Suitsian games

Published 2022-04-23.

The philosopher Bernard Suits’ “portable” definition of game-playing (given in his book The Grasshopper, but which I encountered in C. Thi Nguyen’s Games: Agency as Art) is as follows:

“Playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.” (p. 5)

Here is Nguyen’s summary of Suits’ more comprehensive definition:

“When we are playing games, says Suits, we are pursuing pre-lusory goals. These are the states of affairs we are trying to bring about during game play, described without reference to any particular means of achieving them. For example, the pre-lusory goal of basketball is getting the ball through the hoop. Then there are the constitutive rules of a game, which prohibit more-efficient means in favor of less-efficient means. In basketball, these include various rules constraining how the ball may be moved, along with rules that create opposition. To achieve the pre-lusory goal within the means permitted by the game is to achieve the lusory goal (Suits [1978] 2015, 24–43). The lusory goal of basketball is “making baskets.” The all-important difference is between the pre-lusory goal—getting the ball through the hoop—and the lusory goal of making baskets. What it is to make a basket is to get the ball through the hoop while obeying the rules.” (p. 29)

Nguyen points out that not all games fall under Suits’ definition. For instance, playing with Lego might be considered a game, but there is no particular goal, so it isn’t a Suitsian game. But the value of Suits’ definition isn’t that it maps cleanly onto the English word ‘game’ in every case, but that it throws into relief to pretty striking features of human beings, our motivations, and our activities. Namely, not only do we frequently try to overcome unnecessary obstacles, but we often do it purely for fun. Suitsian game-playing is in fact one of our greatest sources of pleasure and meaning.


Nguyen, C. Thi. Games: Agency as Art. Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

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