Response letter to student assignments
Dear students, thinkers, players
I would like first to express my appreciation for the effort and enthusiasm you have invested in the course assignments. I hope you enjoyed the challenge and found it of value. I also hope that by now after these assignments and our first virtual meeting you already have a broader view of game thinking and its potential. I have decided not to wait with this letter till after class primarily because this seems to me unreasonably late compared to when the assignments were submitted, and secondly, since the course was divided into two meetings, perhaps my feedback to you home assignments will be helpful in our upcoming class meeting.
I divide my response into two parts. In the first part I will provide with information on the general categories of ideas, issues and questions that were raised in your essays and answers to the questions being asked. This would be useful, I believe, as reference for every student to map her/his own responses, questions and understandings relative to the wider trends of thinking reflected by the whole group. In the second part, I will single out and respond to specific reflections, ideas and questions expressed in specific submissions that I found of particular significance and interest to the subject matter of the course. Respecting the privacy of the students, I keep all quotations from the actual assignment anonymous.
Game thinking assignments – a bird’s eye view
It was fascinating to meet the variety and diversity of approaches and perspectives expressed in the submissions and even prior to that, the variety of how the assignment was perceived in the first place. No doubt that our small community of students is a microcosmos representative of a wide range of human experiences, skills, worldviews and values. Nevertheless, in the thematic landscape of submissions a few attractors could be observed and identified.
Out of 19 submissions, the greatest number (7-8) highlighted the psychological, self-reflective, introspective aspects of play, relating to how they experience play and game playing and how they use the concept to understand themselves. The concept of finite and infinite games was a major topic of interest in 5-7 submissions (and mentioned in a few others but not as a major topic) and the topics of actual playing games, attitudes towards goals, winning, losing, the rules of the game etc. were of major interest in 5 submissions. Thoughts about life as a game and the ethical considerations that arise in game interactions were expressed in 3-4 of the submissions. Interest in mathematical game theory and its concepts was central in 3 submissions (with a few additional minor mentions). Games as social interaction were mentioned in 2 submissions, the topic of gamification won the attention of 3 students and last but not least, 2 students highlighted the subject of chance, risk and surprise in games. The numbers are only partly representative because most of the students wrote about more than one topic and highlighted unique points in each. Here I tried to draw the broader lines of interest that arise from the overall body of work on the assignment.
A general reflection in addition to the above is that the majority of the students have expressed a high level of engagement with the concepts explored in the assignment. In the majority of the submissions the students adopted an active personal perspective making an effort to express where the various concepts meet them as individual minds and how they are readily incorporated into the wider activity of exercising thinking in the various ways unique to each person. Many of the students if not all already demonstrated a mode of responsiveness which I would call “thinking with” (i.e. thinking performed with the new concepts), in contrast to “thinking about” (i.e. forming a reflective distance towards the new concepts). Irrespective to the particular topic of the course, this point merits further observation as it already may indicate an emergence of a “culture of thinking” with its own practices and style. Another point hinting in the same direction, is the interest expressed in many of the submissions in deploying the course materials towards the direction of personal development (i.e., relatively holistic and integrative) rather than professional development (i.e., oriented towards the acquisition of specific tools and know- how). This last point is speculative and might be more specific to the course and the expectations shaped by the introductory letter and the assignment.
The question the comes to mind here, and the students are invited to further reflect on, is if we consider for a moment the school of thinking itself to be a game as I already mentioned in our recent zoom meeting, and us as players, everyone can ask what kind of player am I? What is my style in game playing in general and in this thinking-learning game in particular? I would suggest, as a follow-up meta-exercise to consider “thinking with” and “thinking about” as two (out of a variety of other) relatively distinct styles of playing and weight the possible advantages and disadvantages of each in various situations and contexts (just to be clear no additional submissions are required 🙂. If time allows we will further discuss these points in class).
Additional discernable trends in approaching the assignment were: 1. Focusing mostly on one issue and expand on it versus a more lateral approach of writing about a number of subjects or even combining topics as a third trend, 2. Trying to answer the questions as they have been asked versus opting for a “loose interpretation” of what needs to be written about, 3. Keeping the ordered structure of the assignment versus diverting from it (to different degrees) etc. In terms of game thinking these may indicate individual preferences and choices of style in game interaction that go beyond a specific game or specific content. There is much more to say here that goes beyond the scope of the course. Nevertheless, it is an interesting point for further reflection.
A point I find valuable to highlight is the enthusiastic response to the reading assignment of Carse’s “Finite and Infinite” games. This is no doubt an excellent and enlightening text and I am glad that many of you found it interesting if not inspiring. A few of the ideas expressed in the book will be further discussed in class. Having said that, however, I wish also to call to attention that the book and its peculiar style is nothing short of a masterpiece in memetic indoctrination. With its almost hypnotic rhythm and chains of seemingly unassailable propositions, it silences all voices but that of the author… Here is a wonderful demonstration of a finite game played by a master while explaining to us, the readers/players, in minute detail, what is happening. His is a game we are compelled to join and feel pleased to lose… Something worth reflecting upon.
