The Rules and The Just

Freedom In Play

One last excursion about gameful play.


Arbiter: So I think we're ready to begin talking about what toyful play is through the lens of value, values or ethics. Is that right?

Questor: Actually, I've been thinking, and I'd like to go back to our discussion from Saturday, about the moral exercises of gameful play, specifically justice.

A: Very well then. What is your thought?

Q: Well, it seems to me that what is Just is whatever is allowed by the rules. In your example of taking two turns in a row, you mentioned that it would both be against the rules as well as unjust. But I'm not so sure I see the difference. Isn't justice in a game defined by the rules?

A: I can see your concern. But think about it like this: why are the rules to be respected? Is it for their own sake that, when playing a game, we adhere to the rules?

Q: I'm not sure... I don't think so. The rules are just how we play the game, so it seems like for the sake of playing the game that we adhere to the rules.

A: I can work with that. So then let me ask you, can you just decide to play a game of chess with somebody else if they don't want to play?

Q: I do not see how - they must also decide to play with me.

A: Now we're getting somewhere. So, when your opponent agrees to play the game with you, what is it that they are agreeing to?

Q: Oh I see now. They are agreeing to play by the rules with me; we are both saying we'll move our pieces such-and-such ways until one of us has check mate.

A: So I think you can now see that it is not for the sake of the rules or for the sake of the game, but for the sake of the players. It is for your sake that your opponent agrees to the rules, and it is for your opponent's sake that you do. It is for this reason that taking two turns in a row is not merely breaking the somewhat arbitrary rules of chess, but is also doing an injustice to a player.

Q: But this leads us back to where I started: isn't Justice as pertains to the game simply whatever is allowed by the rules? After all, it is by breaking a rule that I do an injustice.

A: Not quite - the justice we're discussing seems to me to be grounded in something else. Let me ask you another question: When you agree to the rules, what is it that you are agreeing to?

Q: I'm not sure I understand exactly what you mean, I'm not sure how to answer. Aren't I agreeing to the rules?

A: Yes, but what do these rules, say for chess, actually refer to? What does the term 'the rules of chess' refer to?

Q: Oh. Well, the rules of chess are all written down somewhere in a big list. So I agree to obey the rules on that list.

A: We're getting closer. Consider the following example: Suppose someone were to present a piece of paper labeled "The Rules" that describe rules for a game. They ask you if you are interested in playing, and then before you begin, your opponent asks "Do you agree to obey All The Rules?" You say yes, and your opponent also agrees to the same. The two of you begin playing. It is going well for you, and just when you have the upper hand, your opponent digs into their pocket and pulls out a piece of paper labeled "All The Rules" containing a second list of rules for the game. The items on "All The Rules" are in one-to-one correspondence with the other list labeled "The Rules". So indeed both of you have been playing by All The Rules as you agreed. But there is one additional rule that reads "The player who produces the list of All The Rules from their pocket is the winner." Is this just?

Q: My word, certainly not.

A: But both you and this nefarious opponent agreed to play by All The Rules, and because the two lists are identical except for that one additional rule, both of you truly were playing by All The Rules the whole time.

Q: Well, even though I agreed to play by "All The Rules" I did not know about that extra rule. So how could I have been playing by it?

A: Exactly. You did not agree to play by that rule because, even though you made a statement that you'd play by All The Rules, you could not in truth give your consent to play by them. You need to understand rules in order to consent to them.

Q: Oh certainly. That makes sense. So you're saying that it is the fact that the rules are voluntarily adopted that forms the basis of the injustice of violating them?

A: Still not quite. It is true that you must understand rules to consent to them, but more generally, in order to consent to something you must be free to consent to it, you must see it as an exercise of your own agency, to be respected as an end in itself. So it is doing an injustice to break the rules because the people who consented to those rules are free persons; you are, through cheating, harming that freedom and treating the person not as an end in themselves, but as some means to your end.

Q: This is reminding me a bit of Kant, but moving on, how does this resolve the issue? It still seems like it is by breaking a rule that I do an injustice.

A: We are now in a position to resolve this. Now that we know it is on the basis of the player's own particular "free agency" that our sense of "justice" in the game is grounded, we can apply that idea to the other example from Saturday.

Q: Oh yes, you mentioned how idling in a game is also doing an injustice.

A: Correct. By idling, by making random moves, or by not really trying to win the game, you are also doing an injustice to your opponent.

Q: I think I see why now. It is not because there is some rule against idling. Instead, I would be doing an injustice to the player because deciding what the other player is due is based in the free exercise of their agency, something that implies I respect that person as an end in themselves. But, one last thing, I'm not totally sure I see the link between idling and that kind of harm.

A: Though idling comes in diverse forms, you might think of it in general terms like this: if you are idling it is you who is not really respecting yourself as an end. You are becoming a means to an end, supplying the other player with an opponent, even though you have no interest in being that opponent. But by idling, and doing an injustice to yourself, you are also doing an injustice to the other player who did not agree to be placed in the role of one for whose sake alone the game is taking place. Usually, a game player wants to play an equal.

Q: But what if I really don't feel like playing but do have some interest in playing with my friend?

A: The best antidote to idling in such circumstances is to explain your situation rather than try to hide it. That way, you let your prospective opponent know what they're consenting to, or not, as the case may be. That is the only way to arrange for that consent to be genuine, unlike our example of the secret list of rules.