Play as Moral Exercise

Play and Justice

Questor asks Arbiter about play and "goods of moral exercise"


Questor: I feel like I've got a good handle on what you mean when you talk about the aesthetic values peculiar to games.

Arbiter: Good. If you're interested to wade into that notion a bit further, check out Games: Agency as Art by C.T. Nguyen.

Q: Maybe I will. But, I'd like to move on to that other variety of value that you mentioned. You said that there are, in addition to the aesthetic goods we've been sketching, also something called "goods of moral exercise". What did you mean by that?

A: Let us try to approach this with an example. Consider chess. Chess is ordinarily thought of in agonistic terms, being a battle of wits, skill, tactics and strategy. But I'd like to point out that there is a subtle way that the design of the game has quite a lot to do with justice.

Q: Justice? Like the legal system?

A: Not at all. By justice I mean, roughly, thinking about actions that concern how people are to be treated, or what people are due.

Q: Oh so like: I make a bad move in chess, and then my opponent punishes me for it?

A: Well. That could be part of it, but the exercise of justice could even be more basic than that. Even though chess is talked about as agonistic and combative, it is actually more like a polite conversation where each person waits their turn before speaking. Real war is not so polite, and there is no "sharing of action" between opponents. In actual fights, everything is simultaneous and ongoing, in real time. But that's not how chess is. In chess, you take turns. If you were to, for example, take two turns in a row, you'd not just be a cheater according to the rules, you'd also be doing your opponent an injustice.

Q: I'd never really thought about it in those terms. Is there more to it?

A: As a matter of fact, there is. Not only do you "share the action" with your so-called opponent, but you also are expected to take the game seriously. The person is entering into this activity with you, they are giving to you some opportunity to exercise your skill, and to experience challenge through their playing against you. But if you are not taking the game seriously, if you are an idler, moving at random, just sort of humoring them, then you are doing them an injustice. You are treating them unfairly by not respecting the compact you made when you agreed to play with them.

Q: So when you say that one is expected to take the game "seriously", it seems like you are using the concept of "seriousness" in a specific way.

A: Good point. Yes. By "seriously" I do not mean it in the same way that doing well at your job is "serious" or getting married is "serious". Rather, by "serious" I mean that you adopt the lusory attitude. You are making a kind of promise to yourself and to the other players that you will try to win the game by respecting its rules and pursuing its ends.

Q: I think I see how justice is relevant to playing some kinds of games, but what did you mean by "moral exercise"?

A: To be a rational agent is to be responsive to reasons. To be a rationally moral agent is to be responsive to reasons that are grounded in moral values, things like "justice". The activity of playing games can, simply by playing them in accordance with their rules and by pursuing the ends needed for success in those games, implicitly involve you in taking actions that are, e.g. just. But not only just, also perhaps courageous, or intellectually curious, or patiently timed, or clever or wise. Any sort of virtue you can think of has probably come into play in some game or another.

Q: I think I'm beginning to see. You just mentioned the word virtue. Is that the same as a moral good?

A: I wont hazard an answer. But I will say that 'virtues' are just kinds of 'excellencies'. One becomes excellent through practice, that is, by exercising agency. And, whether you realize it or not, games accustom you to certain kinds of excellence just by playing them. That is, in playing games, it is often the case that you are implicitly behaving as an answer to the question "What is it like to care about X?" For Chess, X might be the justice of turn taking and of honoring your opponent's good will when they enter into an exchange of tactical ideas with you, an exchange we call "playing chess"..

Q: I feel like this has been a good start. To summarize what we've been discussing, gameful play can be good in at least two ways: it can provide aesthetic value and can provide goods of 'moral exercise'. The first is about being constituted to appreciate the matching of skill to difficulty, something that you have called challenge harmony. And the second is about becoming accustomed to certain virtues that are intrinsic, and perhaps implicit, in the design of the game being played?

A: That seems like a good wrap up. I'd only like to point out that challenge harmony certainly isn't the only aesthetic experience that games have to offer.