Last but not least is the question of playfulness and the distribution of answers. This is of course a tricky question whose sole purpose was to invite self-reflection in conjunction with the topic of game thinking. It is a given that the notion of ‘playfulness’ probably means very different things for different individuals, yet there is a common sense to what the word playfulness intuitively connotes. I guess it primarily associates with children play, amusement, fun, naughtiness and a sense of being carefree. I hope that in the course you will learn that not only these notions are more profound than how they are commonly perceived but also that there is more to playfulness than what these notions communicate. At any case, you all might be curious how playful you really are, or at least how playful you collectively considered yourselves to be… Well, according to the submissions:
Degree of playfulness
Did not answer
Gave more than one answer
No need to be a rocket scientist or an expert statistician to guess that most individuals would feel more comfortable to place themselves in the middle (or a bit above) of any scale presented to them rather than in the extremes. It is nevertheless fascinating to see the diversity and creativity in telling the individual stories that makes each one to consider the middle as most appropriate evaluation. It’s interesting to note the relatively large number of students that chose not to answer, or at least not to give a concrete number (most of the students did answer, this way or another, all other questions). If it’s only a game why do we often find ourselves uncomfortable with describing ourselves using numbers? Two students gave more than one number as an answer and argued why. Also here we can think about the combined answers as approaches in game playing: There are those who chose to play this particular game and see what happens, those who chose not to play for whatever reason, and those who chose to play but also played with the rules to make the game more interesting for themselves. In all cases, this game is mostly play solo or having a bunch of virtual coplayers in mind.
Game thinking assignments – commentary on individual points of interest
Here I would like to share with you a more detailed view of the thematic landscape drawn by your submissions via a variety of thoughts and responses quoted from the submissions which I think are of interest to everybody. The following list is by no means exhaustive and there are many other interesting and well-expressed ideas that I have not included here. I rather opted for a representative sample and commentary where I found general relevance.
Seeing language as a game in which making moves is the core of any discussion is enlightening yet not shocking in the sense of a profound discovery in our time. Much more refreshing to me is the insight that language itself is the source of confusion by treating “rule-setting” and “moves” as one and the same. As per my limited experience in the field of non-engineering, confusion roams broadly there, and the role of language in this might be key. The jump to concluding that we cannot resolve this issue because we are tied in a representation lock is beyond me – even after reading your explanation. Surely there must be a way to put representations to test if you feel the issue is worth resolving (this is the engineer speaking now …). Maybe you can elaborate on this in class?
– Language encompasses most of the human extraordinary ability to deal with ambiguity. It is not that the paradoxes mentioned cannot be resolved but rather that they cannot be given a general, once and for all, solution. Such paradoxes are resolved in real-time interactions whose outcome cannot be predicted in advance. Also, refer to the point made in class that the epistemological resolution of the paradox (the self-referential boundaries of games) is only a minor achievement while the significant value of the paradox is in it being a catalyst of transformative dynamics.
This made me think about the following quote in your introduction letter: “There is no play other than playing a certain specific game (or a few), and there is no game unless it is being played.” I would like to think that there is play without a specific game being played.
– In ‘specific game’ I meant that any play, any play at all, is embodied in some form or structure even if the structure is really fluid and unstable like the games we play in our minds. This is a philosophical/metaphysical point that helps us to avoid too much abstraction. There are different degrees of individuation that can be assigned to games as structures that manifest play. So the word ‘specific’ is to be understood in this spirit.
That’s what I find lacking now in game theory. Let’s say I play a game with you. I know that you know about game theory and you know that I’m familiar with it. So if I feel strongly that you will go for a Nash equilibrium this gives me valuable information and I could choose to deviate from the Nash equilibrium myself because I could have a better result for myself if I’m fairly certain that you will go for a Nash equilibrium… Of course, I have to factor in the fact that you could also have the same thought and then of course we would both be worse off. Thus psychology plays a big role here, as I have to guess your state of mind to see what strategy you will follow (follow Nash equilibrium or not) and could also engage in some deception to make you feel I would follow a particular strategy or not.
– The problem you refer to is a well known one. It is the problem of how a set of players can mutually establish the rational behavior of all of them. I will relate a simple example in class that will demonstrate how non-trivial this problem is both mathematically and socially. As we will see, what we simply understand as rationality in everyday life is heuristic and fundamentally ambiguous. This is indeed a weakness of game theory.
