily experienced.

Q: Right, like I don't give two hoots about golf, so I don't experience that "challenge harmony". But I still see what you're saying.

A: This particular rabbit hole goes even deeper if you want it to, but for now we can be satisfied with something like: aesthetic experiences are valuable for those who are in a position to experience them. There is, for example, an aesthetic pleasure to be derived from working through a mathematical proof, but you are only able to experience it if you have trained as a mathematician, and even then, not every proof will be equally pleasurable.

Q: Ah-ha. That's really what you're saying. Aesthetics relate to pleasure, and pleasures vary from person to person.

A: More or less that's right. We could dig into Spinoza's notion of conatus here too, but perhaps that's a topic for another conversation.

Q: I look forward to it.