The Grasshopper for the People

Welcome back for some more game studies condensed and contextualized for people outside of academia. Given the nature of canons, these works build pretty directly off of what came before them, and so you might want to check out the previous two posts I’ve done before getting to today’s, The Grasshopper by Bernard Suits.

The Grasshopper is highly influential in games studies and design, and especially anticipates/predicates so-called games formalists. Whereas Huizinga and Caillois were preoccupied with the cultural implications of games and play, Suits embarks on thoroughly defining games for its own sake. It’s unclear whether Suits actually cared about games as medium at all, since the reason he wrote The Grasshopper was more about the act of defining things, and reacted to philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s use of games as an attack on the usefulness of defining things. Nevertheless, we can see this as an origin point on many attitudes about what games are conceived, since every assumption about what games are came from someone else’s agenda.

Worth noting is that the majority of the book is written as dialogue between the characters talking out the process of defining games. It uses the grasshopper and ants from Aesop’s fable to relate the pursuit of defining games similar to envisioning utopia. For the most part I’ve grabbed whole quotes but I should say that because of this structure, the book is easily readable and takes you through every bit of rationale as a good philosophy book would.



“Let me begin, then, with the apparently outrageous assertion that there is no logical relation whatever between playing and playing games. […] I suggest that we ought to not concern ourselves with the word ‘play’ when it is used as equivalent in meaning to such words as ‘perform,’ ‘operate,’ or ‘participate in.’ Thus, we can play the violin, but this means simply to perform upon the violin. We can play a pinball machine, but this means simply to operate it. And, finally, we can play a game, but this means simply to participate in it. […] The existence of the expression ‘playing a game’ is not by itself a compelling reason for insisting that there is a logical relation between playing and playing games.” (pg. 220-1)

I’m actually going to start off with the end of the book to frame why I personally find The Grasshopper worth knowing about, that is, the fierce separation of games and play. Here, Suits posits that play is merely incidental in relation to games, more a hiccup of language than integral to understanding them. Since then there has been a disavowal of play, being something that is childish and too vague, for the preference of games as this idealized designed object. I imagine this was a popular stance when games studies was trying to differentiate itself for play studies, and game designers from toys and children’s activities. Now games are serious, professional, science-friendly. Suits did not necessarily mean for that to happen, more that he was sticking to his philosophical guns and needed to excise play in order for his definition of games to be sound. It’s worth keeping in mind as we read through the rest of these notes and when we think about how contemporary definitions are formulated in relation to play and the politics that arise from them.


“To play a game is to attempt to achieve a specific state of affairs [prelusory goal], using only means permitted by rules [lusory means], where the rules prohibit use of more efficient in favour of less efficient means [constitutive rules], and where the rules are accepted just because they make possible such activity [lusory attitude]. I also offer the following simpler and, so to speak, more portable version of the above: playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.” (pg. 43)

Here we have contemporary games studies boiled down to its essential core. There are many things that fluctuate in definitions of games, like whether or not there are rules or goals or the particulars of how players are involved, but there is a bedrock of this voluntary act of putting oneself in front of voluntary obstacles. Outside of this, such as involuntary play or necessary obstacles, completely upend thinking on games, or at the very least, aren’t considered to be relevant. Any connection to the real is disputed or at best garners highly ambivalent responses where games interact with culture, but by somehow being isolated from it.


“The attitude of the game player must be an element in game playing because there has to be an explanation of that curious state of affairs wherein one adopts rules which require one to employ worse rather than better means for reaching an end. […] Cutting across the infield is shunned solely because there is a rule against it. But in ordinary life this is usually—and rightly—regarded as the worst possible kind of justification one could give for avoiding a course of action. The justification for prohibiting a course of action that there is simply a rule against may be called the bureaucratic justification; that is, no justification at all. But aside from bureaucratic practice, in anything but a game the gratuitous introduction of unnecessary obstacles to the achievement of an end is regarded as a decidedly irrational thing to do. […] If playing a game is regarded as not essentially different from going to the office or writing a cheque, then there is certainly something absurd or paradoxical or, more plausibly, simply something stupid about game playing. […] I believe that we are now a position to define lusory attitude: the acceptance of constitutive rules just so the activity made possible by such acceptance can occur.” (pgs. 40-3)

Most profilc from The Grasshopper is Suit’s conception of the lusory attitude, which separates our day-to-day actions from games, that is, that feeling of entering what Huizinga called the magic circle, doing something useless for its own sake. This lusory attitude is valorized in conversations around positive aspects around games, getting players to exercise their imaginations and focus themselves in the pursuit to some (now elevated) goal. To be sure, Suits doesn’t believe in following rules for just following rules, so there is some sort of ‘use’ or need for the lusory attitude, though what that is is anyone’s guess.