Another type of ‘play’ I would like to address here, is a form of theatre I’ve been playing: improvisational theatre. I’ve learned a lot about this by doing it. Often, people think you have to be ‘a funny person’ to be good at this. But the beautiful thing is, that it’s all about cooperation.
– Theater has a profound place in culture possibly because it ritualizes role playing as a primary element of social interaction. In this very sense theater occupies a central place in game thinking. Staged theater is only a small aspect of this important activity since humans continuously play theatrical roles in their interactions. Even something as basic as a dialogue (changing roles who is speaking and who is listening) is already a form of theatrical activity. All games can be understood as elaborate theatrical activities.
The idea of not to see the inner fundamental values and rather become too focused on the rules of the game is not the best practice in my opinion and often results in a conservative status quo. Nobody is waiting for another species to hunt down everything in order to have everything. Life, for me, definitely is an infinite game, from the moment we are born. And please, don’t blame the player, blame the game! The idea of the infinite gameplay is very attracting to me. However, defining life as a system with known and unknown players, with changeable rules and with other objectives than to win, but with a change of perpetuating the game is something that needed some maturity.
– Entirely agree with the need for maturity! I see a direct connection between maturity and playfulness one augments the other. I did not understand what you meant by blaming the game and not the player. Is it not the case that maturity amounts first and foremost to retrieving all responsibility to one’s own mind? But then, if this is indeed the case, who is there to blame? The game is what I perceive the game to be.
“Do or do not, there is no try” says Master Yoda to Luke Skywalker in the legendary scene from the Star Wars Movie The Empire Strikes Back. In that scene, Luke is attempting to get his fighter out of the swamp. When he says “I will give it a try”, Yoda answers with his legendary quote, pushing Luke to go for it wholeheartedly, or not do it at all. For participants of games, Yoda’s words are equally valid. In a game, one needs to be fully committed to playing it in order to enjoy it. Enjoying a game is not necessarily tied to the success one has in the game. It doesn’t matter if one is successful or not (whatever that may mean), one can still enjoy the game. But, while it is possible to be successful without commitment, it is not possible to enjoy a game without full commitment to the playing of it.
– This is an extremely important if not a critical insight in game thinking. Commitment encompasses the understanding of seriousness within playfulness.
I was going to write that I actually don’t play games and I don’t like it because it’s a waste of my time. Writing this essay and thinking about it I’ve realized it’s not true. […] As an adult the thing I found most interesting is to get to know the game. It is not at all about winning or losing for me. The most interesting is to see the creativity in the game. […] If you treat life as an individual completely like a game, you will take some more risks. Sometimes these risks will play out for the better, sometimes you will lose. If you treat life like a game you will also take these losses or even sacrifices more lightly and as ‘part of the game’.
– Treating life as a game does not necessarily mean taking more risks. This is a common association about games that is inaccurate. Taking risks has to do with the kind of player one is. Certain individuals treat life as a game (e.g., a chess game or a strategy game) are extremely risk-averse. On the same token, again, taking loses more lightly because it is a game is not necessarily the case. Again, it depends on the kind of player one is.
I want to reflect on what Lacan wrote. In short, Lacan points out two different kinds of persons; those who do things to impose, to shock, to seduce, and those who impose, shock, seduce by the way he is doing something. The latest will not be guided by the question of what impression he will make. We can call it with the words of Bataille the sovereign subject. This doesn’t mean that he is shy as not being able to take a theatrical role! It implicates that the cause he is committed to, is much more persuading than the impression he makes with it. The counterplay that others offer him doesn’t prompt him to give up his way, but rather to clarify or radicalise his point of view. He draws from doctrine against the boundaries of the system.
– That’s an interesting reflection on the style one can adopt in playing. It draws well from Nietzschean roots. This could be an excellent starting point to reflect on other styles of play e.g., “he who puts himself last becomes first”, or, “the ruler who rules with Dao is unknown and unseen by her subjects” (my free translation from the Dao De Ching 🙂).
This particular willingness to change rules, to change the how the game is played only for the purpose of continuing the play is for me the most fascinating part on infinite game. These rules are like “a way of continuing discourse with each other”. When you decide to play such a game, you make a conscious decision to be a team player, to put the team interest above one’s interest and to make the most to have the team perform for as long as possible. If we consider for example personal relationships as infinite games rather than a finite game, chances are that there will be less divorces, less conflicts and violence. […] in an infinite game surprise is part of the game and it is actually expected by the players. If surprise is no longer possible the game stops. In an infinite game past is seen as finished and future as to be finished. Players do not remain anchored in the past but try to create the future.
– Well said! One comment though. The idea of putting the team’s interest above one’s individual interest is not sufficient to make a game an infinite game. I know that this is implied by Carse’s reasoning but here he is found wanting. For a game to become infinite a certain tension must always be present between the interests of any of the individual players and the interests of the team(s) as teams. As long as this tension is kept or renewed the life-energy of the game is never exhausted. This is far from trivial and a fundamental challenge of game thinking.
