It is widely agreed that play and games contribute to the good life. One might naturally wonder how games in particular so contribute? Granted, games can be very good, what exactly is so good about them when they are good? Although a natural starting point, this question is perhaps naive. Games come in all shapes and sizes, and different games are often good in very different ways. Chess, Bridge, Bingo, Chutes and Ladders, Football, Spin the Bottle, Dungeons & Dragons, Pac-Man, Minecraft and Charades are all games, and can all contribute to a good life, but each will characteristically enrich someone’s life in its own distinctive way. Some games facilitate socializing and sociability, other games improve physical fitness, some develop a sense of fair play and reciprocity, while others enhance concentration and analytic skills. Asking ‘what is good about games?’ and assuming a simple answer is as naïve as asking ‘what is good about fiction?’ or ‘what is good about sex?’ However, a less naïve question and philosophically interesting question is not hard to formulate. Plausibly, much of the heterogeneity of the value of games stems from the different kinds of instrumental value of different games. Perhaps we should therefore ask in what ways the activity of playing games is characteristically good for its own sake.
Unfortunately, the philosophical literature on the non-instrumental value of playing games is sparse. One of the few sustained treatments of the topic can be found in an underappreciated exchange between Thomas Hurka and John Tasioulas. Interestingly, despite taking different views of what it is to play a game, they both make room for the non-instrumental value of play and achievement in game play and they both argue that these two goods stand in important an important explanatory relation. However, they take diametrically opposed views as to which of these good is more basic. Roughly, on Hurka’s view, the good of achievement is more basic, and it is because of the non-instrumental value of achievement that what Hurka calls “playing in a game,” which involves playing (full-stop), is itself non-instrumentally good because of the non-instrumental value of achievement. The idea is that if something is non-instrumentally good then loving that thing is also non-instrumentally good, and that playing in a game involves loving the activity for its own sake. In this way, the value of achievement in a game grounds the value of playing in a game. Tasioulas takes exactly the opposite approach. He argues that there must be something independently good about playing a game which grounds the value of achievement in that game. On his view, the typical grounding good or “framing value” of games is play itself – what I am here calling “playing (full-stop).”
In this essay, I raise some objections to both Hurka’s view and Tasioulas’s view and develop a positive alternative conception of the non-instrumental value of games. I argue that while each view is insightful in its own way, neither gets things exactly right. For a start, the way in which they characterize the key concepts is problematic. Hurka’s definition of ‘play a game’, which he lifts from Suits, is problematic (for reasons Tasioulas notes), while both of their characterizations of play are problematic for reasons I rehearse here. They also take an unduly narrow view of the possible role of achievement in game play, both effectively conflating achievement with “excellence.” I argue, by contrast, that there is an important sense in which even someone who is not very good at the game by any objective standard can still reap the goods of achievements in games. At the same time, those who play games typically do not do so for the sake of achievements as such, though they may do something which is in a sense tantamount to this, or so I shall argue. Finally, I argue that neither Hurka’s “achievement first” order of explanation nor Tasioulas’s “play first” order of explanation is fully correct. I argue for what I call a “variable priority” view. On this view, the value of play (at least partly) sometimes grounds the value of achievement in a game, while in other cases the independently grounded value of achievement in a game provides a further ground for the value of play, though even in that case play is independently good for its own sake. I begin by laying out Hurka’s and Tasioulas’s views.
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