“By amateurs I mean those for whom playing the game is an end in itself, and by professionals I mean those who have in view some further purpose which is achievable by playing the game. […] The attitude of amateur differs from these attitudes because he is motivated by a love of the game […] But although the attitudes of amateurs and professionals are markedly different, it is still the case that these differing attitudes are attitudes towards games, and not towards something else. […] If playing—rather than playing games—is activity which is always and only undertaken for its own sake, then ‘professional player’ is a contradiction in terms. On such a view we would be obligated to say that a professional athlete was not playing, but we would not be obliged to deny that he was playing a game. In the same way, while we would not want to say that a concert violinist was at play during his recitals, we would presumably want to grant that he was playing the violin.” (pgs. 154-5)

Suits follows Caillois’ impulses and aims to for good include games that are largely played for professional reasons or have some sort of gain in real life. Which is to say that professional football is a game but none of the players are deploying a lusory attitude. To be honest I’m not completely sure why this is such a contentious point for theorists, unless it’s just for this pursuit of a definition which real life is constantly trying to foil. There is this weird authenticity or purity at work in games studies that theorists aim to hold onto, and something like earning money completely ruins this purity somehow. I would say today that no one really thinks of professional players as markedly different from other players, but at the same time, that does reveal inconsistencies. This provokes questions regarding the opportunistic nature of games theorists and practitioners when it comes to how games are relevant connections to life and when they aren’t.


“It might be said that triflers recognize the rules but not goals, cheats recognize goals but not rules, players recognize both rules and goals, and spoilsports recognize neither rules nor goals; and that while players acknowledge the claims of both the game and its institution, triflers and cheats acknowledge only institutional claims, and spoilsports acknowledge neither.” (pg. 51)

Suits also continues the tradition of looking at the outliers of game players, with our old favorites the cheat and spoilsport joined by the newly minted trifler. While the former two are mostly the same just further pegged into a taxonomy, the trifler creates and interesting complication in way the many games pitch agency in games. According to Suits, triflers respect the institution of a game, going by its rules and customs, except they do not pursue established goals set out by the game. So if you’re playing RISK with your friends, where the goal is global domination, but you just want to take control of Africa so you can claim to be the new Nubian Queen and do nothing else, Suits would call you a trifler (trifling in slang is not wasted on me here). He doesn’t say it as polemically as this, but Suits ultimately considers a game, or at least a good game, one that has a goal in which the structure of the rules promotes you to obtain, so along with spoilsports and cheats (thought cheats are again sympathized with as being the most zealous of players), and professional players while we’re at it, triflers aren’t playing the game. It continues the lack of explanation by ‘formalist’ game theorists and designers on how cheating, mods, player-driven goals, and more are factored into tradition with something other than a handwave.


“The goal of participating in the game is not, strictly speaking, a part of the game at all. It is simply one of the goals that people have, such as wealth, glory, or security. As such it may be called a lusory goal, but a lusory goal of life rather than of games.” (pg. 39)

Here we have an interesting and short-lived turn regarding the application of play and games to life. For Suits life can be game-like and we can have a lusory attitude towards it but it seems that games are not the only thing one can be lusory towards. Because Suits is only concerned with defining games and not about games as cultural phenomena or their creation, we get to fill in the implications of thinking about our medium as either the games themselves or the attitude in which we approach things. At this point in time, the lusory attitude isn’t used to engage with life’s issues, rather games themselves are. Maybe it isn’t games that we really need to be concerned with in the first place? I think Suits would agree.


“I would define an open game generically as a system of reciprocally enabling moves whose purpose is the continued operation of the system. […] Heuschrecke thus correctly specified a game of make-believe as being ‘a reciprocating system of role-performance maximization.’” (pg. 146)

Here is where Suits addresses how games of make-believe fit into his definition of games, by turning the maintenance of dramatic effect into the goal of the game, separating it from performance in general through action-substantiated roles. To his credit, Suits at least questions why adults let go of open games and draws lines from preference for closed vs open games to capitalistic vs socialistic societies. These thoughts are still relatively untouched by most people in games who still valorize closed games and are more or less complacent as realms of business further mechanize games for profit. One would be hard-pressed to see the difference between open games and play at times outside of Suits’ very specific logic, but overall, inefficient means to an unnecessary goal stands as what’s allowed from the world of make-believe into games and what isn’t. Heuschrecke, by the way, is the grasshopper’s alter ego who has a scene of his own.