Before grasping finite and infinite games, I viewed concepts like good and evil as water and oil never destined to mix. I could feel but not explain why ancient religions like Zoroastrianism and Hinduism contrast the existence of a supreme indescribable Self and a terrestrial creation that needs to be redeemed from evil or chaos. Good and evil were opposed abstractions for me, and they have now acquired a new reality with game thinking. Cosmogonies are representations of situations that extend in time like infinite games.
– That’s an interesting and important reflection that merits further development. Games are field that allow us a new perspective on values, value distinctions and ethical choices (this point was also mentioned in another submission). As I already said in our zoom meeting, game boundaries are actually boundaries between realms or realities that exists with different sets of values or in some cases different orderings of the same set. What’s important is to try thinking about values in the light of cognitive ambiguity and play. Also, another point already mentioned in class is the multidimensionality of games especially as depicted in various mythologies and cosmogonies.
I thus found out that the rules of society are not clear, are transient, differ depending on context, cultures, and can be designed and followed opportunistically by people. I realised that most people were just ‘doing something’, almost ‘bluffing’ their way through life and making up and changing many of the rules along the way. There was no solid rule book for life and society. Realising this was worrying at first, because nothing felt certain in this situation: the framework that provided guidance, predictability and, in a way, simplicity crumbled down. What was I to follow, to do and not do? Later, this realisation started to provide some comfort in another way, and also excitement. Not having clear rules may mean that it is harder to understand what one should and should not do, but it is also harder for others to claim with any legitimacy that what you are doing is in any way wrong.
– Well stated! I liked your indication of people ‘almost bluffing’ their way through life. It’s funny to note that not having clear rules one cannot even bluff properly only almost bluff. And again game thinking is also about developing awareness to the existence or non-existence of rules and boundaries and how they are constructed in different contexts.
It’s about playing music. Playing music is both sort of a game as a form of thinking. A non- lingual or pre-lingual type of thinking. Another type of playing, I sometimes (not enough though) do is juggling. It’s very meditative and a good way to relax my mind.
– Whether or not music playing fits the category of playing like in game-playing is an interesting question. I definitely agree that music and playing music is a form of thinking. Playing together in a band has more than one dimension. The playing of music per se and the coordinated social interaction that makes it possible to play together. The second one contains elements of a cooperative/competitive game. Reading about the history of famous bands (e.g., The Beatles, Queen, Archive) is a trove of information about such games and how they evolve. According to the intuitive definition given in class, playing music indeed nicely fits it (as well as juggling). Yet, in the upcoming class we will discuss another definition, a more subtle and sophisticated one, according to which playing music is not a game, it’s too instrumental so to speak (pun intended! 🙂). We will come back to it in class if time allows.
‘Playing games’ would be where I interact with persons from other organizations and ‘play’ the diplomatic/political game: I know what I (or my organization) want. I analyze my counterpart in the game (what are his/her personal/official/organizational motivators, objectives, his/her personality, interests, …). And then I ‘play’: I adapt my personality ever so slightly, I take care to select specific argumentation (often consciously being incomplete), ‘morph’ my own objectives, etc. Generally spoken, I ‘play’ my opponent: all the necessary diplomatic moves required in modern society and economy to persuade, influence, nudge people and generally ‘get things done’. But when I am amongst my own (my family, my friends, my band, my close colleague’s), I cannot bring myself to play that game. It would feel unfair, manipulative, hypocritical. I was aware I make this distinction and that political actions performed without second thought in one situation, are morally unacceptable in others. But I haven’t really spent much thought on what defines a situation as OK or not OK to play, nor on why there is a moral difference.
– As we already discussed shortly in class, playing games is often considered not only unimportant or a waste of time but also morally problematic. This is highlighted in your presentation too basically saying that games are only played with agent outside a certain ‘circle of trust’ or the so-called ‘us and them’ boundary. An important aspect of game thinking is becoming aware to this kind of moral distinctions and identifying their origin in one’s worldview and belief system. I would not suggest that there is something fundamentally right or wrong in various attitudes towards the boundaries between serious relations/situations (honest, trustful) and game relations/situations (goal oriented and manipulative). I would suggest though that the whole framing of distinctions merits reevaluation. I would like to ask why is non-game situations are often associated with truthfulness, honesty, trust etc., while game situations do not enjoy this moral stand? What makes ‘cheating’ and ‘manipulation’ allowable in games but not outside of them? While examining these questions, take note of what was said in class on how the location of games in one’s cosmogony or mythology affect the structure of one’s worldviews. This is a complex and thorny issue far from black and white answers.
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