“H: You were playing a two-role, two-person, one-player game. It is also possible to play a two-role, two-person, one-player game where the person who is not a player (but, in effect, a device) provides you with dramatic opportunities with the conscious purpose of doing so. […] But the best way to get good lines is for your partner to be a player, because then he has a motive which is better than that of either of the others. The dupe is worst, of course, because he is least dependable, and most of the time he isn’t giving you lines at all but going about his own affairs. And the person who feeds you lines for some reward (or out of friendship or fear, it might be added), although we would expect him to be more constantly employed at his task than the dupe, is only indirectly motivated to provide the desired service. Only another player (or yourself as the other player) has a direct motive.” (pgs. 119-20)

Heuschrecke, or the grasshopper, shows how that games can indeed be played with unwilling or unaware participants, which differs from past theorists. Before, and with some after, everyone had to be within the magic circle to call what was going on play or a game, or else it’s real life and with consequence. As it turns out, open games can be played without the consent of all parties when those unknowing are treated like objects or devices rather than other players. Suits suggests these are poorly constructed open games because better ones would have another player who acts as a more active and intentional partner in perpetuating drama. Like most theorists, the deeper we get the weaker this life vs play distinction gets. Is there much use to keep the experience of the person playing an open game and the bystander apart? The only reason to is because Suits wants to reach a solid definition of games, no other reason. I feel the same impulse exists in games, that things are separated simply for the fact that a separation can be made, no matter how arbitrary that decision is. Given this example comes from ‘patients’ who didn’t know they were playing games, just that they enjoyed deploying roles, it seems like open games don’t require anyone to realize they are playing or in a game for it to be so. It really questions the need to hold onto this separation.


“S: But surely playing a part is the very essence of make-believe.

H: Playing a part is, yes. But playing what might be called a foreign or assumed part is not. One can also play, so to speak, native or proprietary parts.

S: What on earth is a proprietary part?

H: One way to define it is as follows: a part of such a kind that when one plays it, one is not conveying misinformation about one’s identity. […] Suppose that a Boy Scout […] dons his uniform and helps old ladies across the street. He is also playing a part, but it is his own part; that is, its performance conveys information rather than misinformation about the performer. […]

S: You are talking about role-playing in everyday life. […]

H: There are roles which enjoy a kind of objective or public status, so that they can be performed by different people for different purposes. They are in this respect like clothing. All kinds of apparel are for public sale, and I can purchase and put on something which correctly conveys my position in life, or I can purchase and put on something which misrepresents my position in life. For example, I can put on a business suit or I can put on the uniform of a full admiral. The only difference is that suits and uniforms are patterns of cloth and roles are patterns of behaviour.” (pgs. 121-2)

And on cue, roles that are used in games can include the roles we decide to have in life, through the requirement that the player, who may or may not know they are playing, is always trying to perpetuate their role through interactions with others. There’s a lot of implications on the rest of games when open games can basically pass for real life, or that the player can be ultimately unaware of their own playing. While Suits does his philosophical wheeling to serve his pursuit of definitions, I wonder how this can be used to press against convention and redefine convention and deployment of games outside of consumer entertainment products. It’s possible, though, that Suits was thinking of or anticipating LARPs and more formalized roleplaying.


“Our view of games occupies a middle position between two extreme positions which we reject: what may be called, on one hand, radical autotelism and, on the other hand, radical instrumentalism. Radical autotelism is the view that unless games are played solely as ends in themselves, they are not really games, that is, that amateurs alone are playing games. We have already rejected radical autotelism in arguing that professionals, too, are genuinely playing games. Radical instrumentalism is the view that games are essentially instruments, and we also reject that view.” (pg. 158)

To leave us off, we have Suits trying to complicate the use vs useless binary that games gets trapped in so often. He implicates basically all of games discourse, and even himself, since what is too autotelistic (something done for its own sake) and too instrumental is completely arbitrary. The only reason games would need to be completely for themselves is because there’s a value in separating them from life, and being instrumental is having some sort of end that amounts to something other the feeling of completing a game. I don’t know if any theorist has really addressed this deftly, it seems like something most don’t really want to deal with. At the very least it makes use have to consider aims like ‘for change’ or ‘education’ or ‘social impact’ when it comes to games, at least for Suits. It’s possible that the DNA of games from Suits and on resists proper use in areas outside of entertainment because of this attitude, and we’d need to revisit what it is about play and games we actually find to be at the heart of our practice to include them if these aspects are important to us.



And there we have it, another games theorist down. Let me know if these are useful to you and if there are any books I should consider for series. Until next time!

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